Tale of Convicts' Famed 1791 Escape Revealed

First-hand account of Australian penal colony escape released in full

By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff

Posted Mar 28, 2014 9:36 AM CDT

(Newser) – Exactly 223 years ago, some of the first British convicts sent to Australia made a daring escape from Britain's penal colony in New South Wales. It has become the stuff of legend, but the tale of what happened on a two-month journey of more than 3,000 miles—in an open boat, no less—has contained "a number of inaccuracies, exaggerations and inventions," probably due "to the scarcity of first-hand material," University College London researcher Tim Causer explains. That should no longer be an issue. Though the popular story is based on an edited version of one survivor's account, today, that first-hand account—the only thought to exist in relation to the first convicts deported to Australia in 1788—was released in full for the first time, AFP reports.

The story "is often told with a focus upon the figure of Mary Bryant," Causer notes. To wit, the Australian government presents a bio of Bryant, who was arrested for stealing a cloak and married husband William, also a convict, shortly after getting to the colony. They escaped on March 28, 1791, along with their two children and six others, by stealing the governor's cutter boat. The group paddled Australia's coasts until they landed at the Dutch settlement of Kupang on West Timor. For a time, they tricked their hosts into thinking they were shipwreck survivors, but were shipped back to England when the truth came out; four convicts and the two children died on that part of the trip. The account was likely recorded for survivor James Martin by prison officials upon his return to England, and "it matches up with newspaper accounts and other primary sources," says Causer, who hopes Memorandoms by James Martin "will help to create a more rounded story." (This week saw another big prison-break anniversary: that of the Great Escape.)

The once site of a penal colony in Queensland, Australia, circa in 1876.   (Wikipedia Commons)
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