The Fenians Escape

Nathan  Johnson

Joined October 2007

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The escape of the Fenians from Fremantle Prison in 1876 is a dramatic true story in which Rockingham Western Australia played a central role.

The following is a brief outline of the story of the Catalpa and the escape of the Fenians:

The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in 1858. Its American counterpart, the Fenian Movement, was named after a legendary band of warriors. The Fenians had one objective – the establishment of a free and independent Irish Republic.

Hunger and poverty forced many Irishmen to enlist in the British Army. In 1867 there was an uprising by the Irish against England and hundreds of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were arrested. Those serving in the British Army were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The British Government, however, commuted many of these sentences to long terms of penal servitude.

Thus it was that the convict transport Hougoumont, the last convict ship to be sent to Western Australia, transported 62 of these men to Fremantle in 1867 one of them being young activist John Boyle O’Reilly. In 1869, with the help of an Irish priest, O’Reilly escaped from a Vasse road party which was working near Bunbury.

After spending some days hiding in the coastal dunes, O’Reilly was rescued by the American whaler, the Gazelle. He settled in the United States where he became a reporter for the Boston Pilot and established himself as a well-known humanitarian, writer, poet and orator.

By 1871 all convicted Fenians had been pardoned except for those who had served in the British military. Of these, ten were in Fremantle Prison. One wrote a letter, which was smuggled out of Fremantle Prison and posted to America, where it came into the hands of John Devoy and John Boyle O’Reilly. This letter sowed the seeds for a rescue mission which took four years to plan and which was funded by Irish families from all over the world.

The whaler Catalpa was purchased for the mission and this sailed from New Bedford in 1875 under Captain George Anthony.

Meanwhile, agents John Breslin and Thomas Desmond were given the task of travelling to Fremantle, making contact with the prisoners and preparing for their escape.

The Catalpa arrived in Western Australia in march 1876. Due to good conduct six of the ten imprisoned Fenians had been appointed “trustees” which meant that they had some freedom to come and go from the prison during the day. On the day of the escape they made their way out of the prison and travelled in a horse-drawn cart from Fremantle to Rockingham Beach. A whaleboat was waiting to row them out to the Catalpa. The men were pursued by the police in the coastal steamer Georgette and had to battle rough seas. They took 12 hours to reach and board the Catalpa.

The Georgette pursued the Catalpa and eventually fired a shot across the whaler’s bows, demanding that the prisoners be handed over. Captain Anthony denied having any prisoners on board and, pointing to the stars and stripes, proclaimed:

“That’s the American flag. I am on the high seas. My flag protects me. If you fire on this ship you fire on the American flag.”

After a short time, the Georgette steamed slowly across the stern of the Catalpa, but did not fire any more shots. She kept the whaler company for an hour, then slowly swung off, steaming back to Fremantle empty-handed.

The escape of the Fenians caused great excitement in Perth and Fremantle. The general feeling was clearly one of pleasure that the pursuit had been unsuccessful. Local officials, however, felt highly embarrassed by the incident. When light-hearted songs about it were sung in the streets and taverns of Fremantle it caused them great annoyance and very quickly it became a punishable offence to sing such songs.

You can now see a memorial dedicated to the Catalpa on the Esplanade Road at the Rockingham foreshore.

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