The rebel convict
Prison ships were were first established on the Thames, but others - such as the one where Mary was held - were soon moored in Portsmouth harbour. Conditions on board were overcrowded and airless - not helped by the fact that portholes on the landward side were all boarded over as a deterrent against escape.
Between 1788 and 1850 the British authorities transported more than 162,000 prisoners to Australia. Mary Bryant, a Cornish teenager, was on one of the first 11 of these ships - now known as the First Fleet - to New South Wales. In 1791 she made an audacious bid for freedom.
Mary Bryant was born as Mary Broad on May 1, 1765, in Fowey, a Cornish fishing village. She was the second child of a fisherman, William Broad, and his wife Grace. Eighteenth-century Cornwall was a poverty-stricken area and many people were literally starving. The desperate situation led people to look outside the law merely to survive. The government tried to contain the situation with draconian punishments - sometimes even minor offences could result in the death sentence.
Mary became involved in petty crime, collaborating with two other young women who were also on the breadline. They repeatedly ambushed, robbed and beat wealthy ladies in their neighbourhood - and got away with it for several years. But one of Mary's victims, Agnes Lakeman, who had been assaulted and robbed of some coins and two pieces of clothing - a silk bonnet and a coat - recognised her during an identity parade in January 1786. Two months later, on March 20, 1786, Mary was tried at Exeter on charges of highway robbery to a value of 32 shillings, and condemned to death by hanging. She was taken back to prison to await execution, but her sentence was then commuted to deportation 'beyond the seas' for a period of seven years. There was a practical motive for commuting the death sentence for young women to one of deportation - there was a chronic shortage of women in the penal colonies.
TRANSPORTS TO BOTANY BAY
North America had long been the main destination for convict transports, but this was no longer an option after American independence in 1783. Britain's prisons overflowed with convicts awaiting deportation. Many prisoners were housed on decommissioned warships, where they were segregated by sex, clapped in heavy irons and herded together in unsanitary and cramped conditions. Mary was confined to a cell on board the hulk Dunkirk. In order to gain better treatment, she began a relationship with one of the prison officers.
To help solve the prison crisis, the British government had decided to set up a new penal colony in Australia. The first convicts to be deported - 568 men and 191 women - were transferred to the so-called 'First Fleet'. Mary was one of more
(It took a 252-day voyage across 15,000 miles of open sea, for the First Fleet to reach Botany Bay on January 19-20 1788. The 759 prisoners were chained up for the entire eight-month journey and the men selected for hard labour almost immediately they disembarked. The women stayed on board for another two weeks while tents and huts were put up to house them)
than 100 deportees put on board a cargo ship, the Charlotte, and on May 13, 1787, they embarked. Soon after the ship set sail for Botany Bay - close to the present-day city of Sydney - Mary realised that she was pregnant. If she had still been on board the Dunkirk, she might have been able to rely on the support of her lover; now she had only her own resources.
Conditions on this ship were even worse than on the Dunkirk. The hatches could not be opened, so it was dark and airless below deck. Rats, bedbugs, lice, cockroaches and fleas plagued both prisoners and crew and many died on the voyage. Despite these adversities, on September 8, 1787, Mary gave birth to a healthy baby girl, whom she called Charlotte Spence.
Mary knew that life in her new home would be difficult - it had been made clear to the women that they were there to act as sexual playthings for the men. Perhaps to protect herself from the likelihood of rape once they landed, Mary married a fellow convict called William Bryant while she was still on board ship.
Life in the new colony was punishing. The work involved in building the settlement that was later to become Sydney was backbreaking, food was in short supply and disease was rife among the prisoners.
A DARING ESCAPE PLAN
In March 1790, Mary gave birth to a son, Emmanuel. She began to dream of escape: in contrast to the men, no return passage to England was provided for women convicts who had served their time. Although she had only two years of her sentence remaining, and William just a few months of his, Mary and her husband planned a daring mission.
Mary gathered provisions, muskets and nautical equipment, and with William, her two children and a small band of rebel companions, made off with the Governor's 30-foot cutter. They sailed for ten weeks, covering 3254 nautical miles to reach the island of Timor in Indonesia, a trip that involved navigating the then uncharted Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Straits.
On reaching the Dutch colony, they persuaded the authorities that they were shipwreck survivors and were, at first, welcomed. But their good fortune did not last - they were found out, apparently after William confessed, and were put on a ship back to England to face execution.
During the voyage home, William Bryant and the children died of fever - the younger child, Emmanuel and his father in late 1791 and Charlotte in May 1792. Mary herself expected to be hanged or returned to Australia. Instead she was imprisoned in Newgate jail, during which time there was a public outcry as well as a press campaign by the famous writer and lawyer James Boswell. As a result, Mary was pardoned in May 1793, as were the four surviving men of her crew. At the age of 28, she became a free woman and returned to her native Cornwall.
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