Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of seeing Donal O’Kelly’s memorable one man show about the 1876 voyage of the whaling barque, the Catalpa, will be unlikely to forget the significance of that event. It was The Great Escape crossed with Papillon to create one of the most unorthodox and daring prison breaks in the history of incarceration.
The back-story begins with the abject failure of the Fenian rebellion of 1867. In its wake more than sixty IRB prisoners were transported after treason-felony and rebellion convictions to the penal colony of Western Australia. Over the years most of the prisoners were amnestied or released so that by the mid 1870s only a small handful of Fenians remained in Freemantle prison on the Australian west coast not far from the city of Perth.
In 1873 one of the men who remained in jail, James Wilson, managed to get a letter to John Devoy of the Irish revolutionary organisation, Clan na Gael, in New York. Wilson asked Devoy to launch an operation to free the remaining prisoners. It was a former Fenian transportee Thomas McCarthy Fennell who came up with the unorthodox but highly imaginative plan that was put into operation the following year.
The Clan bought a New Bedford whaling barque the Catalpa for $5500 in 1874. A ship’s captain, George Smith Anthony, agreed to help. He recruited twenty-two sailors who were not in on the secret. The ship sailed from Massachusetts in April 1875. In the meantime two senior members of the Clan, John Breslin and Tom Desmond had been sent ahead to Western Australia to prepare for the rescue. Breslin, posing as an American mining speculator, ingratiated himself with the British governor of the colony while Desmond secured transport for the prisoners and devised a means of cutting telegraph lines to impede communications.
A faulty chronometer meant that Captain Anthony had to use his own navigational skills for the first leg of the Catalpa’s journey. The vessel also lost much of its crew when it landed in the Azores. But the deserters were replaced and the whaling ship finally arrived off the coast of Western Australia in April 1876. There it dropped anchor in international waters and waited.
On 17 April six Fenian inmates working outside Freemantle prison walls absconded from their work party. The group included James Wilson. They met up with Breslin and Desmond and were driven to reconnoitre with Captain Anthony. They were then taken on board a small whaleboat. At this point the alarm was raised by a local man and the search for the escaped prisoners began in earnest. A storm initially prevented Anthony from transferring the freed Fenians from the small whaleboat to the Catalpa. It was hours before the storm abated and they could begin to row towards safety.
As Captain Anthony’s whaleboat neared the Catalpa, moored more than three miles off shore, he noticed a steamer, the Georgette, approach the whaling ship. This had been commandeered by the Western Australian governor. Anthony’s First Mate refused to allow the Catalpa to be boarded as it was anchored in international waters. The Georgette, short on fuel, withdrew for the moment and this allowed Anthony to smuggle the six Fenians on board his ship.
However the Georgette returned the following day and attempted to force the Catalpa back into Australian waters. A shot was fired across the bow of the small whaling ship. Anthony then raised the US flag and warned the pursuing steamer that any interference with the Catalpa would constitute an act of war. The police on board the Georgette had been told by the colonial governor not to create an international incident. They were forced to allow the American vessel to escape into the Indian Ocean.
After its return to the USA the Catalpa was gifted by the grateful Fenians to its captain and leading crew members. Anthony, who courted arrest if he returned to sea, published an account of the operation in 1897 entitled The Catalpa Expedition.
The New Bedford, Massachusetts whaling ship, the Catalpa, sailed into New York harbour to a rapturous Irish-American welcome one hundred and forty years ago on this day.