Fake History #68  The Catalpa rescue sprang all remaining Fenian prisoners from Freemantle prison in Western Australia?



Relations between Irish people and Australians tend, on the whole, to be excellent – even though our respective impenetrable accents and their occasional use of odd expressions like ‘strewth’ and ‘ripper’ make conversation virtually impossible. But we still manage to get on. in part, it must be recognised, this is because of our mutual antipathy to whinging poms. However, even though a goodly percentage of Aussie DNA originated in Ireland, good relations between the people of our two great republics … oops, sorry, Australia still has the monarch, doesn’t it? Let me rephrase that so … good relations between our two great nations was not necessarily a given. That’s because, for many years, Australia was little more than a massive prison camp for Irish persons who had a jaundiced attitude towards said monarch ie. Irish rebels.

This weekend, one hundred and twenty-four years ago, a rather unusual Irish emigrant ship arrived off the coast of Western Australia. It was a bit different because it wasn’t bringing any Irish emigrants to Australia, it was removing half a dozen of them. The ship, a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was called the Catalpa and it was probably the most extraordinary sea-going vessel in Irish republican history, until the Asgard landed weapons in Howth in 1914.

The function of the Catalpa was to transport a number of former Irish rebels from Freemantle to New York. The difficulty was that these six gentlemen, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had not actually been formally released from prison. They had to be sprung first!

The Catalpa was a whaling ship that had been purchased by the great Irish-American Fenian John Devoy, leader of Clan na Gael, with the intention of bringing off this outrageous coup. Only the captain, George Anthony, had any idea that the ship wasn’t setting sail from New Bedford in April 1875, to kill defenceless whales.

In tandem with the covert sea voyage, two Fenian agents, John Breslin from New York and Thomas Desmond from San Francisco, were sent to Western Australia to pose as American businessmen and to do the groundwork that would allow the six Fenian prisoners to escape from a work detail and make it to the Catalpa. Breslin even  managed to befriend no less a personage than the governor of Western Australia. Not bad for an undercover Fenian. Desmond’s job was to organise transport and to make sure news of the escape did not emerge until the convicts were safely on board their rescue ship.

The Catalpa arrived off the coast of Western Australia in late March 1876, dropped anchor in international waters, and waited. Onshore the six Fenian prisoners, having managed to slipped away from their work detail,  were escorted by Breslin and Desmond to a small boat that would take them to the rescue ship. Desmond had organised that all telegraph communications were to be cut.  Captain Anthony was waiting with the boat, whose departure was delayed by appalling weather. Crew and convicts spent a number of tense hours waiting to be discovered before the rowing boat could be taken off the beach. By the time that happened word of the escape had got out and a British military vessel, the Georgette, had been sent to intercept the skiff and/or the Catalpa itself.

But the prisoners managed to reach the Catalpa before they could be intercepted. In doing so they played cat and mouse with a police cutter carrying thirty armed men on board. They barely managed to win the race to the whaling ship anchored just outside the three mile limit.

When the Georgette drew alongside the Catalpa it attempted to manoeuvre Anthony’s ship into Australian waters. Warning shots were fired. It was only when Captain Anthony raised a US flag that the Georgette backed off and allowed the Catalpa to begin its journey to New York with its six freed prisoners. It arrived there, to a tumultuous Irish-American welcome, on 19 August. A grateful Clan na Gael made a gift of the ship to George Anthony.

But there was a seventh prisoner who didn’t make it. A Fenian named John Kiely was left behind in Freemantle. Why? Because his compatriots had concluded that he was working as an informer for the prison authorities. So, although the Catalpa did rescue half a dozen IRB prisoners from Freemantle prison, it did not, technically,  carry off all the Fenians  left in captivity in  Western Australia.


On This Day – 19 August 1876 – The Catalpa arrives back in the USA



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.