Fremantle’s great escape
The Catalpa Rescue: The Gripping Story of the Most Dramatic and Successful Prison Break in Australian History’
By Peter FitzSimons. Hachette, 405pp, $34.95
BY ROSS FITZGERALD
Peter FitzSimons’s new book, ‘The Catalpa Rescue’, passionately and dramatically canvasses one of the great jail breaks of Australian history.
Until now this 19th-century tale, set in England, Ireland, Australia and the US, has been relatively unknown to general readers, especially in the eastern two-thirds of our nation.
As befits the chairman of the Australian Republic Movement, FitzSimons regards the rescue of a clutch of Irish republican radicals as being an inspiration for Irish nationalists struggling for independence from England.
The more he came to know about this saga involving “Ireland’s quest for liberation, transportation to Australia of Irish republican political prisoners and the quest to liberate them”, the more enthralled he was.
In New York in 1874, members of the Clan-na-Gael — agitators for Irish freedom from the English — “hatched a plan to free six Irish political prisoners from the most remote penitentiary in the British Empire — Fremantle Prison in Western Australia”.
In 1876, under the guise of a whale hunt, Captain George S. Anthony, 33, headed out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on the Catalpa, a substantial three-masted sailing ship.
His task was “to rescue these prisoners from the stone walls of the hell on Earth known to the inmates as a ‘living tomb’ ”. From 4.30am until 6pm daily, the Irish radicals were subjected to a cruel schedule of manual labour.
In charting the comings and goings of this remarkable prison break, FitzSimons has relied heavily on an 1897 book with the same title as his, written by journalist Zephaniah Pease and drawn from Anthony’s logbook and personal notes.
FitzSimons maintains that bits of the actual historical record differ from Pease’s account, but nevertheless praises the book as “gold from first to last, releasing a font of fabulous dialogue, together with the mood, the feel of the whole exercise from the Catalpa itself”.
In terms of recent publications FitzSimons especially relies on Philip Fennell and Marie King’s ‘John Devoy’s Catalpa Expedition’, which is based on a serialised version of the Catalpa’s exploits in the ‘Gaelic American’ newspaper, written by John Devoy, a leading member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenians.
FitzSimons stresses the crucial role of three leading Fenians — Devoy, James Stephens and John Breslin — in orchestrating the rescue of the six Irish prisoners from Fremantle Prison.
Stephens, born in 1825 in Kilkenny, and Devoy, born in 1842 in County Kildare, believed the best way to beat the British Army in Ireland was to convert to the republican cause thousands of Irish soldiers who would be ready, when asked, to take up arms.
Breslin was a leading Fenian emissary in Fremantle. Born in 1833 and reared in a large family of Irish patriots in Drogheda, he joined the Fenian movement in 1865.
According to a contemporary, he was “a tall, courtly man, whose classical features, flowing white beard, and military bearing, made him a striking personage”. In 1875, he sailed to Western Australia to help implement the daring rescue plan. I won’t spoil readers’ enjoyment by spilling the beans about the various ins and outs of the escape. Suffice to say that, as FitzSimons puts it, “for Ireland … this was an inspirational call to arms”.
And “for a young Australia … it was proof that Great Britain was not unbeatable”.
Intertwining history and biography, this book is an inspirational tale full of courage and cunning.
It adroitly chronicles how Irish republicans tried to outwit Anglo-Celtic members of the West Australian prison establishment and their conservative governmental and gubernatorial overlords.
Well indexed, copiously footnoted, replete with a dozen useful maps, and beautifully illustrated with 30 photographs and etchings, ‘The Catalpa Rescue’ is a fine example of popular scholarship.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
‘The Weekend Australian, June 22-23, 2019, Review, Books, p 24