“Most of the evidence on which the men were convicted related to meetings with me. I felt that I, more than any other man then living, ought to do my utmost for these Fenian soldiers.” —John Devoy, writing about his plan to rescue the Fremantle Six
An American whaling ship brought together a crew with a dangerous mission: freeing six Irishmen from a jail in western Australia.
The plot they hatched was as audacious as it was impossible and was driven by two men — a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic nationalist, who’d been convicted and jailed for treason in England before being exiled to America, and a Yankee whaling captain — a Protestant from New Bedford, Massachusetts — with no attachment to the former’s cause, but a firm belief that it was the right thing to do. Along with a third man — an Irish secret agent posing as an American millionaire. They devised a plan to sail halfway around the world to Fremantle, Australia, with a heavily armed crew to rescue a half-dozen condemned Irishmen from one of the most remote and impregnable prison fortresses ever built.
After serving nearly five years in prison, John Devoy was exiled to America, became a journalist for the New York Herald and soon became active with Clan na Gael, the secret society of Fenians in the United States. Devoy, received a smuggled communication in his New York office from the former Fenian, James Wilson.
“What a death is staring us in the face, the death of a felon in a British dungeon and a grave amongst Britain’s ruffians. I am not ashamed to speak the truth, that it is a disgrace to have us in prison today. A little money judiciously expended would release every man that is now in West Australia. Think that we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb since our first arrest, and that it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain that is upon us. One or the other must give way.” To underline this message Wilson added, “Remember this is a voice from the tomb. For is this not a living tomb? In the tomb it is only a man’s body that is good for worms, but in this living tomb the canker worm of care enters the very soul.”
Wilson’s powerful words moved Devoy, and he immediately resolved to help him. As a journalist for The New York Herald and an active member in Clan na Gael, Devoy was singularly well placed to take action on Wilson’s behalf. At the very time Devoy received the secret letter the fight for Irish independence had reached a low point. But in reading Wilson’s entreaty, Devoy realised that here was an unfettered cry from the heart, a cry that had the power to move all who heard it. It was also, Devoy realised, a bracingly political speech which had the power to boost morale and to bring the fight for Irish independence back into focus.
In Ireland in the early 1860s James Wilson had joined the 5th Dragoon (British Army) Guards. But in secret he also became a Fenian, taking an oath to be obedient to his leaders, and to do his utmost to secure a democratic independent Irish Republic. To that end he deserted with conspirator Martin Hogan in November 1865 after they had secretly enrolled many other Irish soldiers in the organisation. But then, as so often in Irish history, local informers gave away the details of renewed Fenian activities to the British forces and Wilson was quickly arrested.
He was court-martialled in Dublin on 10 February 1866, where he was found guilty of mutinous conduct and received a sentence of death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment in Fremantle prison. Wilson was placed on board the Hougomont bound for Fremantle with the other Fenian prisoners. Years passed and by 1869 more than half the Fenian convicts were granted royal pardons, but not a single ex-British soldier was among them. It soon became obvious to Wilson and the others who remained that they would never receive a pardon. The only choice was to serve out their terms, or escape. For Wilson the choice was clear. He wrote his secret letter requesting help immediately.
Devoy was also feeling pressure from another Fenian — John Boyle O’Reilly, who had arrived at Fremantle with Wilson and the others, only to be transferred to Bunbury, another prison in Western Australia. O’Reilly grew despondent there and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, but another convict saved him. A few months later, with help from a local Catholic priest, O’Reilly escaped from Bunbury by rowing out to sea and persuading an American whaling ship to take him on. He sailed to the United States and eventually became a poet, journalist and editor of the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot.
But it wasn’t long before O’Reilly began to feel pangs of guilt over his fellow Fenians’ continued imprisonment in Fremantle. He implored his fellow exile John Devoy to rally the Clan na Gael and mount a rescue attempt. It was all Devoy needed to hear. Escape was entirely possible, as O’Reilly had proved.
Devoy also knew he needed help on the ground in Australia, so he arranged for John James Breslin — a bushy-bearded Fenian secret agent — to arrive in Fremantle in advance of the Catalpa and pose as an American millionaire named, James Collins, and learn what he could about the place they called the “Convict Establishment.”
What Breslin soon saw with his own eyes was that the medieval-looking Establishment was surrounded by unforgiving terrain. To the east there was desert and bare stone as far as the eye could see. To the west, were shark-infested waters. But Breslin also saw that security around the Establishment was fairly lax, no doubt due to the daunting environment. Pretending to be looking for investment opportunities, Breslin arranged several visits to the Establishment, where he asked questions about hiring cheap prison labour. On one such visit, he managed to convey a message to the Fenians: a rescue was in the works; avoid trouble and the possibility of solitary confinement so you don’t miss the opportunity; there would be only one.
Nine months passed before the Catalpa made it to Bunbury. Captain Anthony had run into all sorts of problems, from bad weather to faulty navigational devices. A restocking trip to the Azores saw six crew members desert, and Anthony had to replace them before continuing on. Once Breslin met up with Captain Anthony, they made a plan. The Fenians they had come for had been continually shifted in their assignments, and for Breslin’s plan to work, all six needed to be outside the walls of the Establishment. Anyone stuck inside at the planned time of escape would be left behind. There was no way around it.
To complicate matters, two Irishmen turned up in Fremantle. Breslin immediately suspected that they were British spies, but he recruited them after learning that they had come in response to a letter the Fenians had written home, asking for help. On the day of the escape, they would cut the telegraph from Fremantle to Perth.
On Sunday, 15 April 1876, Breslin got a message to the Fenians: They would make for the Catalpa the next morning. “We have money, arms, and clothes,” he wrote. “Let no man’s heart fail him.” Anthony ordered his ship to wait miles out at sea — outside Australian waters. He would have a rowboat waiting 20 miles up the coast from the prison. Breslin was to deliver the Fenians there, and the crew would row them to the ship.
On Monday morning, 16 April, the newly arrived Irishmen did their part by severing the telegraph wire. Breslin got horses, wagons and guns to a rendezvous point near the prison —and waited. He had no idea which prisoners, if any, would make their way outside the walls that day. But in the first stroke of good luck that morning, Breslin soon had his answer. Thomas Darragh was out digging potatoes, unsupervised. Thomas Hassett and Robert Cranston talked their way outside the walls. Martin Hogan was painting a superintendent’s house and Michael Harrington and James Wilson concocted a tale about being needed for a job at the warden’s house.
Moments later, Breslin saw the six Fenians heading toward him. (It might have been seven, but James Jeffrey Roche was purposely left behind because of an act of treachery which he had attempted against his comrades ten years before, when he sought a lighter sentence in exchange for cooperating with the British. The deal was ultimately rejected, but the Fenians held a grudge.) Once on the carriages, the escapees made a frantic 20-mile horse-drawn dash for the rowboat.
To succeed, the plan required precision timing, a months-long con and the slightest slip-up, could be catastrophic for all involved. By the time the Fremantle Six sailed into New York Harbour in August 1876, more than a year had passed since the plot had been put into action. Their mythic escape resonated around the world and emboldened the Irish Republican Brotherhood for decades in its struggle for independence from the British Empire.
On Easter Monday, 1876, six Irish political prisoners, known as military Fenians, were rescued. The rescuer was one Captain Anthony, a Quaker sea captain who had no connection with the Irish cause. He put his crew, his family, his financiers and his own life in danger to sail from New Bedford in America to Perth in Western Australia on a trip that was disguised as a whale hunt. Why? Because, as he told his grandson, it was the right thing to do.
On the day the six escapees broke away from their work gangs at the appointed time and met up with a trap and horses and were taken to Rockingham beach, where they were rowed out to the Catalpa and crew who were waiting in international waters. It was a race for survival as the water police and the steamship the Georgette gave chase. To make matters worse a huge storm blew up and the men in the rowboat nearly didn’t survive the night. It took twenty-eight hours for the prisoners, the rowers and Captain Anthony to make it safely to the Catalpa and hoist the American flag. The idea was that if the boat was in international waters and flew the American flag then the British could not fire on her. An attack with cannons would be a declaration of war. It was a long shot. No one on board the Catalpa knew if this strategy would work. It did. The British held fire, but the Catalpa only just got away. The lack of wind in that moment meant that the ship was drifting back into Australian waters. After a year of organisation, and lives on the line, the success of this escape effort all came down to a puff of wind.
Fremantle prison was operational until 1991. It closed on 8 November of that year, meaning that this escape story has continuing, contemporary resonance for prisoners who still remember being incarcerated there. The Catalpa escape is a reminder of how a sense of self-worth can survive in the midst of horrific institutional degradation. It’s testimony to loyalty, adventure and endurance. It inspired a whole new wave of Irish rebellion, and a song that is still banned in Western Australia today. Easter Monday is Perth regatta day and it is now also Catalpa day. Here’s one version of the lyrics:
A noble whale ship and commander
called the Catalpa, they say,
she sailed into Western Australia
and took six poor Fenians away.
For seven long years they had served here,
and seven long more had to stay,
for defending their country, old Ireland
for that they were banished away.
Then here’s to Brave John Boyle O’Reilly,
Who first blazed a trail o’er the sea,
By escaping from Bunbury to Boston,
And vowing his comrades to free.
You kept them in Western Australia
’till their hair, it began to turn grey,
when a Yank from the States of America
came out here and stole them away.
So come all you screw warders and jailers,
remember Perth regatta day.
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
or the Yankees will steal them away.
Now, all the Perth boats were a-racing
and making short tacks for the spot,
but the Yankee she tacked into Fremantle
and took the best prize of the lot.
The Georgette, well armed with bold warriors
went out the poor Yanks to arrest,
but she hoisted her star-spangled banner
saying ‘You’ll not board me, I guess’.
So remember those six Fenians colonial
and sing o’er these few verses with skill.
And remember the Yankee that stole them
and the home that they left on the hill.
After the Catalpa rescue only four Fenian prisoners remained in Fremantle gaol. Continuous amnesty agitation in Ireland and overseas resulted in their conditional pardon and release on 28 March 1878, by which time they were broken men. Fremantle Prison closed in 1991.
Featured photo: Fremantle Six
Photo: Wild Geese sculpture organised by the late Francis Conlan to commemorate the escape by sea of the six Irish Fenian convicts aboard the U.S. whaler Catalpa