The Caledonia’s perilous last voyage

A schooner of the early 1800s. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

On a stormy December night in 1831, eleven desperate convicts seized a small ship at Moreton Bay and forced its captain to take them to a South Pacific Island.   But as the prisoners turned pirates climbed aboard the vessel, little could they have imagined that most of them were escaping one reign of terror for another far worse.  Three of them would soon be dead.   Another would be abandoned to his fate on an inhospitable island and others would flee in fear for their lives at the earliest opportunity.   What the convicts didn’t know when they made their bid for freedom was that their leader was a tyrant far worse than any they had encountered in the penal system.

William Evans was unique among his fellow convicts, for he had come to New South Wales a free man – a seaman onboard the Australia.   He had been sent to the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement for stealing from the ship’s captain.    Though his crime was not violent, he would later prove to be a murderous psychopath.   Now, after serving four of his seven-year sentence, a rare opportunity to escape his living hell was within his grasp.  Anchored in the bay was the small trading schooner Caledonia.

Sydney Herald, 20 Feb 1832, p. 3.

Captain George Browning had brought the Caledonia from Sydney to Moreton Bay to collect a whaleboat before continuing north to salvage the wrecked ship America.   However, he had to wait at anchor near the pilot station for it to be brought downriver from the main penal settlement.  

That night as a thunderstorm raged overhead, Evans and a couple of others tunnelled under the pilothouse wall, stole the keys to the boat shed and armed themselves with muskets and pistols.   Then they took the pilot boat out to the Caledonia and overwhelmed the crew before they had fully awoken.    Everyone except the captain was forced into the boat to return to shore as the schooner put to sea.   Browning was needed to navigate the ship across the 3,000 kms of open ocean to reach their destination, Rotuma Island.   By dawn they were heading out to sea, as the crew returned to shore to raise the alarm.

Newspaper illustration of Evans and others throwing convict over the side of the Caledonia. The Argus, circa 1950s

After a week at sea, tensions emerged among the convicts.   The common purpose that had brought the men together to make their escape was shattered.   One night William Evans with two of his most trusted colleagues gathered outside the crew’s cabin where the rest of the men slept and ordered one of them to come on deck.   As he emerged, Evans shot him point-blank in the head.   He then ordered three others to come out.   Two of them were also killed but the third was spared after he pleaded for his life.   It turned out that they had been planning to seize the ship and do away with Evans, but Evans got in first.   

About a week later the Caledonia stopped at New Caledonia for water.  Evans’ right-hand man, Hugh Hastings was sent out with a couple of others to fill the water barrels.   But, while they were away the schooner was visited by a large number of Islanders.   They left only after shots were fired over their heads.   Fearing they might return that night, Evans had the schooner taken out to sea.    Hastings thought he had been abandoned.  In a fit of rage, he swore to kill Evans and everyone else on the Caledonia for their treachery.   They spent an uncomfortable night in the boat, but in the morning the ship returned for them.   When Evans learned of Hastings’ threats, he told his mate he could stay on the island and take his chances with the hostile natives, or he would be shot.   Hastings remained on the island when the Caledonia sailed away.

They finally reached the tiny island of Rotuma where it was said whaling vessels periodically stopped for water and fresh supplies.   Evans passed themselves off as being on a trading voyage through the islands, however, one of the convicts bragged that they had escaped from Moreton Bay.   When Evans found out he was furious and vowed to kill the man but he took off before Evans got his chance.   It was no longer safe to stay on Rotuma so Evans order Browning to set sail.

Likely route taken by the Caledonia from Moreton Bay to Savai’i Island

They eventually made it to Savai’i Island in Samoa.    Testifying to Evans’ reign of terror, three more of the convicts fled taking with them three women they had kidnapped from Rotuma, as soon as they arrived.  

When Evans was told that whaling ships regularly called in for supplies, he decided to scuttle the Caledonia and await the next ship.   Browning finally escaped Evans when a local chief took a liking to him.   When, a fortnight later, the whaler Oldham dropped anchor, Browning told its captain what Evans had done and they soon detained the man.   But while at sea, Evans jumped overboard still in chains preferring to drown himself than face the hangman in Sydney.  The other convicts evaded capture and remained on Savai’i.   

Browning, much to everyone’s surprise, made it back to Sydney to tell his amazing story.

The full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters available through Amazon.

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

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