The Fenians were young people, most between 19 and 30 years, who grew up in Ireland at a time of starvation, death and forced evictions – the years of the Great Famine (Great Hunger). Having exhausted all attempts to gain self-government through political means, the Fenians decided to fight for independence.
Some were in the British army (military Fenians) and they recruited others to stage a rising. Their plot was uncovered, they were arrested, sentenced for treason, exiled from Ireland and transported to Western Australia.
After spending months in solitary confinement in English prisons, it was probably a bitter-sweet relief to board the Hougoumont, where despite their sea-sickness, the Fenians shared stories, held concerts, wrote poetry and looked after their companions.
The Fenians also dreamed of escape, and one of the most famous Fenians, John Boyle O’Reilly, managed to escape on an American whaler, the Gazelle, in 1869. Later, in 1876, Fenian supporters in the USA and Ireland, having organised a crowdfunding venture to purchase a whaler, the Catalpa, freed the remaining Fenians from Fremantle Prison.
It’s a big story, so read on…
The original meaning of the term ‘Fenian’ refers to a legendary band of Early Medieval Irish warriors (na Fianna). During the 19th century, the term Fenian described members of a revolutionary Irish separatist movement whose objective was to overthrow British rule in Ireland. The goal for the Fenians in Ireland was inspired by the common people of the American Revolution who rose up and strove for freedom, social justice and the right to vote.
The Fenian movement (its core component being the Irish Republican Brotherhood – IRB) was formed in 1858 in Paris by John Stevens and John O’Mahoney. It flourished in Ireland during the 1860s, fighting for Ireland’s freedom from British rule and the complete separation of Church and state.
After several failed attempts to gain independence through parliamentary means, the Fenians realised they had to defeat the British by alternative means, and so a Rising was planned for March 1867. The failed Rising resulted in the arrest and conviction of both civilian and military Fenians. Civilian Fenians were considered political prisoners while the military men were treated more harshly as traitors and criminals. Convicted Fenians were subsequently transported to the Swan River Colony in Western Australia for imprisonment at Fremantle. Many civilian Fenians received a ‘ticket-of-leave’ or ‘Free Pardon’; however, the only option for freedom for the military Fenians, such as John Boyle O’Reilly, was escape.
The Hougoumont was the ship that transported the convicts and Fenians to the Swan River Colony in Western Australia. It was the last ship to carry convicts to the British penal settlement. The Hougoumont was built of teak in 1852 for Duncan Dunbar, a successful ship owner in Burma. Named after Chateau d’Hougoumont (occupied, fortified and held by the British at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815) the Hougoumont was a three-masted, full rigged Blackwall frigate.
The voyage to Western Australia took 89 days and the Hougoumont arrived in Fremantle with 108 passengers and 280 convicts, including 62 Fenians (45 civilian and 17 military political prisoners). Of the 108 passengers, most were pensioner guards and their families (44 pensioner guards, 18 wives and 25 children). William Cozens was the captain of the Hougoumont, and W. Smith the surgeon. One passenger was a Catholic priest, Father Bernard Delaney, who administered to both the Fenians and the convicts.
One of the Fenians, Denis Cashman, wrote a detailed diary of the journey on the Hougoumont:
“We (the Fenians) had a separate compartment in the convict portion of the ship. We were glad of this, as the majority of the convicts were the greatest ruffians, and the most notorious robbers in England… A good many of them had a great respect for our men and endeavoured to show it by several acts of good nature, and being most respectful in their deportment.”
Two others, John Flood, a journalist and John Boyle O’Reilly, a poet, published seven editions of a ‘newspaper’ on board the Hougoumont to keep up the spirits of the Fenians on board. They called it The Wild Goose and the original copy is now held in the Mitchell Library, New South Wales, Australia. Another Fenian, Denis Cashman, wrote a diary during the voyage and a copy of this work is held in the Battye Library, Perth, Western Australia.
John Boyle O’Reilly
One of the military Fenians transported on the Hougoumont was John Boyle O’Reilly, a handsome charismatic 22 year old Irish poet. His crime was inciting his fellow Irishmen and women to imagine a Republic. He was arrested on 14 February 1866, court-martialed and sentenced to death on 9 July 1866. This sentence was later commuted to 20 years penal servitude. John was held in English prisons, from which he attempted to escape three times, before being transported to Western Australia in 1867.
On board the Hougoumont, John and fellow prisoner John Flood hand wrote and published a newspaper, ‘The Wild Goose’, which John read aloud each Saturday evening.
In Fremantle, authorities were concerned about his influence on the other Fenians and transferred him to Dardanup, near Bunbury, to assist the Warder as a messenger for the road building gang. Here, he observed and later wrote about Aboriginal culture in this area, and he also protested loudly when a majestic tuart tree (Eucalyptus gomphocephala) was to be cut down. In this particular situation, his influence was such that the tree was left standing and the road re-routed.
With the help of a Bunbury priest, Father Patrick McCabe and local Irish settlers, John escaped, hid in the bush near Australind and boarded the whaling ship Gazelle.
Arriving in America, John became a journalist and then editor of the Boston Pilot. Never forgetting his companions, he supported a plot involving a rich investor, a whaling ship and a crowd funding campaign to bust the remaining military Fenians out of the Convict Establishment in Fremantle.
John became a successful poet, journalist and public speaker. He remained an advocate for the disadvantaged and marginalised including African Americans, Native Americans and Jewish people.
The Catalpa Escape
In 1874 a daring expedition to rescue the remaining military Fenians from Western Australia was hatched in the USA by John Devoy, John Boyle O’Reilly and others. Funding was collected from Irish people all over the world to buy a 27-metre whaling ship, the Catalpa. Captain George Anthony agreed to sail this ship to Western Australia, under the guise of catching whales, and only three people aboard knew her real mission… to rescue six Fenians from the Convict Establishment (Fremantle Prison).
Concurrently, John Breslin, a fearless American Fenian, arrived in Fremantle. Posing as James Collins, an American millionaire looking for investment opportunities, he stayed at the Emerald Isle Hotel in High Street (now the Orient Hotel). Breslin visited the Convict Establishment and conveyed a message to the Fenians that a rescue was at hand. Another Irish Fenian, Thomas Desmond, worked with John on the plot.
The escape was planned for the day of the Perth Regatta boat race – Easter Monday 1876 – when the Governor and officials were in Perth to watch the race. The Fenian prisoners, who were working outside the Prison gates, escaped by horse and carriage with Breslin and Desmond.
Near Rockingham, about 20 miles south of Fremantle, Captain Anthony was waiting with his crew in a small whaling boat. The Catalpa was far out at sea in international waters and they needed to row for hours to reach the whaler.
The men rowed desperately as the wind rose —the beginnings of a gale. Darkness fell and waves crashed down on the overloaded boat. Captain Anthony confidently gave orders to bail but even he doubted that they would make it through that night.
By morning, the Georgette, a coastal steamer sent by the British authorities to intercept the Fenians, appeared and headed straight for the Catalpa. By then the steamer was running low on fuel and had to return to shore. Captain Anthony in the whaling boat saw his chance and made a dash for the Catalpa. All in the rowboat climbed on board and Captain Anthony prepared the Catalpa to head for the open sea.
Overnight the wind died.
The next day,the Georgette, armed with a 12-pound cannon, returned and pulled alongside the Catalpa. The Fenians, seeing the armed militia, grabbed rifles and revolvers and prepared for battle.
The Georgette fired a shot across Catalpa’s bow and called:
“You have escaped prisoners aboard that ship.”
“You’re mistaken,” Captain Anthony replied, “There are no prisoners aboard this ship. They are all free men.”
The commander of the Georgette gave Captain Anthony an ultimatum – surrender the Fenians or the next cannon shot would be aimed directly at his ship. Captain Anthony pointed to the Stars and Stripes:
“This ship is sailing under the American flag, and she is on the high seas. If you fire on me, I warn you that you are firing on the American flag.”
Suddenly, the wind picked up and the Catalpa headed west just missing the Georgette. The steamer followed for an hour until finally the commander, fearful of sparking an international incident, turned back towards Fremantle. The Fenians were free!
The Catalpa arrived in New York four months later, to a cheering crowd of thousands who met the ship for a Fenian procession up Broadway. John Devoy, John Breslin and Captain George Anthony were hailed as heroes and news of the Fremantle Six prison break quickly spread around the world.