Tag Archives: Fremantle

John Boyle O’Reilly: Fenian, Convict, Poet

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John Boyle O’Reilly Information Point, Leschenault Conservation Park, near Bunbury (Image ©thesilvervoice)

As Ireland commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the Fenian Rising of March 1867, it is fitting to note that thousands of miles away in Western Australia on this coming weekend of March 25th and 26th 2017, the John Boyle O’Reilly Association of Western Australia will once again pay homage to John Boyle O’Reilly, Irishman, Fenian, Poet, Journalist, Escaped Convict.

Although he was not active in the March 1867 Rising, it was Boyle O’Reilly’s Fenian membership that brought him to Australia as a convict in the first place. He was here for a relatively short time – from January 1868 to February 1869 – but nevertheless he is a hero in these parts and is remembered on an annual basis. The primary aims of the Association are to promote the life and literary works of John Boyle O’Reilly as well as his historical significance to Western Australia and the Bunbury area in particular.

I first encountered the John Boyle O’Reilly Association of Western Australia quite by chance when visiting the Leschenault Peninsula in Western Australia in 2014 with my friend Leith, who had wanted to show me where John Boyle O’Reilly ‘hung out’ while awaiting his escape from the penal colony. We arrived to discover that there was already a sizeable crowd there being addressed by various dignitaries. They had gathered at the John Boyle O ‘Reilly Memorial site to regale the gathered crowd with quotes and facts from his life and to celebrate his life and the work of the local community in raising awareness of their convict poet.

But who was John Boyle O’Reilly and why is he so revered  in Australia?

“The world is large, when its weary leagues two loving hearts divide;

But the world is small, when your enemy is loose on the other side”

These words were spoken on June 28 1963, by the United States President John F. Kennedy in his address to the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament). He was quoting from the extensive work of poet, author, journalist and Fenian, John Boyle O’Reilly, who in all likelihood was as little known in Ireland then as now, but not as widely known as he ought to be. Historians and history buffs among us would have been aware of him and of his Fenian Brotherhood activities; others may have vaguely recalled the name from some long forgotten school history book. For a considerable number of us however, the name meant and still means very little.

My first (conscious) encounter with Boyle O’Reilly happened in Fremantle Prison in Western Australia in 2012. Fremantle Prison was the ‘Establishment’ in which convicts transported from Britain to the Colony of Western Australia were held.

Fremantle Prison. Housed convicts transported between 1850 and 1868)

Fremantle Prison (The Establishment) Housed convicts transported to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868 (Image c.thesilvervoice)

Now a World Heritage listed  building, the ‘Establishment’ had at the time of my visit an exhibition that included a replica death mask of John Boyle O’Reilly that had been donated by the National Museum of Ireland.

Deathmask of John Boyle O'Reilly . A replica presented by the National Museum of Ireland

Deathmask of John Boyle O’Reilly. A replica presented by the National Museum of Ireland

Born in 1844 at Dowth Castle in County Meath, John Boyle O’Reilly began a career as a journalist at the age of 15. He moved to England for a while as an apprentice and on his return to Dublin in 1863 he signed up with the 10th Hussars. Soon afterwards he became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians, who were rebelling against British rule. He actively recruited considerable numbers of new members from within his own regiment. When he was discovered, he was arrested. In June 1866 he was court martialled and on July 9, 1866 he was sentenced to death for his seditious activities. That sentence was immediately commuted to life imprisonment and subsequently to 20 years penal servitude. With other Fenian prisoners he was transferred to an English prison.

Boyle O'Reilly after his arrest.(Image Public Domain)

Boyle O’Reilly after his arrest.(Image Public Domain)

It was then decided that Fenian prisoners would be transported to Western Australia, and so in 1867, the Hougoumont left England with 62 Fenians among a consignment of 280 convicts on board. This historic voyage was to be the very last one transporting convicts to the penal Colonies of Australia.

During their time on the Hougoumont Boyle O’Reilly and others produced seven editions of a newspaper entitled ‘The Wild Goose’, containing poems, editorials and stories. Boyle O’Reilly later wrote “We published seven weekly numbers of it. Amid the dim glare of the lamp,the men at night would group strangely on extemporized seats. The yellow light fell down on the dark forms, throwing a ghastly glare on the pale faces of the men . .”

The Hougoumont arrived at Fremantle on January 9 1868 after a voyage lasting 89 days. Some weeks later, O’Reilly, prisoner number 9843, was assigned to works on the new road linking Bunbury and Vasse. He soon became an assistant to the head warder, Henry Woodman and he struck up a good friendship with the local Catholic priest, Fr.Patrick McCabe (a native of County Cavan) who offered to help him escape.

In the meantime, Boyle O’Reilly became romantically involved with Woodman’s daughter Jessie who became pregnant. The relationship ended unhappily and resulted in Boyle O’Reilly’s failed suicide attempt in December 1868, and subsequent depression. It was said that ”Boyle, poor Boyle, cried and cried in desperation for help.”  Jessie married a local man in March 1869, probably to preserve her reputation. The fact of her pregnancy has only been confirmed in a letter discovered in San Franscisco in recent years, a letter written in May 1870 by John Boyle O Reilly in which he writes:

“If Cashman, or any of them knows anything about Miss Woodman I wish they would write it or tell you what it is . Was the child born? That’s the principal thing I want to know‘”

Fr. McCabe made arrangements with the captain of the Vigilant, a visiting whaling ship, to take Boyle O’Reilly on board and spirit him away from the Penal Colony. So on a February night in 1869, Boyle O’Reilly slipped away from the convict camp near Bunbury and made his way on foot to a pre-arranged meeting place with two others. From there they rode northwards for an hour and, picking up a rowing boat, they made their way  out of the inlet and traveled northwards for about 12 miles. Here Boyle O’Reilly hid in the dunes, waiting for the Vigilant to leave port. When they spotted her, they rowed out to meet her but were devastated when the Vigilant sailed on, the captain apparently having reneged on the agreement he had made with Fr. McCabe. They had to return to shore and hide again while arrangements were made with another ship. After two weeks, they succeeded in making a deal with the captain of the American whaler Gazelle. O’Reilly and his friends met the Gazelle three miles out to sea on March 2 1869 and  made good their escape. Boyle O’Reilly arrived in Philadelphia on November 23, 1869, one of the very few convicts ever to have escaped from the Western Australian penitentiary.

He settled in Boston and was employed by The Pilot newspaper. He married in 1872, and he and his wife Mary (Murphy) had four daughters. Boyle O’Reilly worked tirelessly lecturing and writing on the Irish question. He became influential and highly respected in the Irish Boston community. Over the next number of years he published, among other works, several popular books of poetry and a novel, Moondyne, based on his life  as a convict.

His connection with Western Australia was not lost however as he was instrumental in planning the escape of 6 more Fenians in 1876. (This will be the subject of my next post).

On August 9 189o he was found dead, apparently having succumbed to an accidental overdose of sedative. He was only 46 years of age.

But his memory lives on in Western Australia where a dedicated band of admirers and scholars celebrate his life and his work, as they will do again this weekend. At the time of our visit in 2014, the Irish Ambassador Mr Noel White was in attendance together with the Irish Consul in Western Australia, Mr Marty Kavanagh.

The Irish Ambassador, The Irish Consul to WA , Ambassador’s son, and the author.

A memorial was unveiled to the late Dr Manea who did extraordinary work to raise awareness and appreciation of John Boyle O’Reilly in the area.

Memorial plaque in honour of Dr Manea. ‘This dreamer will live on forever’

Other West Australians dedicated to the cause are Fred Rea, Tony Costa and Peter Murphy who continue to promote all things John Boyle O’Reilly through their daily work.  It would make you very proud to be Irish when you witness the passion these people and others in the area  have for John Boyle O Reilly, their convict poet.

The Memorial to John Boyle O ‘Reilly at Leschenault

Image ©thesilvervoice

The inscription on the memorial reads:

 In Proud Memory of
FENIAN JOHN BOYLE O’REILLY

Humanitarian, author, poet and lecturer.
Born Ireland 28th June 1844.
Died U.S.A 10th August 1890.
Absconded from a convict
road party, Cokelup Swamp
18th February 1869
and escaped from this area
on the whaling ship Gazelle
3rd March 1869.
Also dedicated to all convicts
who built , sweated and toiled
in this district.

Then here’s to brave John Boyle O’Reilly
who first blazed a trail over the sea
By escaping from Bunbury to Boston
An vowing his comrades to be free

                                                     Catalpa Ballad

Erected by the South West Irish Club and local community

Unveiled by Ambassador Designate to Ireland
Mr Brian Burke, 13th March, 1988.

I am indebted to Ian Kenneally, author of ‘From the Earth a Cry’, a biography of John Boyle O’Reilly for the ‘heads up’ on the discovery of the letter confirming that Jessie was indeed expecting Boyle O’Reilly’s child. His book is an excellent read and is highly recommended.

BE1A17B0-C6D1-4CB7-AF32-8719D6B44E5B-10233-0000082781661F6F

 

Published works of John Boyle O’Reilly

 

References

Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaelogical Society, 1969, volume LXXIV

Convict Ship Newspaper, The Wild Goose, Re-discovered by  Walter McGrath quoted

 J. J. Roche, Life, Poems and Speeches of John Boyle O’Reilly, page 68

http://trove.nla.gov.au

http://www.fremantleprison.com.au

http://www.iankenneally.com/

https://jboreilly.org.au

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Filed under Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish American, Irish Australian, Irish Convicts, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Transportation

C. Y. O’Connor, a tragic genius

C.Y.O'Connor statue at entrance to Fremantle Port

C.Y.O’Connor statue at entrance to Fremantle Port

At the entrance to Fremantle Harbour, south of Perth, is an imposing statue some 12 feet high, of a man who changed the face of Western Australia during a period of ten years or so at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. This is Charles Yelverton O’Connor, Engineer-in-Chief in the colony from 1891 to 1902. At the base of the statue are plaques depicting his most notable engineering achievements – Fremantle Harbour, the Darling Scarp Railway Tunnel, and the Mundaring Weir, the starting point for the world-renowned Goldfields water supply.

Adjacent to the statue is a further tribute from his Engineering peers and the Port Authority.

Revered for his genius, he is commemorated, respected and admired particularly in Western Australia, yet is practically unknown in his native Ireland, his home for 21 years, and a land that remained close to his heart for all of his life.

Gravelmount,Co Meath. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Gravelmount, Co Meath. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Born on January 11, 1843 at Gravelmount House, Castletown, County Meath, Charles Yelverton O’Connor was named after his maternal grandfather Charles O’Keefe, and his grandmother’s family, the Yelvertons of Cork and Tipperary. His father John farmed around Castletown where the family enjoyed country living in  their beautifully appointed three storey residence. John, working both as a magistrate and a farmer, saw the deprivations brought about by the Famine in his locality. It is said locally that he mortgaged all he had to buy grain and food for his deprived and hungry neighbours. He seems to have run out of money as a result of his benevolence, so in 1850 he moved to a small house in County Waterford. Charles was now aged 6 but it is understood that he, together with his younger sister, stayed in Meath with an aunt, John’s sister, Mrs Martha Garnett of Summerseat, near Clonee. When Charles was older he rejoined his family in Waterford where, according to his biographer Merab Tauman, he attended Bishop Foy’s School in Catherine Street. This is disputed in a more recent work by A.G.Evans who says that he was probably educated at the Waterford Academy. In any event, at the age of 17 Charles expressed an interest in civil engineering and was articled to the engineer John Chaloner Smith who was at that time building railways in Ireland. Between 1859  and 1864, Charles was involved in the construction of various rail links, including the Nenagh Extension, and was Assistant Engineer in charge of the construction of several weirs on the River Bann in the North of Ireland. In 1898 he was to write a letter in which he stated it was here on the Bann that he had ”exceptional opportunity of realising the conditions and forces which had to be dealt with in flood time”

On Christmas Eve 1864, C.Y. O’Connor emigrated to New Zealand where immigration and gold discoveries created a demand for big engineering projects. For the next several years C.Y. as he was known, was involved in identification of routes, constructing roads, bridges and railway lines. He created routes up over steep mountains, across raging rivers and deep gorges ,opening up access to the recently discovered goldfields. One of his first projects was the Otira Gorge section of the road to the West Coast goldfields. He was also responsible for several harbour improvements on the rugged west coast, facilitating  increasing coal and timber exports from New Zealand. During some twenty-five years in New Zealand he acquired a reputation as a brilliant engineer who understood the wild and challenging terrain. He also enhanced his reputation as an imaginative organiser and leader. Meanwhile, in 1847, C.Y. married Susan Laetitia Ness from Christchurch and together they had eight children, one of whom, a son, died tragically following a scalding accident in their family home. By 1883 C.Y. had become under-secretary for public works, a position he held until 1890 when he was apparently demoted in a reorganization, becoming marine engineer for all of New Zealand. Disgruntled by this, he began to look elsewhere for employment.

C.Y and Susan OConnor  in 1865

C.Y and Susan in 1865 (State Library of Western Australia)

In 1891 C.Y. O’Connor was invited by John Forrest the first Premier of Western Australia to become Engineer in Chief  for the colony and General Manager of government railways. Western Australia occupies about 1/3rd of the entire vast Australian Continent and at this time had a population of about 50,000. Forrest himself had been an explorer and surveyor. He had a grand vision for the emerging colony with its vast mineral resources,that included a major rail terminus in Perth,the development of Fremantle as the port-of-call for all overseas mail and passenger services and provision of water supplies and essential services to the emerging  agricultural communities. C.Y O ‘Connor was the man who would make this vision a reality.

At Fremantle, up to then served only by a long timber jetty, O’Connor carried out meticulous research and calculations and decided that the stone bar obstruction at the mouth of the Swan River could be removed and a large sheltered deep water harbour could be created within budget. The harbour dredging began in 1892; the stone barrier was blasted, land was reclaimed to allow for the quays and warehousing. On May 4,1897 the harbour was officially opened with  the SS Sultan, a 2,063 ton steamer steaming into port, marking the beginning of a new era in Western Australia. On July 23rd, 1897 the Prince of Wales, on behalf of Queen Victoria invested O’Connor with the insignia of the order of Companion of St.Michael and St.George, principally in recognition of his outstanding Fremantle Harbour construction project. Since these early days the harbour has seen some changes and has been extended but the basic structure as designed by C.Y. O’Connor remains largely unaltered to this day.

When ‘The Chief’ as he became known, took over as Engineer for the state and General Manager of Government Railways, less than 200 miles of rail was in public ownership and it was operating at a loss. Gold was being discovered in the interior and there was a great need to deliver people and all their needs to remote areas. During the five and half years that he had charge of the railways he oversaw the construction of new lines, standardized and upgraded existing ones, invested in new rolling stock, restructured the maintenance and repair depots and returned the railway to profit. It was while working at the rail maintenance sheds that he became aware of the tough working conditions and poor pay of the men here. While in New Zealand he had also been known for his concern for workers and his leadership abilities. It was said that he was patient and encouraging of new men starting out on their careers, but that while compassionate and understanding he was rigorous in his standards. One of the new young men he appointed as assistant surveyor in Western Australia in 1893 was W.H.Shields, a fellow countryman, who was tasked with identifying water availability (needed for steam locomotives) along the planned railway routes to the parched interior. The discovery of gold in particular at Coolgardie in 1892 and Kalgoorlie in 1893 led to an unprecedented influx of prospectors to these dry arid regions. At this time water was more precious than gold in the goldfields, with thousands of miners often being rationed to a small amount each day, for which they had to pay huge sums of money. Water for washing was simply not available.The problem for The Chief was to supply water to these areas that was fit for human consumption and keep the steam train infrastructure open and performing at full capacity.

C.Y came up with a brilliant and radical plan to supply water to the goldfields. His idea was to dam the River Helena at Mundaring near Perth, lift the water 390 metres over the Darling Range, and pump 5 million gallons a day overground for 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) to the goldfields. By laying the pipe along the railway line and overground, costs could be kept to a minimum and any problems such as leaks could be dealt with rapidly. His spectacular plan was met with disdain and disbelief. Mine owners and local representatives in the goldfields joined with state level politicians in heaping scorn on the plan. Most people thought it sheer madness as it would be the longest pipeline in the world and in any event, the gold might run out and there would be no need of a permanent water supply. Some newspapers were particularly scornful of the proposed cost of 2 million pounds as well as the madness of the scheme, and of  O’Connor himself. However, the meticulous O’Connor discussed and shared his plans with his engineer peers in England who commended it. His own engineering credentials and the political prowess of Forrest obtained international investment funds and work commenced. In 1898 a railway line was completed connecting the main Eastern Railway line to the Mundaring Weir site on the Helena River. The dam was built in an age without modern machinery, using the strength of hundreds of men with wheelbarrows and pickaxes, who dug down some 30 metres to create the weir.

John Forrest departed Western Australian politics and became Defence Minister in the federal government. With a change of government in Western Australia, politicians continued to attack  O’Connor’s scheme in Parliament at every stage of construction and with increasing hostility. In effect, he became a political football. Enquiries and Select Committees were set up about the caulking or joining of the pipes, whether or not it should be done by hand or by machine, by public workers or private sub contractors. O’Connor – fastidious, meticulous and cost conscious –  a sensitive man and a man of honour was deeply troubled by the endless criticism. Newspapers were suggesting that the dam would collapse and inundate all of Perth. The Western Australian Sunday Times was particularly virulent and suggested that he was lining his own pockets from the scheme. In a very nasty article about him in the Sunday Times on February 9, 1902 it was written – ” ..and apart from any  distinct charge of corruption this man has exhibited such gross blundering or something worse, in his management of great public works it is no exaggeration to say that he has robbed the taxpayer of this state of many millions of money…This crocodile imposter has been backed up in all his reckless extravagant juggling with public funds, in all his nefarious machinations behind the scenes by the kindred-souled editor of The West Australian.”

On January 22 1903, just  five years after work commenced, Pumping Station Number 1 at the Mundaring Weir on the newly created Lake Helena was started up and, with the help of 7 further pumping stations along the route, two days later fresh water flowed into the reservoir at Kalgoorlie. O’Connor’s brilliant plan had worked and not only provided water for the mines and towns along the route of the pipeline and for the steam locomotives that hauled goods and supplies to the area, but also met the needs of a generation of farmers, the pioneers of a new ‘wheat belt’ between the west coast and the eastern goldfields. O’Connor had estimated a cost of 2.5 million pounds for the project and the scheme was delivered at a cost of 2.6 million.  The pipeline is still in use to this day, and is one of the great heritage projects of the entire continent.

Missing from the grand opening however was the man himself, for 10 months earlier on March 10,1902 O’Connor penned the following note:

”The position has become impossible

Anxious important work to do and three commissions of enquiry to attend to

We may not have done as well as possible in the past but we will necessarily be too hampered to do well in the  imminent future

I feel that my brain is suffering and I am in great fear of what effect all this worry will have on me – I have lost control of my thoughts

The Coolgardie scheme is all right and I could finish it if I got a chance and protection from misinterpretation but there’s no hope for that now and it is better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do who will be untrammeled  by prior responsibility

10/3/02

put the wingwalls to Helena Weir at once”

He then rode his horse out  to Robb Jetty in Fremantle and there rode into the sea and shot himself.

A subsequent government enquiry into the scheme exonerated him from any wrongdoing and found no basis whatsoever for political or press accusations of corruption or misdemeanour.  When his will was published it showed that he had not enriched himself with his brilliant schemes – It showed assets of 298 pounds,which included two horses and a  cow valued at 47 pounds, books, jewellery and furniture valued at 215 pounds and salary due to him of 36 pounds. He had liabilities of 189 pounds mostly to merchants for produce and coal.

Charles Yelverton O’Connor is buried in Fremantle Cemetery under a fine Celtic Cross. Those who knew him spoke of a character who was subtle and often aloof, but who was deeply considerate of others, who was fun-loving and witty, gentle and amiable. According to his daughter Kate, ”he was devoted to Ireland and carried Ireland with him everywhere and he was acutely sensitive to the unhappy state of Ireland and the distress of many of his countrymen.” She said he helped many a young Irish lad start a new life in the colonies and always had Irish boys from farms in Ireland to look after his horses, and they lived-in, as part of the family.

The grave of Charles Yelverton O'Connor, proud Irishman

The grave of Charles Yelverton O’Connor, proud Irishman

A genial, generous giant of a man, sometimes difficult, but  whose legacies of the Goldfields Water Supply and Fremantle Harbour in particular stand testament to his brilliance.

One wonders what other ingenious schemes C.Y. O’Connor might have designed had he not been hounded and libeled by press and politicians alike. And isn’t it a shame that the Irish man who conceived and largely implemented one of the world’s greatest engineering projects is relatively unknown in Ireland?

References/Further reading

There are some excellent photographs of the construction of the Pipeline at the website of the National Trust of Australia, Education and Learning site at http://www.valuingheritage.com.au/learningfederation/the_pipes.html
 
The Chief C.Y. O’Connor (1978) Tauman, Mereb, University of Western Australia Press
C.Y. O’Connor : his life and legacy. (2001) Evans, A.G., University of Western Australia Press.
Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand accessed at tp://www.teara.govt.nz
The Australian Dictionary of Biography accessed at http://adb.anu.edu.au/
National  Trust of Australia
National Library of Australia
Trove Newspaper Archive accessed at http://trove.nla.gov.au
State Library of Western Australia
 
 
 

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Australian, Irish Diaspora, Irish diaspora in Australia, My Travels

To Australia,with hope – March 1841

On March 28th 1841, brothers Henry and Robert de Burgh, aged 24 and 18 respectively, sons of Thomas de Burgh, Dean of Cloyne, Oldtown, County Kildare set sail for the Swan River Colony in Western Australia. Although well-educated, their father had not been able to set them up in business, so they decided to try their luck in the new colony where land was freely available. With the help of their mother who had independent means, they purchased  equipment and goods to enable them to begin farming in the new world.

Taking a mortgage on the brig the ‘James Matthews’, they filled the cargo hold with all manner of  goods that could be sold on arrival in Fremantle on the Western Coast of Australia. Their cargo included 7,000 slates as well as farming implements. They departed from London – on board were three passengers, including the 2 de Burgh brothers, plus a crew of fifteen.

The ‘James Matthews’ under sail. Image Museum of Western Australia

During the voyage, Henry kept a journal, noting that on April 13th they were off Lisbon, Portugal. On the 19th they crossed the tropic of Cancer and launched a boat in pursuit of a turtle, instead of which they captured many Portuguese Men of  War! By April 22nd, nearing the Cape Verde Islands off the West Coast of Africa, they landed on Saint Nicholas Island to meet the natives. Sailing on southwards they met with vessels sailing north back to England and sent letters to family members. On May 8th they passed under the bows of the ‘Ellen’ laden with emigrants for Adelaide…In the evening of the same day we came close under the ‘Christina’ to the same port and Robert and I accompanied the captain on board to supper”

Having stopped in Cape Town for 7 days, they set off across the Indian Ocean arriving safely off the coast of Western Australia on July 20th. The voyage from London had taken 3 months and 23 days. (See previous post To Australia, with love – modern-day journey by air takes 33 hours!) Some on board landed on Garden Island and caught some fish. They then  anchored in nearby Cockburn’s Sound and the Fremantle Harbour Master brought them in to Owen’s Anchorage where everyone was busy packing up to leave ship. Owing to a strong breeze they were unable to put away the cargo boats, so they remained on board until conditions improved. However, the breeze became a violent storm and the ship was thrown up on the rocks and sank on July 22 1841. Fortunately all hands, with one exception, were taken to safety.

Henry and Robert de Burgh went on to become successful farmers. Henry had to  return to Kildare on the death of his father in 1845. Robert stayed on and eventually bought a substantial property at Cowalla on the Moore River where he lived with his wife and  children. Sadly in 1865 their three youngest children, aged 7, 5 and 3 years died of diphtheria within 3 days of each other – that they were so far from medical help may have been a factor in the loss of the children. The family then bought an estate of several hundred acres at oCaversham in the Swan Valley, an area renowned today for its many wineries and vineyards. Active in public life until his health failed, Robert  died in 1884 at the age of 62. Robert de Burgh’s grandson,Walter de Burgh, still owns land and lives nearby. The earlier holding at Cowalla remained in the  family until 1972  and part of it that contained the family home has now been classified by the National Trust.

The story of these migrants may have ended there but for the fact that in July 1973, 132 years  to the very day that she was wrecked, divers discovered the wreck of the ‘James Matthews’, lying in 2 to 3 metres of water and covered in sand. Over several seasons archaeologists from the Western Australia Maritime Museum recovered a large number of artifacts. Items of cargo loaded in London for the use of settlers  were brought to the surface – thousands of stone roofing slates, glass window panes, heavy door hinges, carpenters tools, stoneware, clay pipes, bottles of wine, cooking pots and a chess set carved by Henry de Burgh during the voyage. After rescuing some 3500 artefacts the hull was once again filled with sand to protect it from the elements.

Artifacts recovered from wreck of the ‘James Matthews’, including chess pieces carved on the voyage. On display at the Shipwrecks Gallery,  Fremantle,Western Australia.

Clay pipes, bottles,hinges recovered from the James Matthews

Some of the many thousands of slates recovered from the wreck – the majority were given to the National Trust for use in conservation of old buildings

When the wreck was first discovered, not much was known about the ‘James Matthews’. However, Lloyds Register of Shipping in London showed that the ship had an earlier ‘life’ as she had been seized either as a pirate or slaver or in wartime. The Board of Trade transcripts for Dominica in 1837 stated as follows:

… Prixe to H.H brig Griffon No 6 of 1837. Brought into this port for a breach of the Treaty for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Built in France around 1800 and originally known as the Voltigeur, she was purchased by a ruthless slave trader Don Francisco Felix de Souza who  converted her into a slave runner and renamed her the Don Francisco. She was captured near Dominica in 1836 with 439 West African slaves on board. It was the custom to put captured slave ships beyond use by setting them ablaze or breaking  them up . The Don Francisco however avoided this fate and was ultimately resold and renamed the ‘James Matthews.’

The real archaeological value of the brig ‘James Matthews’, may rest in its earlier history as a slave ship – for it is the only slave ship known to still exist! It is hoped that one day the entire  hull may be excavated and raised to the surface. If this happens and an exhibition is mounted, it would be the first of its kind of a slave ship anywhere in the world.

The Batavia Exhibit

And who better to undertake this work than the excellent Western Australia Maritime Museum? Visitors to the Fremantle Maritime Museum, south of Perth in Western Australia  are astounded by the Batavia exhibit – a shipwreck from 1629. Lost on her maiden voyage, a huge part of her is on display at the Museum.

A similar breathtaking exhibit of the ‘James Matthews’ slave ship would indeed be a wonderful and unique attraction.

References:

The last Voyage of the James Matthews , W.J DeBurgh and Graeme Henderson, Museum of Western Australia

Museum of Western Australia, Maritime Archaeology

http://history.knoji.com/shipwrecks-of-tragedy-the-story-of-the-ex-slave-ship-james-matthews

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Family History, Genealogy, Irish Australian, Irish Diaspora, Social Change