Survivors of the Hive shipwreck: Irish convicts in Australia

BHC3504 001No wonder Australia is addicted to off-shore jails in Nauru and Manus Island, it too was founded as one, to solve a political problem. British jails were heaving in the 18th century as the state harshly punished crimes against property. Australia was founded to swallow Britain’s criminal class, a “transparent labyrinth” as Robert Hughes called it, with walls 14,000 miles thick. In this gigantic social experiment a special place was reserved for the Irish, different by religion and whose crimes were believed to be especially violent.

This reputation was put down to Ireland’s situation during the half century of the convict era (1790s to 1840s). While the period was bookended by failed rebellions in 1798 and 1848, it was characterised by subdued hatred which occasionally bubbled over between the Protestant landholding class and the majority Catholic peasantry.

Opponents of transportation used these factors to defend the reckless violence of the Irish in Australia. Activists like Carolyn Chisholm fought transportation and tried to make life better for those affected by the policy. However, Chisholm’s attitude was rare. The Irish found it hard to shake their status as foreign “Popish” intruders in an outpost of empire. The Castle Hill rebellion of 1804 was a dismal failure but it helped perpetuate the myth of treacherous outsiders.

Their safety was in numbers. One in five convicts in New South Wales was Irish making them a significant minority. Researcher Babette Smith was determined to challenge their view of victimhood in her book “The Luck of the Irish” which concentrates on the period between 1825 and 1845. Smith meticulously researched convict records to see why they had been transported and what they did in Australia.

The centrepiece of her book and Smith’s sub-title is a little-remembered convict shipwreck in 1835: How a shipload of convicts survived the wreck of the Hive to make a new life in Australia. The Hive, with 250 prisoners aboard, was 109 days out from Cork and just one day away from Sydney when she hit bad weather off the south NSW coast. On a windy night the Hive ran aground near Jervis Bay. Captain John Nutting was missing in action, drunk and in bed. Crews nervously obeyed his instruction to sail close to the shore. When the ship struck a reef, Nutting’s contradictory instructions made matters worse. The crew wanted to abandon ship but he insisted first they stay aboard and then they all swim to shore. The ship’s doctor pulled rank in the interests of safety and the crew got the longboats ready to ferry the passengers to shore, against the wishes of the peeved captain.

The doctor was right to be worried, the surf was dangerous. One youth tried to swim ashore and got in difficulties before the boatswain dived in to save him. However the boatswain hit his head on the stern and drowned. Incredibly he was the only person to die as a result of the shipwreck of the Hive. The youth survived and heroic chief officer Edward Canney escorted every longboat to shore, up to his neck in water each time. He saved the lives of 300 people.

When they got ashore Captain Nutting resumed command as if nothing had happened. No one had any idea where they were other than “a day’s sail from Sydney”. Aboriginal people approached, offering help to the stranded Europeans. By sign language and broken English they offered to guide someone to the nearest white man who lived “up the hill”.  Junior officer Waldron Kelly volunteered for the task and after two hours arrived at Erowal, the farm of John Lamb. Lamb, alarmed by the prospect of escaped convicts, took Kelly another 12 hours walk north to Shoalhaven, then owned by prominent settler Alexander Berry. Berry immediately wrote to the Colonial Secretary about the incident and set out with Kelly the following morning to the Hive.

The shipwreck news caused a sensation in Sydney. Three ships were dispatched and rumours of missing treasure caused a buzz in town. After five days the Tamar steam-packet brought back half the crew and passengers. A few days later HM brig Zebra brought the rest of the convicts. The remaining crew and soldiers stayed on to salvage what they could. Captain Nutting was among the last to get to Sydney in time for the official inquiry where Canney contradicted his testimony. The inquiry blamed Nutting for going to bed when the mate told him they were too near land. It also endorsed the doctor’s action in removing his command.

While Nutting fled to England in disgrace (though still in charge of a vessel), the Irish prisoners remained in Australia. After the dramatic circumstances of their arrival, Babette Smith asked the question: why did none attempt escape at Jervis Bay despite 250 convicts outnumbering 29 soldiers? There were violent prisoners who could do the overpowering. Many were transported for violent crimes which Smith divides into four categories of tribal, political, religious and sexual violence.

Maurice Leehy, 37, was transported for his part in a “savage atrocity” between two clans at the Tralee races. Police read the “riot act” which was ignored. Clan members used sticks and stones on each other and 16 people died. Leehy was one of 18 people charged, and he received transportation for life.

Some violence was political. British occupation spawned secret societies with colourful names such as the Whiteboys and the Ribbonmen. They carried out arson, assault, cattle-maiming and sent threatening letters. Fanton Delany, 22, ended up on the Hive after his Whiteboy group tried to force farmer Maurice Kelly to give up his land. Fenton posted a threatening letter but someone informed on him. He went on the run but was caught asleep at a farmer’s house. The Kildare Assizes sentenced him to seven years transportation.

Irish Catholics suffered under the Penal Laws which prevented them owning land and voting in elections. Under Daniel O’Connell and a newly energised Catholic Church, emancipation and education reforms were won in 1829. By the time of the Hive, NSW’s governor was Richard Bourke, a liberal protestant Irishman under the influence of his great relative Edmund Bourke. As an Irish magistrate Richard Bourke recognised “the lack of basic civil rights such as religious freedom and a fair and impartial system of justice” was the cause of much social unrest.

Fifteen aboard the Hive were sentenced for murder or manslaughter. Joseph Ryan hit his victim with a hammer for called him a “whitefoot”, another was part of a group who pelted a man with stones, while many, like Leahy, were involved in deadly riots. Timothy Cleary, 21, didn’t kill anyone but he pointed out his victim to another man who killed him with a stick. The victim had taken land from the Cleary family. Murder was ecumenical. A Monaghan Protestant, James McCabe, 47, was sentenced for his part in an Orange Day sectarian brawl.

Sexual violence was also prevalent with “abduction” a common crime in Ireland at the time. Bride theft was an ancient Gaelic custom, usually by gangs against female victims who were wealthy, single or who had land. James Dalton had his death sentence commuted to seven years transportation for the crime of “aiding and assisting the abduction of Catherine Hartney”. Dalton’s 60-year-old father-in-law James Ryan was earlier transported for leading a group to force a farmer to relinquish land. Dalton assisted Ryan to kidnap Hartney for his son Daniel Ryan, who also sailed on the Hive with Dalton.

But almost half the offenders aboard were thieves, burglars and robbers. They were little different to thousands of English thieves sentenced to Australia. They were poor but missed out on the Famine and also left before the Catholic Church renaissance took full effect. So like the English criminals they were ready to become honest Australians.

Some, such as Dalton, had family in Ireland, and the Irish made up 60% of those who applied to have their family sent out. Though the British stopped that process to save money in 1840, Caroline Chisholm persuaded the government to change its mind in 1846 to support Irish families who wanted to move to Australia.

By then Dalton was free having served seven years at the pastoral holding of Archibald Campbell near Bathurst. Dalton was a model prisoner and on his release in 1842 went into the carting business. He later became a storekeeper at Blackman’s Swamp (which became Orange in 1846). His wife Ellen had died and Dalton applied for his three children to join him. Elder siblings Thomas and Margaret had already emigrated to Canada leaving youngest son James an orphan in Famine Ireland.

Dalton’s request was approved and James Dalton Jr arrived in Australia on the Panama in 1849. By then his father had moved into a bigger store in Orange. Father and son ran the business before James junior took it over in 1853 as James senior became a publican. Their timing was impeccable. In 1851 gold was found near Bathurst and Orange and the Daltons took full advantage of the goldrush as established traders in the region. The family quickly became wealthy. Elder siblings Thomas and Margaret moved to Australia in the 1850s and they expanded to become one of the biggest merchants, retailers, millers and pastoral holdings in NSW.

James the elder died in 1860 having laid the groundwork for a significant family contribution to their adopted country. James junior and Thomas became mayors of Orange. Thomas represented the town in the NSW Legislative Assembly and later became active in the Illawarra where his memory is retained in park and stadium names. The family eventually married into the Redmond political dynasty cementing bonds between Ireland and Australia. Their father, James Dalton Sr was probably the only rags to riches story from the Hive, but their stories show why the Irish did not rebel in Jervis Bay. Australia offered up something better than the land they left.


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