10 – The prison of Australia was not inescapable
“They got Clear off, but its a very Desperate attempt, to go in an open boat for a run of about 16 or 17 hundred Leags and in pertucalar for a Woman and 2 small Children the eldest not above 3 years of age—but the thoughts of Liberty from such a place as this is Enoufh to induce any Convicts to try all Skeemes to obtain it, as they are the same as Slaves all the time they are in this Country.” John Easty, a marine, on Mary Bryant’s escape
The punishment for escaping penal servitude was harsh. Hanging was the most obvious sentence that resulted, of course, but even for a successful escapee, getting away from the prison colony was just the start of it. Sydney was surrounded by bush of indeterminate thickness and size, which all knew to be populated by Aborigines who were presumed to hold nought but ill will towards any white man. This was not a prison that needed to build walls.
Life on the chain gang was harsh enough for people to take their chances with the Aborigines, however, and while the vast majority failed, there were a few who made it. Among the most famous was Mary Bryant, who travelled on the First Fleet and managed to make it all the way back to England. She had been arrested in her native Cornwall and sentenced to hang, only to have that commuted to transportation. She was pregnant when the First Fleet departed – having met her husband, William Bryant, on a prison hulk – and had the child on the ship. On arrival, her and William soon decided to make an exit and, with William an experienced fisherman, decided that they would do it by sea.
Along with several other convicts, they made one of the most remarkable journeys of all time, stealing a boat from Captain Phillip himself and making it all the way from Sydney Cove to Timor, some 5,000 miles to the north. They claimed to be survivors of a shipwreck, but William drunkenly spilled the beans and they were all arrested and shipped back to England. Both of the couple’s children, as well as William himself, died en route to Britain, but Mary and four of the other escapees made it all the way. By the letter of the law, they should have been executed for escaping the colony, but they avoided the noose and Mary, her seven year sentence having elapsed, was released with a pardon.
Another escapee was William Buckley, who made his way off a work party near Melbourne in 1803 and attempted to walk to Sydney, which he thought was close by. After weeks of wandering aimlessly, he came to meet a family from the Wathaurung people and was taken in by the tribe, learning their language and living among them for the next thirty years. He eventually recontacted the colonists in 1835, when a group of Wathaurung spotted white men on the Bellarine peninsula. Buckley introduced himself and, showing them the tattoo on his arm, revealed himself as a man thought to have been missing for three decades.
Buckley received a pardon from the British authorities and eventually settled on Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, where he lived until the age of 76 before dying in 1856. His time spent with the Wathaurung, living with them outside of regular contact from Europeans, gleaned much information about their customs and the everyday life of Aboriginal people in southern Australia. Buckley later published a book which told of his adventures in the bush, and he became the source of the Aussie phrase “You’ve got Buckley’s chance”, referring to something very unlikely to happen.
Of course, for those convicts that didn’t successfully escape, there was always a prison within a prison: Norfolk Island.