Monday, December 19, 2011

Hunter & Patriot Prisoners Sent to Tasmania

With the end of repatriation of Hunter prisoners, transport to the penal colony dominated every remaining prisoner's thoughts through the long hot summer.

Captain Daniel Heustis strived to keep up his men's spirits. That included a surreptitious celebration on the Fourth of July in Fort Henry, described in his memoirs:

"Out of several pocket handkerchiefs a flag was manufactured, as nearly resembling the Star Spangled Banner as we could conveniently make it. This emblem of freedom and national independence we hoisted in our room, taking good care that the officers did not get a peep at it."

On September 23, 1839, blacksmiths arrived at Fort Henry after breakfast. They chained the remaining Hunter prisoners in twos at their wrists and ankles. Among them were 18 prisoners convicted for their part in the last battle of Windsor and one for a raid near the Lake of St. Clair. Pairs of shackled men, mostly Americans, marched from the fort between lines of soldiers to a canal boat waiting in Navy Bay. As soon as guards secured them in the hold, they set out. A small steamer towed them up the Rideau Canal from Kingston to Ottawa, and then down the Ottawa River to Montreal.

Bill Johnston Seen as an Escape Threat

The trip through the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River is far longer than the direct route down the St. Lawrence River, the route by which all previous transportees made their way to Montreal. Why chose the longer way this time? There is no official explanation. But, Bill Johnston ruled the Thousand Islands and Captain Williams Sandom, the British commander on the Great Lakes, believed Johnston had squads of pirates under his command. Sandom and Lt.-Colonel Richard Bonnycastle probably expected an attack on any ship carrying Hunter prisoners.

In Montreal, the captives transferred ships and set out immediately for Quebec City, arriving the next day. In the harbor, a 700-ton sailing ship, the Buffalo, rode at anchor. The ship set sail on September 28, 1839, with the 79 Upper Canada prisoners, 58 Patriotes from the rebellion in Lower Canada, and five common criminals.

Prisoners Arrive in the Antipodes

Kept in cramped quarters through stifling tropical heat and fed foul rations, most men arrived sick but alive in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) on February 11, 1840. Among the raiders, only Asa Priest, 45, died on the voyage.

Guards unloaded the Americans and presented them to the colony's governor, Sir John Franklin, the famous Arctic explorer. (The Buffalo sailed onto Sydney, Australia, where the French Canadians disembarked on February 26.)

William Gates wrote that Franklin lectured them astride a horse for two hours, speaking in meandering, unfinished sentences while staring at the sky. The gist of his message: they were very bad men who'd committed a crime worse than murder.

Guards escorted Heustis, Gates, and the others to the probation stations (work camps). Over the next two years, they labored in slave-like conditions building roads, wearing tattered clothing and eating vile and skimpy rations.

Heustis, a casement captain at Fort Henry, always held the respect and trust of his comrades. They chose him as the cell leader during the long voyage to Tasmania, and as group leader at the penal colony.

Heustis' natural equanimity saved the lives and sanity of many men as he negotiated for better housing conditions, separation from the common criminals and a ban on flogging of the Americans.

Still, men succumbed. Lysander Curtis, 35, died within weeks from overwork. Others followed him to their graves: Andrew Leeper, 44, Foster Martin, 34, Alson Owen, 27, and Thomas Stockton, 40.

Prisoners Pardoned

On February 16, 1842, the penal bosses gave the Americans tickets of leave and the slavery period ended. They found paid jobs on farms and ranches, but could not leave the island. A few escaped on American whaling ships that plied the waters. Others, including Aaron Dresser and Stephen Wright, received a pardon and money for helping to catch escaped convicts who became bandits.

Between 1845 and 1852, the American prisoners received pardons. Abandoned by the US government, they had to find their own way home with little money. Most worked on ships to pay for passage. Of the survivors, twenty-three men never returned, though records show at least seven settled in Tasmania or Australia.

Seven Patriots and Hunters sent to Tasmania wrote memoirs on returning home, while others gave interviews to newspapers. None were ashamed of their actions and all wanted the sacrifice of their comrades remembered.
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