William Bryant’s Great Escape – 1791

1930s era illustration of the 1791 convict escape led by William Bryant. Source: The World’s News 9 Sep 1931 Page 9.

It is an odd piece of Australian history that the first people to repeat Captain Cook’s voyage up Australia’s east coast were not other intrepid navigators or explorers, but a motley band of prisoners bent on escaping penal servitude.

On 28 March 1791 William Bryant, a fisherman by trade, his wife Mary and two children with seven other convicts stole a six-oar whaleboat and made their way out of Port Jackson.   They then bore north on a 5,000km odyssey following the coastline to the top of Australia, through Torres Strait, and across the Arafura Sea to the Dutch settlement of Kupang on Timor Island.  

In the weeks and months leading to their escape, they had stashed away provisions to see them through their voyage.    Bryant also purchased a couple of muskets, a compass, a quadrant and a chart from the captain of a Dutch ship then in harbour.  He likely paid for these by selling fish on the black market, otherwise meant for the Government store.

Map showing their approximate route from Sydney to Timor. Source: Google Maps.

Their venture was fraught with hazards, especially considering the size of their craft and there was nowhere they could stop for help until they reached the Dutch East Indies.   Many times when they went ashore to collect water or food they were met with varying degrees of resistance by local Aborigines protective of their land.  

One time they were caught in a ferocious storm that blew them far out to sea.   The seas were so rough that Bryant and the others did not think their fragile craft would survive it.   Two of their number were kept busy continuously bailing with buckets as waves crashed over the sides.    After the storm finally abated, it took them several days to return to the mainland.     

They continued north putting ashore for water when they could and supplementing their rations with shellfish collected from reefs and rocky headlands.   Eventually, they rounded the tip of Cape York.    

They crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria in four and a half days reaching East Arnhem land.   Bryant then followed the coastline for several days looking for a place to refill their water casks.   Unable to find anywhere they decided to head out to sea and make directly for Timor.   36 hours later they arrived off the island and then pulled into Kupang.   It was now 5 June.   They had completed their 5,000km voyage in 69 days.    That was no mean feat of seamanship and tenacity.   Unfortunately, things would soon turn against them.

William Bryant and the convicts in the six oar Governor’s cutter which they sailed from Sydney to Kupang. Source: Smith’s Weekly 23 Oct 1937 Page 18

Bryant and the others passed themselves off as shipwrecked sailors to the Dutch authorities, and for a while, they were treated as such.   But then it seems someone blabbed about who they really were and the Governor locked them in gaol.   Shortly after Captain Edwards of HMS Pandora arrived in the settlement having gone in search of the Bounty mutineers.   He and most of his crew had survived the loss of their ship on the Great Barrier Reef and were returning to England.   When they left Kupang they took Bryant and the others with them. 

William Bryant and his son would die in a Batavia gaol.   Three other convicts plus the Bryant’s daughter perished on the voyage back to England.    Mary Bryant and the four remaining prisoners were put on trial.   They could have been sentenced to death or returned to New South Wales for the rest of their lives.   Rather, their story had engendered considerable public sympathy and the judge allowed them to serve out their original sentences in England.   By Nov 1793 Mary Bryant and the four other convicts had all been pardoned and allowed to walk free. 

The long and perilous voyage remains one of the great feats of seamanship in an open boat.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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The Tryall: Australia’s oldest known shipwreck.

Example of a fully rigged ship of the early 17th Century, similar to the Tryall. Source: Sailing Ships by Chatterton, 1909.

Some people might be surprised to read that the oldest shipwreck recorded off Australia dates back to 1622.   That is 148 years before Cook plied his way up the east coast.  Twenty years before Abel Tasman partially circumnavigated Tasmania.   Or just six years after the Dutch navigator Dirk Hartog nailed a pewter plate to a post near Shark Bay warning of a big lump of land in the vicinity.

The Tryall* was a 500-ton East India Company ship built in 1621.   Her maiden voyage was meant to take her to the East Indies to trade.  Captain John Brooke was given the honour of commanding the vessel on this important voyage.

They sailed from Plymouth on 4 September 1621 with about 140 men onboard.   Brooke made his way down the west coast of Africa and pulled into Table Bay.   There he learned that he was to sail across the Indian Ocean below 35 degrees South.   The newly favoured “Brouwer Route” made full use of the “Roaring Forties” which swept around the Southern Ocean cutting months of the passage to Batavia.

Brooke tried to hire a sailing master for this leg of the voyage for neither he nor anyone else on the ship had sailed the south route before.   His recruiting effort came to nothing and the Tryall set sail into the unknown on 19 March.   Six weeks later they were off the West Australian coast.

Map of Western Australia coast. Courtesy Google Maps.

Brooke likely sighted land in the vicinity of Point Cloates mistaking it for Barrow Island about 200kms further north.    He had sailed too far east across the Southern Ocean before veering north, something easily done with the navigation aids of the day.  But it was an error he would never admit he made.

For the next couple of weeks, the Tryall struggled to make progress against fresh northerly winds but when they swung around to the south again they got underway.     Then on the night of 25 May 1622 disaster struck.

The Tryall slammed into submerged rocks to the northwest of the Montebello Islands and quickly began breaking up.   Brooke and a handful of men, including his son, clambered onto a small skiff and escaped.    Another 35 men eventually launched the ship’s longboat and landed on one of the Montebello Islands where they stayed a week before heading north to Batavia.   Ninety-three men lost their lives.

Captain Brooke reached Batavia on 5 July where he wrote a letter to the ship’s owner explaining that he had followed the proscribed route precisely and had struck uncharted rocks thereby absolving himself of any blame in the loss of the ship, its valuable cargo and so many lives.   

Translates to read “Here the English ship Trial was wrecked in June 1622” from copy of Hessel Gerritsz’ 1627 map of the north west coast of Australia. Source: National Library of Australia.

When the longboat finally made it to Batavia, the trader Thomas Bright wrote his own letter to London scathing of Captain Brooke.   Bright blamed the wreck on Brooke’s poor navigation and the fact he had not posted a lookout.   He also claimed that Brooke had abandoned the wreck as quickly as he could in the partially filled skiff leaving the rest of the men to their fate.

Brooke had recorded the wreck site some distance further west than where it had occurred to mask his error in navigation.  For the next three centuries the non-existent rocks caused some confusion and uncertainty among navigators sailing those waters.   It was not until 1936 that the historian Ida Lee established the wreck site was likely to be off the northwest of the Montebello Islands.   Then in 1969 amateur scuba divers found the wreck site where Lee had said it would be.

* Tryall is also seen spelled as Tryal and Trial.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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The Wanderer and a Miraculous Rescue

Schooner Wanderer. Painting by Oswald Brierly From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales, a128927.

Far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a seaman on board a small schooner thought his imagination was getting the better of him.     It was daybreak on 5 February 1850.   His ship, the 140-ton schooner Wanderer was en route from Sydney to San Francisco and still under storm canvas having just survived a powerful storm.  

They had sailed from Sydney three months earlier and were slowly island-hopping across the Pacific.   The ship’s owner, Scottish entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd, was in no great hurry.   He was still licking his wounds after the spectacular failure of his grandiose enterprises centred around Boydtown at Twofold Bay (near present-day Eden on the NSW south coast).   He now hoped to turn his luck around on the booming California goldfields.     

Most recently the Wanderer had departed Papeete in the Society Islands (French Polynesia) bound for Hawaii.  It was on this leg of their voyage that they weathered the cyclonic conditions and performed a miraculous rescue.

Benjamin Boyd portrait. Source: Australian Town and Country Journal 29 Aug 1906 Page 28.

The sailor reported that he thought he had glimpsed something bobbing in the mountainous seas even though they were hundreds of miles from land.   A man was sent aloft with a telescope and after a few minutes he called down that there was a whaleboat in distress several miles to windward.   The Wanderer bore down on the stricken craft and discovered it contained six occupants.     

The seas were still running high and it was not until their third attempt that a line was got across to the boat.   The only words the men on the Wanderer could discern were plaintive cries for water.   Then all six passengers, three men, and three women were hauled across and safely got aboard the schooner, very lucky to be alive.

It turned out the whaleboat belonged to Jose Davis, “a Brazilian man-of-colour”1 who had since resided in Hawaii for the past 17 years.   With his wife and four others, (all South Pacific Islanders) he had set off from Oahu nine days earlier intending to reach Maui.    They were only about 50kms from home when disaster struck.

The whaleboat was caught in a severe storm that raged for days.   The sail was ripped to shreds and they lost their rudder during the tempest which made the whaleboat uncontrollable.   What’s more, the planking had sprung so they were also taking on water.    The boat drifted at the mercy of the wind and waves for nine days and it was ultimately pushed some 600kms south.   They had no drinking water and the only food Davis and his comrades had was a few pumpkins.  

Map of the Pacific Ocean showing where the whaleboat was found.

But Jose was not one to give up hope.   Once the weather abated, he planned to use the women’s dresses to make a new sail and then bear east towards the South American coast using the sun and stars to guide him.  

With the new passengers on board and being cared for, the Wanderer continued north to Hawaii.   The whaleboat sank shortly after it was abandoned.   In time Jose and the others were landed at Maui to be reunited with their astonished and grateful families and friends who had since given them up for dead.

The Wanderer continued on to San Francisco, but Boyd failed to strike it rich on the goldfields and decided to return to Australia.   On the homeward voyage, they stopped at Guadalcanal where he vanished while out hunting.   His body was never found.

1.      Colonial Times, 31 May 1850, p. 4.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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The Douro and its Piratical Captain

A typical trading schooner in the South Seas. Source: Picturesque atlas of Australasia, 1886.

In the 19th Century ship captains were often considered undisputed masters of their domain, especially while they were at sea.   Most, to varying degrees, kept a rein on their power, others ruled their vessels with an iron fist, and a few, like Neil Peter Sorensen, went completely rogue.

In August 1885 a portion of the crew from the schooner Douro arrived in Cooktown with a harrowing story of kidnapping and piracy.   The culprit being their former captain.

The Douro’s first mate Otto Ashe and two other members of the crew claimed that Captain Sorensen was out of control and terrorising communities in the Solomon Islands.  They had grown so concerned that they were prepared to chance being charged with deserting their ship rather than risk being implicated in their captain’s depredations.

Ashe and the others had signed on the Douro at the Portuguese consulate in Sydney in April 1885.   The Douro had previously been named the Albert and had been a British registered vessel.   The ship’s owner said the change of registration had been made to spare it from capture should the Russians go to war with the British, a genuine concern at the time.  In reality, it was more an attempt to place the ship outside the bounds of the British legal system.     Sorensen, no stranger to the South Pacific or operating outside the law, was made captain of the ship.  He had previously served on the Albert but this would be his first time in command.

Map showing Australia and the Solomon Islands.

The Douro sailed from Sydney in late April bound for San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands where they hoped to recruit men to collect beche-de-mere and pearl shell for them.      Sorensen got no takers as the village chiefs remembered him from his visit a year earlier.  He had promised to return the men after his fishing trip, but he never did.   Now, no one wanted to venture out with him.

The Douro stopped at a couple of other islands but only managed to recruit men on the promise they would be gone for four or five months.   This was a lie for Sorensen expected to be away for at least a year and probably longer.   While anchored off Guadalcanal he beat his cook senseless over some perceived minor infraction.  Otto Ashe also claimed that Sorensen continuously bullied and threatened the rest of the crew.   No one was prepared to challenge him, not least because he always went about heavily armed.   But, the treatment of his crew was nothing compared to how he treated the Islanders.

Newspaper coverage at the time.

At Isobel Island he had two chiefs brought out to the schooner.   He only released them when they had six recruits sent onboard in exchange.   Off Wagina island he came across a chief and several of his men out fishing from their canoes.   He welcomed them aboard and then invited the chief to dine with him in his cabin.   Sorensen clapped the chief in irons and went back upstairs with his rifle and threatened to shoot the rest of the Islanders if they did not leave his ship.   Sorensen kept the chief hostage until his people handed over 4,000 beche-de-mer, 24 sea turtles, 1 pig and three “boys,” to be used as unpaid labour.

On one of the Carteret Islands he took his plundering to a new level.   Sorensen kidnapped four girls and brought them on board the schooner for the men’s entertainment.   He went ashore armed to the teeth with a party of men taken from islands earlier and forced the chief to sign over possession of the island to him.   He and his men then went from hut to hut collecting all the weapons they could find.  The haul included an assortment of spears, clubs, and tomahawks, a Snider rifle and two shotguns.   Now that the Islanders were disarmed, he ordered the men to go out and fish the reefs for pearl shell and beche-de-mere to fill his ship’s hold.

A typical South Sea Islands trading schooner circa 1885.

By now the first mate had seen enough.   Fearing that Sorensen would continue his reign of terror through the islands he took the first opportunity to escape his captain’s madness.   On 23 June he, with two other white seamen and seven Solomon Islanders, took off in the schooner’s longboat.    They reported Sorensen’s crimes to the German Consul in New Britain and eventually made their way to Cooktown where they told the Queensland authorities what they had witnessed.

When the Douro sailed into Brisbane in March 1886 it was immediately seized and Sorensen was placed under arrested and charged with assault and robbery.   He was also charged with sodomy but that was later dropped because the principal witness was, “now in a lunatic asylum.”1   Sorensen denied the allegations but he was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison.    It is a sad indictment that the conviction and hefty sentence were unusual in a time when similar depredations in the South Seas went largely unpunished.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

1    Brisbane Courier, 25 Mar 1886, p.6.

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Australia’s First “Ship on Ship” Naval Action

HMAS Sydney (I). Photo Courtesy Australian War Memorial.

In late 1914 HMAS Sydney was accompanying the first convoy of AIF troops leaving Australia to fight in the First World War. However, a few days after the convoy left Albany WA, the Sydney was ordered to investigate the presence of a suspicious vessel near the Cocos Islands.  The ship turned out to be the German Cruiser Emden which had been terrorising Allied shipping across the Indian Ocean since the beginning of the war.

On 9 November 1914 the Sydney found the Emden and immediately went into action.     A few days later Stoker Henry Nielsen wrote a letter to his mother living in Rockhampton, Queensland, telling her of their great victory.   The account below has been taken from his letter which appeared in the Morning Bulletin newspaper on 6 January the following year.

Emden before she was destroyed by HMAS Sydney at Cocos Keeling Islands in Nov 1914.

“Just a line to let you know I am still alive and kicking in spite of the Emden.   I have nothing to write about except our scrap with the Emden.   We got a wireless message from Cocos Islands about seven o’clock on the 9th instant saying that there was a German warship lying there with a collier.   We were about fifty or sixty miles away from there, and we altered course and made for Cocos at full speed.”

“We came up with the Emden about 9.30 am and she let go a shot at us at 11,000 yards.   We let go a ranging shot immediately after, and then both ships went at it hammer and tongs. …  Our shots told far more than theirs as we were only slightly damaged and our shots carried away her bridge, foremast, and three funnels in quick succession. Early in the fight the Emden caught fire and continued to burn throughout.”

“One of their shots wrecked our range-finder and killed the men who were working it.”

Emden at Cocos Keeling Islands viewed from a HMAS Sydney boat dated 9 Nov 1914. Courtesy State Library of NSW, FL541160.

“The action lasted an hour and thirty-six minutes.   The Emden got an awful doing and the captain beached her on South Keeling Island.   She continued to fire for a short time after she was aground, but we soon silenced her. …”

“She was still flying the German flag, and when signalled would not reply so we put another broadside into her and she fired another couple of shots.   However, they did not want any more as they pulled the flag down. …  It was late in the afternoon when the Emden hauled down her flag and we went out to sea and cruised about outside until morning.  … We then went back to the Emden to see what we could do for the wounded.   We were there all the remainder of that day fetching off German wounded, and prisoners. …”

“From mainmast to stern she is just a shell, there being only the deck and hull left, all the rest being burnt out.   Her three funnels are lying over the top of one another.   Her foremast is down and her bridge is blown away.   The starboard side of her deck is full of great holes, and she is torn up everywhere.   There are holes in the side that you could walk through. …”

Postcard commemorating the Sydney’s victory..

“During the action we made the best speed the Sydney ever did.   We got just on thirty knots out of her.   Pretty good going!.   …  When we had finished with the Emden’s wounded we came on to [Colombo, Sri Lanka], arriving here last Sunday.”

Stoker Nielsen survived the war and was discharged from the Navy in 1919.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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