The news that convicts had seized a schooner and escaped swept through the settlement to reach convict Sean Kelly’s ears in the hospital where Dr Cowper had come to treat the Irishman’s freshly-flogged back.
Fellow inmates had informed Sean that Commandant Clunie was a strict disciplinarian albeit not to the point of Logan, and circumstances had improved since he had assumed command. Sean certainly hoped so; a shiver ran up his spine as an image of the previous commandant lying bloodied by a creek flared involuntarily before his eyes.
The doctor broke into Sean’s musings, hovering over the bed. His breath, stinking of rum and tobacco, washed over his patient in a foul tide. Sean wrinkled his nose and turned his head.
“Doubtless you are yet to hear the latest news, Kelly,” Cowper slurred, swaying on his feet. “Eleven prisoners have stolen the schooner Caledonia, right from under Clunie’s nose!” he howled like a dingo, slapping his knee gleefully, tears coursing down his cheeks.
The Caledonia had traveled north to salvage the ship America, which had foundered on a reef at Loo Island in proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn while on a voyage from Hobart Town to Batavia. The schooner had called in at the Bay to recover one of the America’s boats and the commandant had gone to check the veracity of the request.
“Clunie went over to Stradbroke Island where the schooner was anchored off Amity Point,” continued Cowper on recovering. “When he landed it was too late to visit the boat and besides, the pilot and two of the three island soldiers were drunk as lords. Oh, I must say, it is so hilarious. During the night the boat from the America arrived carrying a greater contingent of convicts than usual to row because of unfavourable winds. Figure you that in the middle of the night they dug a hole under the wall of the hut, rowed out, oars muffled, to the schooner in the pilot’s boat and overwhelmed her crew. The Caledonia set sail, sending the crew ashore in the pilot’s boat before the commandant awoke. The thieves retained the schooner’s master as none of the escapees could navigate, although two were mariners. You cannot imagine the state of apoplectic agitation of our poor commandant. From right under his nose, no less,” he repeated, taking a swig of rum from his flask. He danced a quick jig, almost falling on Sean.
“You have to admire the audacity of it, to be sure,” Sean commented.
Sean learnt the full story some months later. As had happened with Walter Scott, Dr Cowper had taken a shine to the learned, spirited Irishman and they had become friends.
“You would not credit it, Sean,” the doctor began one day, still sober at this early juncture. “Word has come that Browning, the Caledonia’s captain, has survived and landed in Sydney. He caused quite a stir as everyone believed him dead for certain. He says the pirates forced him to sail them to Savi in the Navigation Islands in the Pacific where they hoped to stow away on one of the American whalers that regularly call into the island for stores and water.”
“A solid plan, to be sure” Sean agreed, barely showing interest, his spirit floating like a ship on a breeze-less ocean. What did he care about the antics of his prison-mates?
“Yes indeed. They weren’t long at sea, according to Browning, when the trouble began and six convicts attacked the other five, supposedly settling old scores from Moreton Bay. At any rate they shot one and threw his body into the sea then gave the others a choice: jump overboard or be shot. Hardly a choice. Ha. One man pleaded piteously for his life: they shot him anyway. Unfortunately, they only managed to blow off a couple of fingers and scorch his skull. So they picked him up and threw him over the side. The poor creature grabbed a rope and hung suspended in mid-air, dangling above the waves. The killers produced a knife and cut the rope.”
“Jaesus, Joseph and Mary.”
“They went ashore in New Caledonia to fill their water barrels and had to fire muskets at a large group of hostile natives to keep them at bay. When they quit the island, the killers left behind another man, who the natives presumably ate. They sailed on past the New Hebrides to the Navigation Islands where they set about scuttling the Caledonia. The absconders were about to dispatch Browning along with his vessel when natives unexpectedly boarded the schooner and escorted them to the island’s chief. This good man took to the captain straight away and declared him to be under his personal protection, while the bolters said they were ship-wrecked sailors. Browning was eventually rescued when the English whaler Oldham stopped at the island.”
“Well, well. Talk about the luck of the Irish, even if the gentleman is not from the Emerald Isle. What has become of the runners?”
“Somehow Browning got aboard the Oldham and told the captain of his experience. The boat’s crew caught a convict named Evans and brought him aboard the whaler in irons. The natives sheltered the three remaining felons, refusing to give them up. As the Oldham put to sea Evans escaped by jumping over the side, surely to drown as a furious tide was running. The Oldham fell in with the American whaler Milo bound for Sydney so Browning changed vessels and came home. What do you think of that, my friend?”
“I cannot say I applaud the murders which are a matter of course between some of the brutes imprisoned here. However, I do salute the fact of their escape as would most in this place. And I am most happy that the enterprising Captain Browning did not become a further victim.”
“Ha. I guessed as much coming from such an accomplished escapee as yourself.” Cowper shook his head. “Incorrigible Irish nincompoop.”
Copyright: Richard Carroll.