The Catalpa was the American whaler in which six Fenian convicts escaped from Western Australia 18 April 1876, the day of the Perth Regatta, which provided a distraction, and which is recalled in the song about the affair, 'The Catalpa' (see below).
The only incident of interest in connection with the Establishment itself during these years was the escape of six Fenian prisoners in 1876. This was effected through the instrumentality of an American (John Collins) assisted by Captain Antony of the American whaler Catalpa. Arriving at Fremantle late in 1875 Collins secured employment in a carriage factory, and quietly made himself thoroughly conversant with the methods of the Convict Establishment and the nature of the country to the south of Fremantle. Through the medium of a Fenian expiree he was brought into communication with six Fenian convicts who, on account of their good behaviour, were not subjected to strict supervision. A favourable moment for escape arrived when the Catalpa put in to Bunbury. By arrangement the six men left Fremantle in buggies on 18 April 1876 for Rockingham. When their departure became known they were hotly pursued by the police, who found on arrival at Rockingham that the convicts had been picked up by a whaleboat in waiting. The Catalpa being the only whaler known to be on the coast, the police returned to Fremantle and put off in the police-boat in search of her. After sighting her they fell in with the steamer Georgette, also in search, and learned that the Catalpa had been spoken to, but denied having convicts on board. Deciding to watch, they saw the whaler move northward, and on following observed a whaleboat making toward her. An exciting chase ensued, but the police were unsuccessful in preventing the Catalpa from picking up the boat and had to return to Fremantle. The Georgette was then sent out armed in the hope of meeting the whaler in territorial waters. The two ships met outside Rottnest. The Superintendent of Police demanded the convicts and threatened to fire. The captain of the Catalpa denied that any convicts were on board, and quietly pointed to the American flag. The police, chagrined, had to return empty-handed to Fremantle, after intimating that the United States Government would be communicated with. Governor Robinson forwarded a full account to the Secretary of State, who after investigating the circumstances decided that the matter was not one for diplomatic negotiations, and the Fenians remained under the United States flag. No doubt the British Government was not displeased to get rid so easily of men who, after all, were only political prisoners. Battye 1924.
Escape of the Fenians
Quite a sensation was created in Fremantle in April, 1876, by the escape of six Fenian prisoners from the convict establishment. The rescue was engineered by the Clan-na-Gael Society operating through agents in America. Towards the end of 1875, two plausible individuals, who gave the names of Collins and Jones, arrived in Fremantle, but the object of their visit was veiled in mystery. It transpired that they were emissaries of the Clan-na-Gael Society and their mission was to rescue Fenian prisoners. For that purpose the barque Catalpa had been acquired by the secret organisation, and in due time arrived in the guise of a whaler. Meanwhile Collins and Jones had everything in train, and it was surmised by many that they had the assistance of some of the prison officials in carrying out their scheme. Six Fenians were smuggled out of the prison in broad daylight and driven rapidly to Rockingham, where they were received, on board a whaleboat and taken to the Catalpa in the offing. Their flight was discovered and the police boat, in the charge of Coxswain Mills, was sent in pursuit in the hope of intercepting the fugitives before they reached the ship. The police boat overtook the barque and the crew distinctly saw Collins and some of the Fenians calmly leaning over the bulwarks, but they were unable to effect their capture. The Catalpa stood to sea and the police boat returned to Fremantle, where she reached about 10 o'clock at night. It was then decided to despatch the steamer Georgette armed with an old cannon and with 50 of the enrolled pensioner force on board under Major Finnerty, to demand the surrender of the escapees. On coming up with the Catalpa, the Georgette signalled her to stop, and no notice being taken, a shot was fired under her stern. The Catalpa continued on her course and another shot was fired across her bow. The barque then hoisted the American flag. J. F. Stone, superintendent of water police, demanded the surrender of the six prisoners and gave those on the barque fifteen minutes to decide, threatening, in the event of a refusal, that he would fire into the barque and disable her. Pointing to the American flag, the captain replied: ”I do not care what you do: that flag protects me.” The fiery old Major wanted to fire on the ship at all costs, but the more cautious Stone, who was in charge of the expedition, would not allow it, fearing that it might lead to complications with America. It might have been dangerous to have interfered with an American ship in 1876, when the Alabama compensation of £3,000,000 had been paid by England for a breach of international law. As nothing more could be done, the Georgette returned to Fremantle, where an excited crowd awaited news. Business was practically at a standstill and the ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone of the Masonic Hall, which had been fixed for the afternoon and had been looked forward to as a big event, attracted but little attention.
The most notable of the Fenian prisoners, John Boyle O'Reilly, escaped in 1869 in the American whaler Gazelle. He was a man of great literary ability, and after landing in America he became the editor of the Boston Pilot. He published a work of fiction treating with convict life in the colony under the title of Moondyne Joe. His poetical efforts included The Dukite Snake, The Monster Diamond, and The Dog Guards at Rottnest, all being stories of a penal colony. Hitchcock: 62-63.
A noble whale ship and commander
Called the Catalpa, they say
Came out to Western Australia
And took six poor Fenians away
So come all you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away
Seven long years had they served here
And seven long more had to stay
For defending their country Old Ireland
For that they were banished away
You kept them in Western Australia
Till their hair began to turn grey
When a Yank from the States of America
Came out here and stole them away
Now all the Perth boats were a-racing
And making short tacks for the spot
But the Yankee she tacked into Fremantle
And took the best prize of the lot
The Georgette armed with bold warriors
Went out the poor Yanks to arrest
But she hoisted her star-spangled banner
Saying you'll not board me I guess
So remember those six Fenians colonial
And sing o'er these few verses with skill
And remember the Yankee that stole them
And the home that they left on the hill
Now they've landed safe in America
And there will be able to cry
Hoist up the green flag and shamrock
Hurrah for old Ireland we'll die
Amos, Keith 1988, The Fenians in Australia 1865-1880, NSWUP.
Battye, JS 1924, Western Australia: A History from its Discovery to the Inauguration of the Commonwealth, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.
Garry Gillard | New: 10 February, 2016 | Now: 10 January, 2018