Thursday, 11 September 2014

Norfolk Island: Rebellion in 1834

Convict rebellions were a feature of Norfolk Island almost from its foundation but their incidence intensified after 1825. In September 1826, an attempt was made by convicts to escape from the island by boat, having been told that there was an island within a hundred miles where they could safely hide and never be found. While most of the soldiers were chasing two absconders, about thirty prisoners seized and bound their overseers, robbed the Stores for provisions and weapons and put three boats to sea, killing a soldier. The commandant, Captain Vance Young Donaldson and soldiers followed them to the nearby small and uninhabited Phillip Island, where they were captured. The ringleaders were sent to Sydney for trial, where they were sentenced to death. [1]

Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset was appointed commandant of Norfolk Island in 1829. [2] During his period in office, the convict population grew from about 200 to over 700 by 1832 and there were several attempts at rebellion that were strenuously suppressed. Governor Darling was supportive of Morisset, regarding him ‘a very Zealous Officer’ whose duties were of ‘a most arduous nature’ observing that ‘the Conduct of the Prisoners has of late been outrageous in the extreme, having repeatedly Murder every one employed at the Settlement, and it is only by the utmost vigilance that they have been prevented accomplishing their object.’ [3] There was, however, growing criticism of Morisset’s rule within the more radical sections of NSW society. In 1832, Edward Hall, editor of the Sydney Gazette, wrote that the convicts on Norfolk Island had been ‘made the prey of hunger and nakedness at the caprice of monsters in human form...and cut to pieces by the scourge...have no redress or the least enquiry made into their suffering’. [4]

By the beginning of 1834, there were widespread rumours of rebellion across the island. [5] According to a convict named Laurence Frayne, Morisset was about to flog confessions out of the convicts, as the Reverend Samuel Marsden had done to Irish convicts thirty years earlier. Morisset was increasingly incapacitated by a head wound he had received during the Peninsular War in 1811 and had already decided to sell his commission. In practice, the running of the island was devolved to his second-in-command, Captain Foster Fyans. [6] Fyans was an experienced officer having served in Portugal and Spain between 1811 and 1814 and in India and Mauritius from 1818 until he arrived in Sydney in 1833. He was firm but fair in his attitude to convicts and later wrote of his experience as commandant of the Moreton Bay penal colony:

Five hundred convicts on this establishment were well and usefully employed; there was none of that lurking feeling in the men, and I may add that the settlement appeared to me not unlike a free overgrown establishment...I was always of opinion that mitigation to the deserving tended to good, and feel not sorry to acknowledge that I was instrumental to mitigating to a great extent seventy convicts, and well pleased often I have been in meeting some of these men doing well in the world as respectable citizens, and only in one solitary instance I failed in my hope. [7]

However, his view of Norfolk Island was emphatic: ‘to the latest hour [it] was a disgrace to England...the true discipline of the penal settlement subverted.’

Fyans was right to be concerned as an anonymous note, left in the soldiers’ barracks warned them to ‘beware of poison’. He had clear memories of a plot hatched by fifteen convicts two years before on the Governor Phillip to poison the ship’s company with arsenic in their food on the voyage to Norfolk Island. Fortunately this attempt was prevented by one of his fellow prisoners turning informer. Fyans was especially concerned by John Knatchbull in whose cabin a pound of arsenic was found though neither he nor the other convicts were charged. [8] Knatchbull came from a privileged landed background, the son of Sir Edward Knatchbull and his second wife. Educated at Winchester School, he had volunteered for the navy in 1804 becoming a lieutenant in 1810 and retiring on full-pay after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. [9] The Admiralty stopped his pay in 1818 because of a debt he incurred in the Azores. Convicted of stealing with force and arms in 1824, he was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years and arrived in NSW in April 1825. Initially, he adapted well to the colonial environment and was given his ticket-of-leave in 1829. However, two years later, he was successfully prosecuted for forgery but his death sentence was commuted to transportation for seven years to Norfolk Island where he arrived on the Governor Phillip in late 1832. [10] Knatchbull was central to the rebellion as the only way off the island was by ship and claimed that although he was unable to take part, he had offered to command a ship to South America if one could be captured.

On 1 August 1833, Knatchbull, George Farrell and Dominick McCoy agreed on a complex plan. First, it linked the convicts in the lumberyard and sawpits to those at the lime-burners’ kiln and the stone quarry and called for a simultaneous rebellion. At the dawn muster in the convict barracks yard, they would rush Fyans and his soldiers and overpower them.  If any of the guard managed to barricade themselves in the guardhouse, the prisoners would set fire to it and flush them out. Meanwhile the gaol gang, made up of prisoners under special punishment, would also rush their own guard as they were being mustered for work in the stone quarry. Secondly, the rebels would seize the apparatus of colonial rule. The two columns of convicts would then advance on Government House and capture Morisset, seize the 18-pound cannon there and turn it on the military barracks. If the soldiers surrendered they would be spared; if not, they would hang with the hated convict constables, overseers and informers. Finally, the convicts would escape from the island. They would force Morisset to hand over his codebook of signals, so that they could flag false messages to the next ship to anchor off the reef. They would get on board by wearing the overseers’ blue jackets and seize the vessel that Knatchbull would pilot to America, for ‘if he once got there, the Americans would not allow them to be given up again.’ In the months between the formulation of the plan and the rebellion, Redmond Moss successfully carried messages between the different gangs.

Shortly after 5 am on Wednesday 15 January 1834, men in the military barracks heard a ragged volley of musket fire. The rebellion had begun. At the dawn muster in the prisoners’ barracks thirty-eight men, an unusually large number, had reported sick and were marched off to hospital by John Higgins, a warder. Once inside the hospital lockup, they overpowered Higgins and locked him in a sickroom. The prisoners struck off each other’s irons, burst into the wards and armed themselves with weapons ranging from chair legs to scalpels and a poker. Some even found axes. They massed in the entrance of the hospital in silence, ready to fall on the guard when it came by. A hundred yards away this guard was mustering the gaol gang, about thirty convicts under the eye of a corporal and twelve privates of the 4th King’s Own Regiment. The guard corporal ordered the prisoners to march, but they would not budge. They stood there, rattling their chains. The signal was given. At that moment, Frayne looked toward the sawpits and cried, ‘Are you ready?’ Seconds later, forty convicts from the sawpits attacked the guards from behind, while the hospital gang burst from hiding and attacked their front. Taken completely by surprise, the soldiers could not get their weapons to their shoulders. The convicts ‘were within the bayonets of the Guard, before they were aware of them’ and for a few moments the convicts and guards locked, grappling for their guns. After a brief melee, military discipline prevailed and the guards now began firing as they backed into the gateway of the gaol, frantically loading and firing while their comrades kept the lunging convicts back at sabre-point. Several convicts, including Henry Drummond, one of the ringleaders went down and, as suddenly as it began, the fracas broke up.

Half a mile away in Quality Row, where the barracks and officers’ houses stood, Foster Fyans and his reacted quickly to the situation. They double-timed down the road to intercept the mutineers and when they charged again. Fyans gave the order to fire and, when the black-powder smoke cleared fifteen rebels were stretched on the ground while most of the others had plunged into the sugar cane that grew beside the road. Only the remnants of the gaol gang, hampered by their irons stood dumbly in surrender. Soldiers followed the escapees into the vegetable gardens and sugar cane. Fyans then led a detachment up the hill to deal with the convicts at the agricultural station at Longridge. They had lookouts where they could see the Kingston gaol buildings and signal the start of the mutiny. Convicts crowded exultantly around and Walter Bourke, their leader smashed the lock on the main tool chest and started passing out axes and pitchforks to the men. Crying ‘Liberty or Death!’ about eighty convicts followed him down the road to Flagstaff Hill. They expected to see a victorious crowd of fellow rebels surging to meet them. Instead they saw two men stumbling up the hill, one of them wounded pursued by redcoats. The soldiers fired a few rounds at the rebels, but the range was too great. Soon, they closed in and beat the rebels back to Longridge, taking twenty-eight prisoners on the way. With difficulty, Fyans kept the soldiers from bayoneting them to death on the spot, but felt later that ‘perhaps such lenity is ill bestowed’. Within a couple of hours, all the Longridge rebels were subdued and bound together with rope in a line, the soldiers marched them down the hill to Kingston.

By noon, Fyans had the mutineers confined in the main prison barracks, ‘nearly one thousand Ruffians’, he wrote later. A few were still missing, among them Robert Douglas, who was found later on the other side of the island at Anson’s Bay, still carrying a musket with ninety rounds of ammunition wrapped in a palm leaf. A bayonet thrust had destroyed his left eye and infection blinded the other a few days later. Fyans interrogated him daily in the hospital, but Douglas refused to say anything about the rebellion. The final tally of casualties was nine rebels dead and about fifty wounded.  No guard was killed until the night of 17 January, when two military search parties met in a cornfield while looking for rebels still at large and, each believing the other to be convicts, opened fire. One fluke shot killed both a civilian constable and Thomas York a young private of the 4th Regiment.

Captain Fyans adopted harsh measures against the rebels. It took blacksmiths nine days to make new irons for the prisoners. Rebels locked in the gaol awaiting trial were kept naked in a yard so crowded that not a third of them could sit at a time. For the next five months, while the reports went back to Sydney and arrangements were being made to send a judge to Norfolk Island, the rebels were kept locked to a chain cable. Mass floggings went on into the evening, until the ‘desperate lawless and listless mob’ had been scourged into submission. Some convicts, weary of their ‘acute and intolerable sufferings’ planned to commit group suicide, but never put their plan into action. It took Fyans and his staff five months to interrogate all the witnesses and take their depositions for trial. In this, Fyans was supported from March 1834 by Joseph Anderson, the new commandant of the island. Of those charged with mutiny, half were lifers and another third had sentences of fourteen years. In the course of the rebellion’s suppression, Knatchbull turned informer. 162 rebels were charged but the Attorney-General ruled that only 59 should be tried. The trials took place on Norfolk Island in July and twenty-nine rebels were sentenced to death. [11] Thirteen were eventually executed in front of their fellows on 22 and 23 September.


Lithograph on paper, 1844, artist unknown

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

After the trials, Judge Sir William Burton severely reprimanded Fyans:

Most improperly, Sir, did you act as a magistrate, in accepting a confession from Knatchbull; neither should any deposition have been taken from him. Throughout the trials his name has been connected in every case: he was the chief of the mutineers, the man you should have named first in the Calendar. You have saved his life, or prolonged it. He never can do good.

Fyans blamed himself for saving Knatchbull’s neck by accepting his depositions and ‘for so gross an act, in setting this monster loose on society.’ Burton was proved right. Knatchbull returned from Norfolk Island in May 1839 [12] and gained his second ticket-of-leave in July 1842 but was hanged early in 1844 for the murder of Ellen Jamieson, a shopkeeper. [13] There had been little surprise at the outcome of his trial since he had been caught red-handed with £17 taken from the victim and the public called for the rope. Defended by Robert Lowe, later British Home Secretary, the trial was not delayed by Lowe’s attempt to get an adjournment to seek medical opinion on Knatchbull’s sanity. Since Lowe could not offer a defence questioning what happened, he chose to argue a novel case for moral insanity. [14] This was rejected both by Judge Burton and the jury that found him guilty, a verdict widely supported in the press and by the public. [15] His execution on 13 February 1844 was attended by at least 5,000 people with The Australian putting the figure at double that amount. [16]

[1] HRA, Series I: Vol. 15, pp. 596-597.

[2] Parsons, Vivienne, ‘Morisset, James Thomas (1780-1852)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 260-261. See, Huskisson to Darling, 19 May 1828, HRA, Series I: Vol. 14, pp. 192-193, and Darling to Sir George Murray, 12 February 1829, HRA, Series I: Vol. 14, pp. 641-642.

[3] Darling to Goderich, 26 August 1831, HRA, Series I: Vol. 16, p. 339

[4] Sydney Gazette, 4 December 1832.

[5] Kercher, Bruce, Outsiders: tales from the Supreme Court of NSW, 1824-1836, (Australian Scholarly Publishing), 2006, pp. 109-124 considers violence on Norfolk Island. R v. Douglas and others, Supreme Court of NSW, July 1834, printed in Sydney Gazette, 13, 20, 27 September, 1834, provides the detail,

[6] Brown, P. L., ‘Fyans, Foster (1790-1870)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 422-424. See also, Memoirs recorded at Geelong, Victoria, Australia by Captain Foster Fyans, 1790-1870: transcribed from his holograph manuscript given by descendants to the State Library, Melbourne 1962, (Geelong Advertiser), 1986.

[7] Cit, ibid, Brown, P. L., ‘Fyans, Foster (1790-1870)’, p. 424.

[8] Sydney Gazette, 4 December 1832, detailed the ‘diabolical conspiracy’.

[9] ‘Knatchbull, John (1792?-1844)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 65-66, and Knatchbull, John, Life of John Knatchbull. Written by Himself, 23rd January-13th February, 1844, in Darlinghurst Gaol, first pub., Roderick, Colin, (ed.), John Knatchbull from Quarterdeck to Gallows, (Angus and Robertson), 1963.

[10] See, ‘Diabolical Conspiracy to murder the crew and guard of the Governor Philip transport on her passage to Norfolk Island’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 4 December 1832, and the report in Hobart Town Courier, 4 January 1833.

[11] The trial of the rebels, R v. Douglas and others, Supreme Court of NSW, July 1834, printed in Sydney Gazette, 13, 20, 27 September, 1834. The Sydney Herald and Australian gave no formal reports of these trials, although the Australian listed them on 22 August 1834.  The Sydney Herald reported the second to seventh trials on 27 September 1834. Bourke to Spring Rice, 15 January 1835, HRA, Series I: Vol. 17, pp. 638-639, provides the only ‘official’ discussion of the rebellion and trials.

[12] By 1839, fifteen years had elapsed since his initial sentence and Knatchbull assumed that his absolute pardon would follow when he wrote a most eloquent petition informing Governor Gipps after his return from Norfolk Island. His hopes were dashed by the note the Barracks clerk, Thomas Ryan, penned on the back of the document, repeating the unproven claim that Knatchbull had tried to poison the ship’s crew on the Governor Phillip. Ryan also drew the governor’s attention to the regulation that recommended a colonial conviction should not be served concurrently but be added to the original sentence. Rather than being released, Knatchbull was re-transported to Port Macquarie

[13] See, NSW State Archives, Supreme Court: Police report on John Knatchbull, 1844, 9/6329, No. 135.

[14] Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1844. See also, ‘Mental Epidemics’, The Australian, 1 February 1844, and ‘Monomania’, Sydney Morning Chronicle, 3 February 1844. The debate over Lowe’s novel defence continued after the execution, see Morning Chronicle, 8 June 1844,

[15] On R v. Knatchbull and the defence of ‘moral insanity’, see Woods, Gregory D., A history of criminal law in New South Wales: the colonial period 1788-1900, (Federation Press), 2002, pp. 159-162.

[16] The execution was reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 1844, and The Australian, 15 February 1844.

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