How A Puff Of Wind Freed The Fremantle Six

“Most of the evidence on which the men were convicted related to meetings with me. I felt that I, more than any other man then living, ought to do my utmost for these Fenian soldiers.” —John Devoy, writing about his plan to rescue the Fremantle Six

In A Nutshell

The overwhelming poverty of Ireland in the mid-1800s led to the formation of the Irish Republic Brotherhood (known as the Fenians), whose members believed that independence for Ireland could only be achieved through force. In 1867, seven military Fenians charged with treason were shipped off to the impregnable Fremantle Prison in Western Australia for life imprisonment. One of the seven escaped to America and helped to persuade another Fenian to organize a rescue operation for the remaining six prisoners. In a convoluted plot that took years to arrange, a Quaker sea captain from America sailed his whaling ship to Australia to rescue the prisoners, who barely escaped when a puff of wind blew the ship to safety.

The Whole Bushel

The overwhelming poverty of Ireland in the mid-1800s led to the formation of the worldwide Irish Republic Brotherhood, whose members believed that independence for Ireland could only be achieved through force. In the United States, the Fenian secret society was known as “Clan na Gael.”

While rallying supporters in Ireland for a rebellion against British rule during the mid-1860s, hundreds of Fenians were charged with conspiracy and treason. Although civilians could be pardoned, seven Fenians who had served in the British army received sentences of life imprisonment at the impregnable Fremantle Prison in Western Australia. In 1867, the military Fenians were shipped to Australia on the Hougoumont and assigned to hard labor at the prison.

One of the seven, John Boyle O’Reilly, was transferred to Bunbury Prison in Western Australia. He tried to commit suicide but was saved by a fellow convict. Shortly afterward, a sympathetic Catholic priest helped him escape to America on a whaling ship. Once in the US, he became a writer and editor, although he never forgot his Fenian brothers trapped in Australia.

James Wilson, one of the six still in prison, wrote a letter to John Devoy, an exiled Fenian also living in America who had recruited the prisoners to join the Fenians. Begging for help, Wilson made it clear that the six prisoners were ill and in danger of dying. “Remember this is a voice from the tomb,” Wilson wrote. “We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”

Devoy felt especially responsible for the prisoners’ fate because they had been convicted mainly on evidence of having met with him in Ireland. Meanwhile, the escaped seventh prisoner, O’Reilly, added to the pressure by begging Devoy to help the prisoners escape.

After raising thousands of dollars at a New York Clan na Gael meeting, Devoy began to plot a rescue attempt that took years to arrange. Eventually, he convinced a Quaker sea captain from America, who had no prior connection to the Fenians, to covertly sail his whaling ship, the Catalpa, to Australia for the rescue mission. The captain, George Smith Anthony, pretended to be on an actual whaling trip, which was supposed to defray some expenses and earn him a profit. That part of the mission was a financial disaster.

To help with the prisoners’ escape from the prison to the ship, Devoy arranged for some Fenians to go to Australia before the Catalpa arrived. On April 16, 1876, the six prisoners slipped away from the prison to a nearby rowboat where Captain Anthony and a small crew were waiting to take them to the Catalpa out at sea. They’d barely left shore when they spotted the police coming after them. The steamship Georgette was also in pursuit. If that wasn’t bad enough, a severe storm arose and nearly killed them.

When morning came, the storm was over and the men in the rowboat spied the Georgette heading for the Catalpa without seeing them in the water. Unable to board the Catalpa, the men on the Georgette returned to shore because they were low on fuel.

Quickly, the rowboat made its way to the Catalpa, but as it turned to sail away from Australia, the wind suddenly died. They were stranded. Worse yet, the Georgette was steaming back to them with an armed militia. Outmanned and outgunned, the men on the Catalpa prepared for battle. They hoped that their hoisted American flag would prevent the Georgette from firing on them in international waters, which would be a declaration of war. But the lack of wind was causing the Catalpa to drift back to Australian waters.

As the Georgette came close, the British commanded the Catalpa to stop. But the wind suddenly blew and the Catalpa was headed to safety. The Georgette pursued them for about an hour before giving up. The Fenians had escaped.

Show Me The Proof

Featured artwork: Australasian Sketcher via Wikipedia
History Ireland: Difficulties and opportunities: making sense of the Fenians
Smithsonian: The Most Audacious Australian Prison Break of 1876
Australian Broadcasting Corporation: The Catalpa escape
Fremantle Prison: Escape!

  • Azeael

    Thank god the big bad wolf hasn’t seen this.

  • Hillyard

    Good bushel. This is another real life event that if made into a movie the reaction from at least half of the critics would be ‘too unrealistic’.