Monday 18 December 2017

Shipwrecked: the convict Irish who lived to fight again

A new book on survivors of a ship which sank off the coast of Australia

The Hive: Was used to transport convicts
The Hive: Was used to transport convicts

Damian Corless

Shortly after dawn on a December morning in 1835, the Aboriginal people living south of Sydney, then a ramshackle settlement, went down to the beach to catch fish for breakfast. They were amazed to discover scores of white people, shipwrecked on the shore, dazed, confused and utterly at a loss.

The ship was the convict transport vessel Hive, carrying 250 male prisoners from Ireland. They were accompanied by some 30 British soldiers and seamen, nominally their jailers, but who were equally all at sea. The Irishmen could have overpowered their guards, but they decided that solidarity was the safer option. After all, there was nowhere to run. Had the natives not shown up, the prospects of survival were grim. The extraordinary story of the salvation of the shipwrecked party, and the future lives the convicts forged for themselves, is told in a new book by Babette Smith entitled The Luck of the Irish. That luck "was mostly bad," the author observes.

The Hive left Ireland in August 1835 for the gruelling four-month voyage, having picked up its consignment of prisoners in Dublin and Cork. The transportation of convicts to Australia was in its heyday, although Irish troublemakers had been routinely ferried away to Barbados, Jamaica and other Caribbean hotspots for some 200 years previously. True to cliché, the convicts did include a good number done for stealing sheep, but some appear to have been rightfully imprisoned as nasty, violent thugs.

At the advanced age of 37, father-of-five Maurice Leehy, was no hotheaded youngster. He was shipped off to the far side of the globe for his part in "a savage atrocity", a massive faction fight, fashionable in that era, that broke out at the Tralee races in Kerry with many deaths. According to the author, quoting from press and court reports of the day: "A crowd of more than 1,000 fought furiously, engaged in mortal strife with no quarter given on either side. The weapons were, as usual, sticks and stones. These were hurling sticks made of blackthorn, some weighted with lead, and they were wielded by men expert in creating maximum damage. Women were also active in the fight, loading up their aprons with stones to ensure their men did not lack ammunition. They were not just onlookers, sometimes throwing the stones or using them to 'finish off' the wounded."

The Hive hit the reef a day's sail short of Sydney, but there was a measureless of difference between a day's sail and the long trek through Australia's parched scrubby wilderness. The convicts and their guardians managed to wade ashore, aware that their prospects were bleak. And then a miracle.

The party of Aboriginal fishermen arrived to save the day. Although they had good reason to shun another intrusion of white invaders, the natives communicating their goodwill through sign language and broken English. The Aboriginals told the grateful Europeans that the settlement of Sydney was "up the hill", and guided them to safety.

While some of the 250 Irish convicts who survived the wreck of the Hive would eventually go on to earn their freedom, and many would even thrive in what was becoming a land of opportunity, the brutal treatment of many of the Irish simply confirmed them in their criminal ways. The most infamous bushranger, or highwayman, of the Victorian era was Ned Kelly, who had no connection to the Hive, but several of the shipwrecked band blazed a path for his short and violent career. Born into the generation after the wreck of the Hive, Kelly was the son of a convict from Co Tipperary. At the age of 12 he saw his father die after serving a jail sentence for the unlawful possession of a bullock hide. They were cruel times.

Convicts transported to Australia were reduced to the status of slaves, consigned to work as farm labourers or shepherds for well-to-do landowners. In a scenario that reflected similar scenes in the American deep south, they were routinely whipped, and those considered troublemakers were forced into irons to endure the back-breaking torture of the chain gang. One survivor of the Hive, Michael McNamara was put into indentured service as a farm hand shortly after landing in Australia.

After four uneventful years, he received 25 lashes when sheep strayed on his watch. McNamara joined the growing numbers of runaway slaves loosely known as bushrangers "roaming around the Abercrombie River, over the ridges, among steep gullies and deep in caves". But surviving in the bush was a struggle, and many found themselves with no choice but to hand themselves in. McNamara was shifted to a penal colony on Norfolk Island where, two years into his stay, he was flogged with 50 lashes for being "a notorious malingerer".

Many Irish boys, as young as nine-years-old, were imprisoned in the Australian Alcatraz of Port Arthur, Tasmania. Although it was supposed to be the world's most secure prison, there were escapes. The most famous failed attempt involved a prisoner who disguised himself in a kangaroo pelt, but surrendered when the half-starved guards tried to shoot him for dinner.

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