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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