Tag Archives: Swan River Colony

Last convicts to Western Australia

January 9th marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the last convict ship at the port of Fremantle in Western Australia.

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Drawing of The Hougoumont , the last convict ship to arrive in Western Australia. (Image Wikimedia)

The Swan River Settlement in Western Australia was established by the British in 1829. The conditions – both climate and terrain – proved  very challenging and progress was slow. By 1832 the population was a mere 1,500 and by 1850 was still less than 6,000.  The emerging colony then requested help from the British Government, thereby changing its status to a Penal Colony, like other parts of Australia, notably New South Wales and Tasmania.

The Scindian was the first ship to arrive in June 1850 with a cargo of 75 male convicts who would work the land.  They also had to set about building their own jail, as there was no building suitable for them. Over the next seventeen and a half years, 9,925 convicts were transported in 43 shipments to Western Australia, and many of these were Irish. It was thanks to these, the workers who accompanied them and later immigrants, that the colony was developed.

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The Establishment as Fremantle Jail was known. Behind these gates is a 15 acre site with blocks of cells and ancillary buildings.

The gates and many of the landings in the jail are made from iron from many of these ships.

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Gates were made from metal from the ships that transported convicts

Conditions inside The Establishment were horrendous and must have been unbearable in the burning heat of summer. There are no bars on the windows in the chapel and interestingly the 6th of the Ten commandments reads ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ instead of the usual ‘Thou shalt not kill’. The former jail is now a World Heritage Site and well worth a visit.

Many convicts were free to work outside the walls and many stayed in the area when they won their freedom, having served their time. The development of the area is due in no small part to their hard labour. The town has some wonderful period buildings..one of my favourite being the Town Hall. although I am not certain if it is the result of convict labour .

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Fremantle Town Hall, built c.1886

The town of Fremantle has some lovely street art dedicated to arriving immigrants, such as these two pieces. I particularly like the man being confronted by a dingo – an indication of the hardships new immigrants had to face perhaps.

In recent years lists of immigrants who arrived at the port have been transcribed onto ‘Welcome Walls’. The list of names makes for poignant reading and of course includes many Irish.

Crowds of young children were also landed here and very often their little lives turned out to be desperately sad and cruel.

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When that last convict ship slipped into Fremantle on that January day 150 years ago,on board were a number of Fenian Prisoners. Their presence on the Hougoumont has kept the name of the ship alive, even though it deserves to be remembered by being associated with an end to a particular chapter in history. These Fenians, among them John Boyle O’Reilly, kept a journal during their voyage to Australia.  Their writings, are on a series of plaques, some of which you can see here, at Rockingham Wild Geese Memorial, which marks the point at which they made a daring break for freedom on the coast of Western Australia.

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There is a very strong and proud Irish community in Perth and  Fremantle who organize events on a regular basis.  Their latest FeniansFremantle & Freedom Festival is a 10-day cultural festival celebrating Irish culture and influence in Australia as well as a commemorative event to honour the Fenians and others transported to Fremantle on the last convict ship sent to Australia, the Hougoumont. Barbecues, concerts and even a street celií have been planned and events continue through this weekend. In these troubled times with great displacement of peoples across the globe, it is refreshing to see immigrants being honoured in the way that Fremantle does so well.

I have written about the arrival of the Fenians in Western Australia at these links

John Boyle O’Reilly Fenian, Convict, Poet

and the story of their escape at

The greatest propaganda coup in Fenian History 

There is a fascinating ‘passenger list’ for that final voyage of the Hougoumont here. It gives names, nature of offence  of the convicts-  these include pickpocketing, rape, insubordination, treason, murder and possession of a coin mould. – place and date of trial. It also includes names of other passengers, pensioner guards and their families and warders and their families.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish Convicts, Irish Diaspora

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