From The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes, Harvill, 1987

Chapter 7, "Bolters and Bushrangers"

...The prisoners who seized the brig Cyprus in 1828 were less fortunate [than those who siezed the brig Wellington en route for Norfolk Island in 1826], although their escapade became as celebrated in convict lore as the Bryants'. By the early 1830s they had become the subject of one of the "treason songs" or proscribed convict ballads. The men of Cyprus, reconvicted in Van Diemen's Land for "little trifling offences," were being taken from Hobart to the penal station of Macquarie Harbour, "that place of tyranny":

Down Hobart Town streets we were gathered, on the Cyprus brig conveyed,
Our topsails they were hoisted, boys, our anchor it was weighed,
The wind it blew a nor'-nor'-west, and on we steered straightway,
Till we brought her to an anchorage in a place called Recherche Bay.

The facts do not match the song at all points. Far from being guilty of minor offences, most of the thirty-one convicts going to Macquarie Harbour on the Cyprus had been convicted of capital crimes but had had their sentences commuted. The most intrepid of them was a former sailor, William Swallow. Swallow was a veritable Houdini. In 1810 he had hijacked a schooner in Port Jackson and been sent to Van Diemen's Land as his secondary punishment. The ship that took him there, the Deveron, was disabled in a storm and Swallow, "remarking that his own life was of little moment," volunteered to go aloft and cut away a slatting tangle of broken spars and rigging. It seems that the Deveron's sailors were so grateful for his courage in saving the ship that, as soon as Swallow was landed in Hobart, they smuggled him back on board. Thus he escaped, and got all the way west across the ocean to Rio, where he was captured again by the British authorities. Once more he got free and stowed away on a London-bound boat. But he was finally recognised in London, arrested and shipped out again to Van Diemen's Land. Such was the man who, "confined within a dismal hole" with his fellow convicts as the Cyprus rode at anchor near the southern tip of Van Diemen's Land, decided to make a last bid

To take possession of that brig or else to die every man:
The plan it being approv'd upon, we soon retired to rest,
And early next morning, boys, we put them to the test.
Up steps bold Jack Muldeamon, his comrades three more -
We soon disarmed the sentry and left him in his gore:
"Liberty, O liberty! It's liberty we crave-
Surrender up your arms, my boys, or the sea shall be your grave!"

After a rush, a scuffle and some shooting, the convicts overpowered the guard and carried the ship. They put the officer-in-charge, Lieutenant Carew, over the side along with his wife, the soldiers and thirteen convicts who had not joined the mutiny. The Cyprus was heavily laden with stores for Macquarie Harbour, enough to sustain 400 men for six months, but the convicts gave the forty-five castaways a stingy ration - a live sheep, some salt beef, a bag of biscuits and 30 pounds of flour, with no weapons and no boat:

First we landed the soldiers, the captain and his crew,
We gave three cheers of Liberty, and soon bid them adieu:
William Swallow he was chosen our commander for to be -
We gave three cheers for Liberty, and boldly put to sea.
Lay on your golden trumpets, boys, and sound their cheerful note!
The Cyprus brig's on the ocean, boys, by Justice does she float!

After prolonged sufferings from exposure and starvation, living on a handful of raw mussels an a quarter-biscuit a day, the castaways eventually got back to Hobart. They might not have done so without a convict named Popjoy, who framed up a 12-foot coracle out of mimosa branches, covered it with a hammock canvas (sewn by Mrs Carew, who had a needle) and waterproofed it with soap and resin. Popjoy and Carew sailed this fragile shell twenty miles to Partridge Island, where they were saved by a passing ship.(1)

In the meantime, the Cyprus and her pirates were well away. Swallow shaped his course for Tahiti, and then turned north for Japan, where he and his crew landed some time in 1829; seven of the convicts jumped ship there. Several months later, Swallow and three of his mates appeared in a skiff of the Chinese trading port of Whampoa. They had abandoned the Cyprus. Swallow presented himself to officials in Canton as Captain Waldron of the ship Edward, set on fire and sunk at sea by the Japanese. In this way, Swallow and his mates wangled a free passage home to England. Unfortunately, soon after they sailed, other survivors of the Cyprus turned up in Canton and Swallow's story began to unravel. Eventually, Swallow and his mates were arrested in England, and were identified by Popjoy, who, by a bizarre stroke of colonial ill-luck, had returned to London after receiving a free pardon for helping save the castaways at Recherche Bay. But Popjoy insisted that Swallow had been forced by his fellow absconders to navigate the ship, and the court believed him. So, although Swallow's companions were hanged, he was not. For the third time, he was forced to go on board a transport and make the long, lugubrious journey to Australia. It was his last. As soon as he arrived in Hobart, he was shipped to Macquarie Harbour - and this time there was no escape. William Swallow eventually died of tuberculosis in the penal colony of Port Arthur, to which he had been transferred when Macquarie Harbour was closed down in 1834. Unfortunately, he never wrote a memoir of his adventures.(2)


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(1)

The rescue of the survivors of the Cyprus, and Popjoy's construction of a coracle, was adapted by Marcus Clarke in His Natural Life.

(2)

On the piracy of the Cyprus, see Arthur to Murray, Sept 11, 1829. TSA, CON 280: 31; John West, A History of Tasmania, p. 425ff; Lloyd L. Robson,The History of Tasmania, p. 150. The version of the ballad "The Cyprus Brig" is from Gary Shearston's recording Bolters, Bushrangers and Duffers, CBS #BP233288. The Cyprus episode forms an important part of the narrative of Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life.


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