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‘Liberty or Life!’: The Convict Pirates of the Wellington

by Erin Ihde
20 Dec 2009 • Comment (0) • Print PDF
Posted: Pirates and Piracy [5] | Commons

‘We very seldom attend the public executions of criminals’, wrote Edward Smith Hall of the Monitor newspaper in Sydney, New South Wales, in March 1827, ‘because we have found that we experience on such occasions more of the feelings of horror than of sympathy’. But this time, he continued, when ‘we raised our eyes to view the five men who suffered on Monday last … we could not look up at the victims trembling on the fatal scaffold without weeping’. The crowd, too, were murmuring, said Hall, ‘some asking “what are they hanged for – do they suffer for sparing men’s lives?” and others, “is this the way to reward humanity?”[1]

The five men were escaped convicts and convicted pirates. Why then should there be such sympathy for them? Indeed, why were only five of the sixty-six convicts who were aboard the pirated ship to be hanged? And why was their ringleader not one of them? Why were the authorities, and even people from the ship itself, willing to extend mercy to them? This incident is a most remarkable tale of convict escape in colonial New South Wales. It also provides great insights into colonial society at the time, including into concepts of Britishness, liberty, mutual obligation, the status of convicts, and into tensions existing within the colony.

For a convict wishing to escape from the penal colony of New South Wales in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the sea was a common choice, and convicts reached places like India, Cape Town and China.[2] The most extreme choice was to seize control of a ship, which happened more often than has been realised – Ian Duffield observed that ‘convict piracy in Australia demands recognition as a major convict resistance practice’.[3] Piracy carried the death penalty, so it was not an action to be undertaken lightly. Yet examples dating from the early days of the colony are not difficult to find. The ship that features in this discussion was the Wellington, and its seizure in 1826 was part of this tradition of convict piracy. I have dealt in detail elsewhere with the events of the actual piracy itself, so these are covered in a condensed manner here.[4]

On 10 December 1826 sixty-six convicts, two passengers, twelve soldiers and a sergeant left Sydney on the brig Wellington, bound for the penal settlement of Norfolk Island.[5] On 21 December, about 250 miles from its destination, six convicts exercising on deck suddenly overpowered their guards. The captain, John Harwood, was approached by a prisoner, William Douglass, armed with a musket taken from the soldiers. Harwood attempted to throw some blocks at the convicts but was soon grabbed by another of their number, John Lynch, who shouted ‘liberty or life’. The other soldiers were secured by the simple expedient of closing the forecastle hatch on them. The sailors were placed in the prison hold, just vacated by the newly liberated convicts. But the soldiers in the forecastle were still armed, firing through the bulkhead. They soon desisted when told that all they were doing was endangering the crew, surrendering their weapons and uniforms, which were soon adorning the convicts. One passenger, William Buchanan, appeared wielding two pistols, but he was overcome with a blow to his head. The convicts now controlled the ship and gave three cheers, shouting, as Lynch had done, ‘Liberty or Life!’[6]

The Wellington had been taken with surprising ease and no loss of life. There were some minor injuries but nothing life-threatening. The ship was secured – the soldiers and crew were locked away, as were about twenty convicts who wanted no part of proceedings. That night, however, a storm blew up and the sailors were obliged to help with the ship.[7]

The convicts put a command system in place. A former soldier, John Walton, who had been convicted of receiving stolen goods, was appointed captain. A ‘council of seven’ was also put in place, probably including Walton, William Douglass (appointed first mate), John ‘Flash Jack’ Edwards (second mate) and Charles Clay (steward). We know a good deal of what went on during the coming days because, apart from having the transcripts of the subsequent trials to refer to, Walton kept a log. This played a key role in the unfolding of events, providing evidence of the good order that was maintained on board ship. The Sydney newspapers also talked to anybody they could who had been involved, producing detailed accounts from the interviews.[8]

Firstly, a destination had to be decided upon. The immediate thought was to offload their unwanted passengers at the first convenient location and then head for South America. But they lacked enough water and decided to stop first at New Zealand. They planned to head for Three Kings’ Island (off the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island) to land the soldiers and get water, but the convicts were told that the men would fall victim to cannibalism. Instead, the pirates’ ‘humanity’, reported the Monitor, made them consent to the Bay of Islands (on the north-eastern side of the North Island), where missionaries would afford protection. Captain Harwood was persuaded to help navigate, and he encouraged the crew to help run the ship.[9]

Discipline was maintained. Men were placed in watches, the log recorded, and regulations were enacted to keep order, with the council acting as a court if needed. However there were few problems on the ship, the swift and firm dealing with any issues that did arise contributing to a voyage that was mainly peaceful. Finally, on New Year’s Day, the coast of New Zealand came into sight.[10]

Thus, on Friday the fifth of January 1827, the Wellington arrived at the Bay of Islands. The excellent harbour made the area a popular spot for whaling vessels to berth in and there was a substantial indigenous population in residence. The pirates headed for the settlement of Kororareka, at the south-western end of the bay. The nature of its visitors and the lawlessness of its lifestyle had earned the town the nickname of ‘The Hell Hole of the South Pacific’.[11] Here the pirates’ luck would run out.

Two whaling ships, the Sisters, commanded by Captain Robert Duke, and the Harriet, commanded by Captain Clark, were berthed at the settlement. The superintendent of the mission station at Paihia, Reverend Henry Williams, saw the Wellington appear at 8 a.m., and anchor at 10. Duke and Clark went on board to offer help bringing the ship to anchorage, which was accepted. They were introduced to ‘Commander’ Walton, who told them he was from New South Wales and was headed to the River Thames (NZ) with troops and provisions, and that they needed more water. Neither captains’ suspicions were aroused at first, although they were surprised that the visitors had run short of water so quickly. As soon as she berthed, the Wellington was boarded by numerous natives, with whom the ‘soldiers’ fraternised freely, especially the women, which struck the captains as being slightly unusual.[12]

Duke and Clark returned to their ships. Later in the day another missionary, William Fairburn, called on Duke to ask whether the Wellington was carrying any letters. They rowed back over to find out, and now things started to unravel. There were people everywhere. Crew and soldiers were bartering with Maoris, and in the cabin about a dozen people were at the alcohol supply. Then Fairburn recognised a man named Clay, a convict from Sydney, and Duke recognised another man. Now definitely suspicious, they left the ship to talk.[13]

They decided to invite Walton to dinner. He said he would visit for an hour in the afternoon instead. When he did not, Duke, Clark, Fairburn and Williams went back to the Wellington. The scene of continuing confusion, and the loading of far more water than was needed to reach the River Thames, convinced the men that something was amiss. The invitation to tea was repeated, and Walton accepted. As the four men left the ship, a note was slipped into Fairburn’s hand. It was from the Wellington’s true captain, Harwood, telling them the true situation.[14]

Walton came to tea. Williams questioned him, but Walton ‘prevaricated a good deal’. Fairburn produced the note, whereupon Walton ‘was struck with astonishment’. But he confessed the entire story. Secure on the Sisters, he was told ‘he should consider himself a prisoner, and that [they] would not suffer him to leave the ship’. Come 10 o’clock that night though, they did just that, allowing Walton to return to the Wellington because they believed ‘the brig could not proceed to sea that night’. Walton arrived back on the ship declaring that if he could find the letter-writer ‘he would knock the man’s brains out’.[15]

Reverend Williams, who had been a British naval lieutenant during the Napoleonic wars, urged that the Wellington be fired on and disabled, but it was feared that the pirates would retaliate. However at dawn on Saturday Duke brought his eight six pound guns on deck in case of an attack. Instead, at 8 o’clock the Wellington drew alongside the Harriet to request a trade of items the pirates needed. Clark declined. At noon yet another dinner invitation was offered. This too was declined, Walton in turn inviting Clark to visit the Wellington. Clark and Duke both went aboard, but while they were there, Walton learned that the Sisters’ guns were armed and ready. He now had the other captains on his ship, but instead of using the situation to his advantage, when Duke assured him that he had no intention of firing, Walton let them leave.[16]

Things remained calm overnight, but the next morning, Sunday the 7th, saw them come quickly to a head. At 4 a.m. the Wellington prepared to depart, and at 5 a.m. the Sisters and the Harriet (which had six long nine pounders) hoisted their colours and opened fire. Harwood told the pirates that they were simply saluting the missionaries who were about to come on board to preach. The pirates replied that ‘it was strange saluting, when the shot was knocking at the hull!’ Despite having their own guns, the pirates did not return fire, and after more salvos were fired and the Wellington had suffered some damage, they surrendered.[17]

Once repairs to the Wellington were complete, she and the Sisters set sail for Sydney on the 28th of January (the Harriet having departed on the 22nd). The ships arrived back in Sydney on the 9th.[18]

Thus ended the piratical career of the convicts of the Wellington, but the saga of their fates was only just beginning. The news caused a sensation in Sydney. Once the story itself had been told the focus shifted to the trials that quickly followed and then to the outcomes of those trials. The debates contained in this coverage are what open windows into many facets of colonial society.

Two main trials were held, on the 20th and 21st of February, before Chief Justice Francis Forbes. Thirty-one prisoners were tried for piracy – the other convicts were deemed to have played no role in seizing the ship. Excitement amongst Sydneysiders remained high, with the Australian reporting of the first trial that ‘The Court was crowded to great excess during the whole of the day. The trial seemed to excite the most intense interest’. The Monitor added a sense of colour, noting that ‘the Court exhibited a dense mass of auditors; colonels and privates, merchants and porters, hawkers, pedlars, and justices of the peace, all assembled cheek by jowl to witness the days proceedings’.[19] The defence raised by some of the prisoners is of interest here, raising issues about the status of convicts, about concepts of liberty and Englishness, and also about tensions that existed between the Governor and the Chief Justice concerning legal matters in the colony.

In the early days of settlement the status of convicts in New South Wales was slightly ambiguous. There was a school of thought that held that transportation was the actual punishment – once the convicts arrived in New South Wales they should not be subject to any further impost by the government. This ambiguity had been clarified by the time of these events, but doubts did still linger in some minds as to exactly what treatment convicts should be subject to.[20] A number of the pirates drew on some of the technicalities relating to this with regard to penal settlements to argue their case.

Several prisoners claimed that they should not have been sent to Norfolk Island in the first place. They had been stationed at the penal settlement at Port Macquarie, but a request from Norfolk Island for some mechanics to be sent there had seen Governor Darling instruct Port Macquarie’s Commandant to forward the required number of men to Sydney. This the Commandant had done and, thinking that those selected were to be granted indulgences, selected men with good records. Instead, the men found themselves taken straight to the hulk Phoenix and put in irons, then transferred to the Wellington in company with hardened criminals, bound for the notorious Island.[21] All this, the men claimed, was illegal.

Another tack taken by the defence concerned the authority of the Master of the Wellington. The defence counsel, Mr Rowe, adopted what the Sydney Gazette described as ‘a very ingenious line of argument’. Rowe claimed that Captain Harwood lacked the necessary authority to hold the men. They had not been received by the Superintendent of the Hulk according to legal requirements, which called for them to have come from the Governor of the Sydney gaol. The prisoners, continued Rowe, could have applied for habeas corpus. According to this argument, then, the prisoners were being improperly detained. Robert Wardell, who also appeared for the prisoners, tried a novel approach – the prisoners had intended no robbery: while it had been a violent act, ‘it amounted to borrowing only, with an intention of returning the vessel to her right command as soon as they should have obtained their liberty’. [22]

Liberty is at the heart of most of these arguments, with the Rights of Englishmen, and the English concept of liberty, featuring strongly. The defence’s argument was that, because incorrect procedures had been followed, the men were within their rights to take any reasonable means necessary to regain their liberty. If they were on the ship illegally, and were thus in a state of duress, then they were only ‘exercising a natural right’ by liberating themselves.[23]

As Chief Justice Forbes put it in his summing up:

It is, indeed, a momentous question, how far persons in a state of duress have a right to redress themselves by an act of their own. Certain it is, that, so tender are the British laws in the preservation of personal liberty, they will go a great way in justifying the means resorted to by persons illegally under restraint, of recovering their natural rights, and protecting their persons.

Edward Smith Hall pursued a similar line of argument in his commentary on the case in the Monitor, and his emphasis on liberty is explicit. The men, he said, had been ‘availing themselves of the negligence of their keepers, setting themselves at liberty, and taking the vessel in which they were confined, as a necessary adjunct to accomplish their liberty’. They were not pirates in the normal sense but were instead ‘assertors of their personal liberty’. They had not wanted the ship itself – if they could have achieved freedom without taking it they would have.[24] Robert Wardell, the barrister who had argued in court that the pirates were only borrowing the ship, pursued the same argument in the Australian of which, as it happened, he was the editor. ‘The example ordinarily needed to pirates’, he wrote, ‘is an example to those who might be disposed to seize a vessel for the sake of plunder, and not for the sake of gaining their liberty’.[25]

Hall also worked the concept of the free-born Englishman into his argument, asserting that:

Tis true the prisoners were noble-minded men – they had acted a part which only Britons in their circumstances can act – they shewed that even convicts, when free-born Englishmen, are a superior race even to the free men of other slavish countries.

Anyone who found themselves in such a situation would act in exactly the same manner, he believed.[26]

This argument also centred around opposition to Norfolk Island. A penal settlement had been re-established there in 1825, and Darling intended it to be a place of harsh punishment for the worst type of convict. No women were to be allowed there. People such as Hall, who at this time was developing a reputation as a champion of convicts’ rights, were bitterly opposed to Norfolk Island. Darling recognised that the lack of women on the island would lead to more instances of homosexuality, and indeed it soon gained a reputation as a modern Sodom, a place that men would die to avoid.[27] This was the line that Hall pursued, tying it in once more with the notion of being a true Englishman. The island was, he said, home to ‘vile beasts, loathsome to the feelings of manhood, and desperate and infernal in all their ideas and habits’. The pirates, knowing that they were to be ‘for ever (sic) separated from their wives and children’, had taken the ‘opportunity to save themselves from the devouring jaws of such a Hell’. They were, said Hall, ‘endeavouring to escape from the land of Sodom and Gomorrah; a land so defiled, that being men, they felt a manly repugnance to enter and sojourn there’.[28]

Some of the issues that were being raised in the men’s defence also highlighted the rift that had developed between Chief Justice Forbes and Governor Darling over matters of justice. Darling’s military background and his perception of the colony’s convict status, and of the Governor’s powers over it, were at odds with Forbes’ perceptions of common law and of the application of English laws to New South Wales.[29] Forbes’ comments on the case of the Wellington bring this out clearly.

Forbes believed that transportation and its attendant loss of the right to undertake free labour was the main punishment to which the convicts were subjected. For them to be re-transported within the colony to a penal settlement would require that the convict had committed another crime since their arrival – such re-transportation would be the punishment for the second crime. This had not happened in the case of the Wellington pirates – Darling had simply ordered their removal to Norfolk Island.[30] This clearly worried Forbes during the trial. The crux of the matter, he felt, was this –

Can the governor, without any charge of a new offence committed within this government, order any person, transported from Great Britain, to any penal settlement that he may think proper? We say he cannot…

After detailing his reasoning, Forbes stated that ‘any additional severity becomes unlawful’ and therefore ‘the government has fallen into errors’. Highlighting his disdain for Darling, Forbes also noted that

This is the second instance in which the consequences of an irregular interference of the government with the sentences of the prisoners have come to light, and raised an unfavourable impression against it. I hope it will be the last; but … “the love of power is the last infirmity of noble minds,” and … few are disposed to part with what they love, if they can avoid it…[31]

So to Forbes, the case clearly demonstrated Darling’s over-reaching himself in the realm of legal matters. Forbes called for Darling ‘to guide his measures by the counsels of high responsible officers’. The errors that had been made, Forbes concluded, while being ‘honest errors’, had nonetheless contributed to the ‘degree of odium, perhaps unprecedented, which … has fallen and rests upon the government of New South Wales’.[32]

But for all his concerns about Darling’s actions, when it came to the pirates’ actual defence Forbes could not allow this legal argument to influence his decision. The pirates might have been being moved illegally, he said in his summing up, but that did not justify their actions. Paperwork had been filled out – whether it was in order or not was not the point. By raising this defence the pirates had in fact placed the onus of proof upon themselves to show that they were under duress and had only done what was necessary to free themselves, but in Forbes’ opinion they had not done so.[33]

To him the overriding point was this: whatever the men’s situation, they should not have resorted to violence in the first instance. There were other avenues available to them. ‘I cannot allow it to be supposed’, Forbes said, ‘that, because parties are irregularly sent to a penal settlement, they are justified in committing piratical acts, and going into all the extremes of violence’. Although the men claimed to have been exercising a natural right, they should have done so ‘with regard to the rights of others’ as well – instead of violence, all available legal means should have been explored. This is a fundamental rule that underpins the concept of moral economy as explored by E.P. Thompson – rioters in England often resorted to violence only after all legitimate avenues of redress had been attempted, and the authorities frequently recognised this in their reactions.[34] So to Forbes the pirates had relinquished their moral authority by immediately taking direct action.

Overall, Forbes declared ‘that none of the prisoners can justify their acts upon any of the grounds that have been set up’. However, he found another way to let some men off – they may have been forced to take part, or have played no active part at all. Forbes later spelled this out clearly: because the arguments raised by the defence could not apply to all of the convicts, he ‘rather inclined to their acquittal upon the ground of having not taken any part in the forcible seizure of the Wellington’. On these grounds eight men were acquitted.[35]

This left, though, twenty-three prisoners who were found guilty. With these men, Forbes had little choice but to follow the letter of the law. Having been ‘convicted of an act of piracy’, he said, it was his duty to highlight the ‘enormity’ of their offence. All the men had been convicted of their earlier crimes, some ‘of a deeply aggravated character’, and sent to Norfolk Island rather than in some cases suffering death, because of the mercy and humanity of the authorities. This case was therefore also ‘of a very aggravated character’, because they had ‘abused that clemency’. So, Forbes concluded, ‘The sentence therefore of this Court is, “that you … be severally hanged by the neck, until your bodies be dead”’.[36] Included in this group were the pirates’ leader, John Walton, their first mate, William Douglass, and the second mate, John Edwards.

With the trials over, decisions now had to be made. Cases with a sentence of death were referred to the Governor and Executive Council for review, to decide whether or not to exercise mercy. The decisions appear to have been difficult to arrive at, for deliberations took two days (it should be noted that Forbes was a member of the Council). No doubt the members were aware of the public interest in the case, and of the sympathy that existed for the pirates. In the end the Council resorted to using the criteria alluded to by Forbes in his sentencing: those men who were capital respites, who had been condemned to death but then had their sentences commuted to transportation, were chosen to be made examples of for their abuse of the mercy that had been shown to them. Six men were therefore ordered for execution: William Douglass, John Edwards, John Smith, Edward Colthurst, Richard Johnson and William Liddington.[37]

One name is notably missing from that list – John Walton, the leader, and the reasons why allow us to further explore the situation in New South Wales. The Council, and much of the community in general, recognised one vital aspect of moral economy that the pirates had adhered to – although direct action had been taken straight away, they had employed no unnecessary violence. In Walton’s case, the Council noted ‘the circumstances of moderation and humanity, which marked his conduct after the capture of the Wellington’. Darling further mentioned ‘his extremely moderate conduct, and the exertions he used to preserve order after the event’. That Walton was not one of the six was also because, as the Council went on to say, the original offence for which he had been sentenced to Norfolk Island (receiving stolen goods) had been his first colonial sentence and not a capital one.[38]

But most interesting are Darling’s continuing comments in his despatch. Despite Walton’s behaviour, he said, he still ‘considered the Execution … necessary; but, as the whole Council united in recom’g him to mercy, I was unwilling to act contrary to their wishes’. Darling could have overridden the Council’s decision – he had the power to do so.[39] Just why he might have been ‘unwilling’ to, again opens a window into broader colonial happenings.

At the time of these events Darling was enduring a barrage of criticism from a number of people, not least amongst them Robert Wardell, the barrister and editor of the Australian who had appeared for the pirates, William Charles Wentworth and Edward Smith Hall. The catalyst had been the treatment of two soldiers, Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson, who in November 1826 decided they had had enough of army life. They stole some cloth from a shop in order to be caught, drummed out of the army and, after serving a hopefully short sentence, rejoin civilian life. But Darling spoiled their plan – being a military man himself, he was deeply shocked at such behaviour and determined to make an example of them.  Originally sentenced to seven years transportation to a penal settlement, Darling changed the sentence to seven years hard labour on the roads, with the men fitted with much heavier than usual chains, including an iron collar around their necks. Unfortunately for Darling, Sudds, who had been ill for some time, promptly died. While he was eventually found to be not responsible for the death, (he had been unaware of Sudds’ illness) Darling certainly received the blame at first, especially from the aforementioned gentlemen. There had been a growing concern at Darling’s seemingly severe attitude towards convicts, and this occurrence provided his critics with plentiful ammunition. Wardell attacked Darling heatedly in the Australian and Wentworth followed suit. Hall was conciliatory at first but soon joined the attacks. Forbes was also worried, and his concern was almost exactly that which he expressed about the pirates – could the Governor alter the original sentence in such a way? This, in fact, is the other incident Forbes was referring to when he said that the pirates’ actions were the second example of ‘the consequences of an irregular interference of the government with the sentences of the prisoners’.[40]

So, all this was fresh in mind, and indeed still unfolding, when the pirates were tried and sentenced. I have shown elsewhere that Darling may have realised he over-stepped the line with Sudds and Thompson: in 1828 a group of soldiers indulged in a food riot, and Darling’s reaction was strangely muted and conciliatory. Moral economy requires that all parties recognise when they have gone too far.[41] If Darling was still wary in 1828, how much more likely is it that he knew he needed to step carefully in early 1827? This could well explain why he was not prepared to challenge the Executive Council over Walton’s sentence – here we have another military man, originally charged with a quite similar offence to Sudds and Thompson, possibly about to also be treated severely. In all likelihood Darling simply did not want to add fuel to the fire.

People such as Hall, though, were easily finding enough fuel in the pirates’ case. He was at first hesitant to criticise the Council’s decision regarding the six men doomed to death, but added he was ‘sorry clemency was not extended to all, under the circumstances’. However, he was soon being more blunt. A week later he noted that the men ‘appeared [to be] too much the victims of policy, and too little of malefactors receiving a just and expedient doom’. Another week later he again used the executed pirates, among other issues, as an example to criticise Darling.[42]

These criticisms are important not only in relation to the pirates themselves, but also in the broader context of colonial events, and in particular to one of the major crises of Darling’s term as Governor. As mentioned earlier, his relationship with the press was becoming extremely strained – the Australian and Monitor were moving into outright opposition. In the same issue that his comments about the pirates’ execution appeared, Hall published another long article listing twenty-four grievances directed at Darling. The issue a week later contained still more criticisms on the same page as his piece about the pirates’ woes. Both Wardell and Hall were ‘doing much mischief’, said Darling and, claiming that both newspapers were ‘totally regardless of all decorum’, he put plans in motion to restrain them. He attempted to introduce stamp duty on the papers, but to his chagrin and fury, Forbes disallowed the Bill, further cementing the rift between the two men.[43] So the case of the Wellington pirates slotted into a much wider chain of events, and clearly played its part in the upheavals over freedom of speech in the colony.

The public reaction to the pirates’ impending and eventual execution is also very noteworthy. It could not be denied, said the Australian, that public sympathy ‘had become interwoven with those offenders and with their fate’. People were overlooking ‘the enormity of the offence’ because of the manner in which it had been committed: it was ‘an unparalleled instance of forbearance in men we should have expected to find ripe for every thing, and willing to commit any barbarity’. Thus the ‘general sentiment [was that] they were merciful, and those who shew mercy, to them should mercy be shewn’.[44]

There was also a very practical reason to extend such mercy, it was argued. What sort of example would it set to anybody contemplating a similar escapade? If men who took care not to harm their captors were hanged, why should any future pirates show the same consideration? They might as well just kill everybody and try to make good their escape – the punishment could not be any worse.[45]

The public reaction is interesting in light of prevailing attitudes towards capital punishment. In Britain attitudes were changing at this time, and there was awareness in the colony that such changes were taking place. However in New South Wales the rate of executions did not drop dramatically until the mid 1830s. Darling was a firm believer in execution as a deterrent, and its use remained relatively higher than in England, especially for non-murder crimes, during this period. There was, overall, public support for capital punishment and executions in New South Wales from the mid 1820s until the mid 1830s.[46] The execution of the Wellington pirates therefore stands out even more clearly as being unusual because of the widespread public support for the men, and questioning of the need for their deaths.

For one of the six condemned men, though, there was to be a dramatic development. A reprieve arrived for William Douglass just before the execution. Darling reported that the Jury had petitioned to save Douglass’ life because of ‘certain circumstances, which appeared in [his] favor (sic)’. These circumstances were doubtless related to Darling’s next comment. Three soldiers who had been on board the Wellington, the Sergeant of the Guard and two of his men, had also made a representation on Douglass’ behalf through their commanding officer. He had been, they said, ‘the means of preserving their lives, when the Prisoners seized the Vessel, and they were induced in consequence respectfully and humbly to entreat that he might be spared’. Darling put the matter to Council and it was decided ‘that an Individual, who had been so conspicuous for his humanity, had more than an ordinary claim to mercy’.[47] Unlike Walton, Darling appears to have had no quarrel with this decision. Nevertheless, for the victims of a piracy to intercede on behalf of one of the pirates reinforces what an impact their actions had on many of the players involved in the drama.

For the other five men, though, the final act of their drama had arrived. Both the Australian and the Monitor devoted considerable space to covering the execution, from the journey from their cells to their prayers with the accompanying clergymen. The clergy, said Hall, were ‘appearing as ambassadors from the King of Heaven to offer them that mercy which was denied them by their fellow worms’. Finally, after various statements, at a quarter to eleven ‘they were consigned to their fate’. ‘They met death with fortitude’, said the Australian, but the Monitor commented that ‘all of them died with much apparent pain’.[48]

The papers’ descriptions of the crowd were equally vivid. Hangings nearly always attracted large crowds, but the size was especially stressed in this instance. ‘A great concourse of the inhabitants … assembled’, said the Monitor. ‘The Rocks appeared like a living mass: groupes (sic) took their station at every point that commanded a glimpse of the fatal tree’.[49] Crowd reactions at hangings could vary depending on their degree of sympathy or otherwise for the victim(s) – they might laugh, groan, boo or hiss at the hangman, the authorities, or the culprit, depending on their point of view. Certainly contemporary descriptions suggested that more of a carnival atmosphere tended to be the order of the day, although on rarer occasions solemnity could prevail.[50] The latter appears to have been the case here. ‘A general impulse of regret’, observed the Australian, ‘that their previous actions should have called for this awful sacrifice, appeared to pervade the minds of the spectators generally’. The comments quoted at the beginning of this article were made – ‘do they suffer for sparing men’s lives?’, ‘is this the way to reward humanity?’ ‘All these circumstances combined’, said Hall, ‘made this execution the most dismal, heart-rending sight of the kind we ever before witnessed’. The rest of the crowd apparently concurred, with Hall stating that ‘the public sympathy was greatly excited. Men as well as women sobbed aloud’.[51] The papers, of course, were writing for effect, and on this occasion they appear to have been quite confident as to precisely what kind of effect their words would have on their readers.

The case of the convict pirates of the Wellington is indeed a remarkable one that warrants detailed examination. Apart from being an enthralling story in its own right, the things it can tell us about colonial New South Wales are myriad, complex and revealing. The case clearly demonstrates how one incident cannot usually be simply isolated from its surroundings, but instead can serve to tell us much about the whole.

One final point. What, it may be wondered, happened to John Lynch, he of the original ‘Liberty or life!’ shout? The execution of the five pirates was not quite the end of the story. On the morning they were to be tried five of the men, including Lynch, escaped from the hulk they were being held in. Their adventures lasted until May, when the last of them were finally apprehended. This time there was to be no escape. Lynch, along with two of the other Wellington pirates (the other two of the five having already died, one by hanging, one from injuries received during recapture) were hanged on 17 June 1827. Also hanged with them was another man, Michael Coogan. He was hanged for forgery, but amongst his earlier crimes had been the attempted piratical seizure of a ship – a schooner, called, ironically, the Liberty.[52]


1. Monitor, 16 March 1827: 347. [↑]

2. Grace Karskens, ““This spirit of emigration”: the nature and meaning of escape in early New South Wales,” Journal of Australian Colonial History 7 (2005): 12 & 27-32. [↑]

3. Ian Duffield, ““Haul away the anchor girls”: Charlotte Badger, tall stories and the pirates of the “bad ship Venus”,” Journal of Australian Colonial History 7 (2005): 60. [↑]

4. Erin Ihde, “Pirates of the Pacific: The Convict Seizure of the Wellington,” The Great Circle: Journal of the Australian Association for Maritime History 30.1 (2008): 3-17. See also Warwick Hirst, Great Escapes by Convicts in Colonial Australia, (East Roseville: Kangaroo Press, 2003), Chapter 1. [↑]

5. Australian, 21 February 1827: 3; R. v. Walton et al, Supreme Court of New South Wales, (July 2005). [↑]

6. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2 & 21 February 1827: 3; Australian, 21 February 1827: 3; Monitor, 17 February 1827: 317. [↑]

7. Monitor, 17 February 1827: 317; Australian, 23 February 1827: 3. [↑]

8. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2; Australian, 21 February 1827: 3 & 23 February 1827: 3; Monitor, 17 February 1827: 317 & 2 March 1827: 332. [↑]

9. Monitor, 17 February 1827: 317 & 2 March 1827: 332; Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2. [↑]

10. Australian, 23 February 1827: 3. [↑]

11. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2; Anne Salmond, Between Two Worlds: Early Exchanges Between Maori and Europeans 1773-1815, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 209, 359-362 & 466; ‘Russell, Bay of Islands, NZ’, (August 2006). [↑]

12. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2. [↑]

13. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2. [↑]

14. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2; Australian, 21 February 1827: 3. [↑]

15. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2; Australian, 21 February 1827: 3. [↑]

16. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2. [↑]

17. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2; Monitor, 17 February 1827: 317; Australian, 21 February 1827: 3. [↑]

18. Sydney Gazette, 16 February 1827: 2. [↑]

19. Australian, 21 February 1827: 3; Monitor, 24 February 1827: 325; C.H. Currey, Sir Francis Forbes: The First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1968), 473. [↑]

20. Alan Atkinson, “The Free-Born Englishman Transported: Convict Rights as a Measure of Eighteenth-Century Empire,” Past and Present 144, (1994): 89, 91 & 112. [↑]

21. Chief Justice Forbes to Under Secretary Horton, 6 March 1827, Historical Records of Australia, Series IV: Legal Papers, Section A, Vol. 1, 1786-1827 (1922), 697; Australian, 23 February 1827: 3; Currey, 473. [↑]

22. Sydney Gazette, 27 February 1827: 3; Monitor, 24 February 1827: 325; R v Walton et al, notes 4 & 6. [↑]

23. R v Walton et al; Australian, 1 March 1827: 3: R. v. Flanagan et al, Supreme Court of New South Wales,, (October 2005); Sydney Gazette, 24 February 1827: 3.)  [↑]

24. Monitor, 2 March 1827: 332 & 23 March 1827: 355; Erin Ihde, ““Bold, Manly-Minded men” and “Sly, Cunning Base Convicts”: The Double Standard of Escape,” Journal of Australian Colonial History 7 (2005): 129-130. [↑]

25. Australian, 1 March 1827: 3; R.B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales, 1803-1920, (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1976), 6-7. [↑]

26. Monitor, 2 March 1827: 332 & 23 March 1827: 355. [↑]

27. Brian H. Fletcher, Ralph Darling: A Governor Maligned, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1984), 104-105; J.B. Hirst, Convict Society and its Enemies: A History of Early New South Wales, Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983), 93; Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London: Harvill Press, 1996), 266. [↑]

28. Monitor, 2 March 1827: 332 & 16 March 1827: 347. [↑]

29. J.M. Bennett, Lives of the Australian Chief Justices: Sir Frances Forbes, First Chief Justice of New South Wales 1823-1837, (Leichhardt: The Federation Press, 2001), 75-82. [↑]

30. Convict Assignment Opinion, Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899,, note 1, (December 2005); Chief Justice Forbes to Governor Darling, 3 October 1827, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1: 13, 607-612. [↑]

31. Forbes to Horton, 697-699. [↑]

32. Forbes to Horton, 702. [↑]

33. R v Walton et al; Australian, 1 March 1827: 3; R v Flanagan et al; Sydney Gazette, 24 February 1827: 3. [↑]

34. Australian, 1 March 1827: 3; Sydney Gazette, 24 February 1827: 3; E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 50 (1971): 76-136. [↑]

35. Sydney Gazette, 24 February 1827: 3; Forbes to Horton, 698; Currey, 473. [↑]

36. Australian, 1 March 1827: 4. [↑]

37. Timothy D. Castle, “The End of the Line: Capital Punishment and Mercy in Colonial New South Wales 1826-1836,” BA Hons. thesis, (Armidale: University of New England, 2006), 15-16; Minute of Executive Council, 2 March 1827, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, 13: 157-158; Currey, 473; J. Hirst, 114-115. [↑]

38. Minute of Executive Council, 158; Darling to Hay, 7 March 1827, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, 13: 146. [↑]

39. Darling to Hay, 156; Castle, 15. [↑]

40. Fletcher, 245-249; Currey, 192-199; Walker, 8-10; Forbes to Horton, 698. [↑]

41. Erin Ihde, ““A Smart Volley of Dough-Boy Shot”: A Military Food Riot in Colonial Sydney,” Journal of Australian Colonial History 3.2 (2001): 36. [↑]

42. Monitor, 9 March 1827: 344, 16 March 1827: 347 & 23 March 1827: 355. [↑]

43. Monitor, 16 March 1827: 347-348 & 23 March 1827: 355; Darling to Horton, 26 March 1827, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, 13: 192; Walker, 12-13. [↑]

44. Australian, 10 March 1827: 3. [↑]

45. Monitor, 2 March 1827: 332. [↑]

46. Castle, 8-12, 19-21, 36-41, 49 & 51. [↑]

47. Darling to Bathurst, 12 March 1827, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, 13: 157. [↑]

48. Australian, 13 March 1827: 3; Monitor, 16 March 1827: 347-348. [↑]

49. Monitor, 16 March 1827: 348. [↑]

50. Randall McGowen, “Civilizing Punishment: The End of the Public Execution in England,” Journal of British Studies 33 (1994): 268-274; Thomas W. Laqueur, “Crowds, Carnival and the State in English Executions, 1604-1868,” in The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone, ed. A.L. Beier, David Cannadine and James M. Rosenheim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 307-308, 323, 332 & 339ff. [↑]

51. Australian, 13 March 1827: 3; Monitor, 16 March 1827: 347-348. [↑]

52. Monitor, 30 March 1827: 365, 6 April 1827: 370, 11 My 1827: 413 & 19 June 1827: 456; Sydney Gazette, 15 June 1827: 2 & 20 June 1827: 3. [↑]

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School of Humanities, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, 2351.
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