‘American Citizens, British Slaves: Yankee Political Prisoners in an Australian Penal Colony 1839-1850’ by Cassandra Pybus and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

Reviewed by Raelene Frances

© all rights reserved

Political prisoners formed a minority of the total number of convicts transported to eastern Australia, but the historical interest in their experiences goes well beyond their numerical importance. Political prisoners tended to be more literate and inclined to articulate their grievances in public ways, so the record of their views of the convict system is far richer than for non-political prisoners. The group of almost one hundred American citizens transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1839-40 is no exception: indeed, the accounts they have left form the largest collection of convict narratives in existence. Copious documents in the form of letters home and retrospective published accounts of their experiences survive. However, American Citizens, British Slaves is the first academic study of these men and the often sensational stories they told.

And it is a fascinating story. The authors begin with the events of the second half of 1838 on the border between the United States of America and Upper Canada (Ontario) which led to the capture and later conviction of the so-called ‘Patriots’. They explore the conflicting loyalties of people on both sides of what many regarded as an artificial border between the republic and the British colony, and trace the thoroughly misguided attempt by a small group of young Americans to inspire a republican uprising in Canada by sending a military force across the border. The incursion was poorly planned and ill-equipped, and lacked the numbers, training and leadership necessary for success. Perhaps most importantly, the ‘patriots’ lacked the support of the Canadians whom they imagined they would liberate from the yoke of British oppression. After the failure of three separate raids between June and December, the defeated Patriots who survived were rounded up and tried, most of them for armed incursion under the legally dubious Lawless Aggressions Act. Ninety-two were transported to Van Diemen’s Land by the Governor of Ontario, who was none other than George Arthur, former governor of the penal island. Ninety per cent were US citizens, while the rest were recent immigrants from Ireland and Scotland or from the Canadian colonies. Fourteen of the prisoners died while in exile, nearly 70 per cent returned to the USA and at least ten decided to stay in Australia. None took part in any further political activity.

Although the early chapters deal with the events of the uprising and the politics surrounding the trial and sentencing, most of the book is devoted to the journey to Australia and the experiences of the exiles as convicts. As such, it contributes considerable insight into our understanding of the way in which the convict system worked, and the way in which convicts interacted with free settlers. The authors are sensitive to the problems in such a study, aware that political prisoners were often treated differently to those regarded as simply ‘criminal’. They also treat the prisoners’ accounts as narratives which were written with a political and didactic intent: ‘to instruct the reader in the naked barbarism of the British penal system.’ The exiles’ accounts are, where possible, checked against each other and against other archival material in an attempt both to verify the ‘facts’ and also to identify the common themes in the narratives of oppression. The implications of the political intent of the narratives, however, are far from predictable or consistent. The reporting of flogging of the patriots is a case in point. Several of the writers clearly exaggerate the frequency of floggings administered to their group in order to provoke anger at a British oppressor treating American citizens like slaves, or, as one put it, the spectacle of the ‘freeman of the new world’ being stripped and flogged ‘by the felon of the old.’(p.12) Others deny that any of their number were flogged, apparently because to admit to such an event seemed inconsistent with their continued self-respect. These patriots reported that they had taken a collective oath to rise in revolt, though the consequence be death, rather than allow any one of their number to submit to the degradation of the lash. It seems that both accounts were distortions, several only of the patriots being sentenced to floggings while no record exists of any uprising to prevent the punishments being carried out.
What the accounts reveal about the convict experience is in some ways not new. The role played by luck is a recurring theme: the first batch of exiles had horrific experiences at sea due to their misfortune in being placed aboard an overcrowded vessel full of hardened criminals, with an oppressive captain inadequate food supplies. But on their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land they were assigned to free settlers where some received relatively favourable treatment from sympathetic masters. Later arrivals were more fortunate in their treatment on board ship, but arrived after January 1840 when new instructions from England required all convicts to serve a period of probation of up to two years in road gangs before being eligible for assignment.

Although clearly some of the exiles fared better than others, it is equally clear that the group as a whole received more favourable treatment than the mass of transported felons. A special dispensation was given to the governor to grant tickets of leave to those considered well-behaved after only two years in the colony. Normally, convicts under life sentence had to serve a minimum of eight years before being granted this privilege. A number of the exiles therefore found themselves with such tickets of leave in 1841. Although in most cases this privilege was not regarded as any great escape from the convict system, others used their relatively greater freedom to plan a more permanent escape. In December 1841, three ticket-of-leave exiles managed to rendezvous with one of the many visiting American whaling ships, whose captains were generally more sympathetic to their ‘oppressed’ countrymen than to the average British felon. They were home within months. Perhaps heartened by their success, others attempted a similar feat, but were foiled by the greater vigilance of the authorities. Still others preferred not to risk the possibility of detection, and waited out their sentence, all the while hoping that the efforts of their relatives and friends at home would secure an early pardon. For many, such calculations were well made. By 1844 the American Ambassador to St. James had persuaded the British government to grant pardons to over half the remaining exiles, with others following in subsequent years. This did not mean, however, that the prisoners were all released. Communication by sea being what it was, long delays occurred in communicating the decisions. Some pardons never reached the colony. Even when the pardons did reach Hobart, Governor Eardley-Wilmot chose to exercise his own discretion as to whether or not he issued the pardons to the individuals concerned, delaying their release for months or even years. Poor John Berry was even more hardly done by. Although pardoned in October 1844, he was not told that he had been discharged from servitude until 1857. Even when he sought permission to marry in 1854, no one bothered to tell him that he was no longer a convict and therefore did not need such permission.

American Citizens, British Slaves
will be read with interest by scholars of the penal system, but will also be of interest to American and Canadian historians. It is an extremely detailed yet vivid account of the many situations in which the exiles found themselves, and includes an appendix with biographies of all the patriot prisoners. The analysis of the primary sources, and the contextual material provided, however, make this a work of subtlety and insight as well as an engaging read.

Raelene Frances is Associate Professor of History at the University of New South Wales where she teaches Australian history. She has published widely on gender and labour history and is currently writing a history of prostitution in Australia since 1788.

American Citizens, British Slaves: Yankee Political Prisoners in an Australian Penal Colony 1839-1850, by Cassandra Pybus and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, was published by Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002.

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