Death or Liberty

BOOK REVIEW by Felicity Allen

Barbara Hall, Death or Liberty: the convicts of the Britannia, Barbara Hall, 2006

ISBN: 0 9581499 2 5

RRP: $50

Available: from

The history of convict transportation to Australia shows a surprisingly well run enterprise with some ghastly exceptions. Most of the worst voyages occurred early on, before the bonus system for landing convicts alive at Botany Bay was instituted.

Perhaps the most famous of these terrible exceptions was the Second Fleet transport Neptune, but there were certainly others with equal claims to infamy. The ships’ doctors often played an heroic role in speaking up for decent conditions for the convicts, but the real recipe for disaster was a brutal master and an incompetent or weak surgeon. Irish convicts were markedly more likely to die on early convict transports than Scots or English ones. Many Irish men had been transported for political offences and the captains feared that they would mutiny, so that they were treated very harshly, denied opportunities for exercise and often half-starved.



This fatal (for many) combination of unsuitable ships’ personnel and possibly mutinous convicts was in place just over 200 years ago, when Irish convicts experienced a voyage of sadism on their way to Britain’s then new penal colony of Australia. In December 1796, the Britannia set sail from Cork under Captain Thomas Dennot with Surgeon Augustus Beyer on what would be one of the worst voyages in the history of transportation. Considering the savage way they were treated, the death rate amongst the convicts (10%) was surprisingly low, especially when compared with the 31% who died on the Neptune, but it was the brutal punishment of the convicts that appalled even hardened 18th century sensibilities.

Barbara Hall has conducted a thorough survey of all the extant records of both the voyage and the convicts’ later lives in the colony. The Britannia was a square rigged ship of 500 tons and relatively new. She had been a merchant ship for 20 years, until her owners refitted her for the new private enterprise of transporting convicts. Private prisons then were just as lucrative as they are today.

Almost 200 convicts (the exact total is unclear, ranging from 188 to 196) were the shackled passengers on this terrible journey. If 196 is taken as the total, then about one in four (23%) were women. Over half (52%) of the convicts were officially classified as rebels of some sort and had been charged with political crimes such as ‘Defenderism’ and ‘administering unlawful oaths’, although Hall believes that the real total of rebels is higher. In many cases, the crime and trial records for the convicts have been lost, so that it’s not clear whether their offences were political or not. Hall clarifies the background of political unrest in the Ireland of 1795-96, which contributed to the high proportion of political ‘criminals’ on board ship. Amongst the many Defenders were two Orangemen; Craig and McGowan.

The format of Hall’s book is a brief introduction covering the background to the convict transport, the embarkation and then some discussion of the later inquiry. She then proceeds to give a detailed account of all the records that she can find against each convict’s name. In some cases, these run to several pages, whereas others like Jane Graham are virtually ghosts in the text. No details of Jane’s trial are known except that she was sentenced for seven years and there is no record of her in the colony. This approach to the records is a treasure trove for the family historian, but makes it difficult to ‘follow the plot’ of the dreadful actions on board ship. Other sources, such as the link to the Britannia’s full complement given above, are needed.

Battle between Defenders and British Soldiers. Credit Kilcullen Resources

The existence of a political component to Dennott’s treatment of the convicts is a very real possibility. His complement of convicts contained an unusually high number convicted of serious crimes including 4 murderers, 4 convicted of high treason, 5 men who had ‘attacked a dwelling house’ and one transported for ‘wounding Major Cole Hamilton’. Names on the convict list included William Silk, a convicted ‘rebel’ who was nevertheless allowed to bring his wife and two children on the voyage with him. One wonders how those children were affected by the sight and sound of the punishments inflicted on the convicts. Like several others on the ship, Silk’s commitment to armed rebellion continued on reaching Sydney and he was involved in the 1800 convict uprising. Elizabeth Rafferty, whose crime is not now known, was clearly an outstanding survivor. She became the captain’s mistress on the voyage, bore his son on reaching Sydney in 1797, and died a wealthy woman in Botany Bay.

Dennott actively sought for signs of mutiny. In an episode directly relevant to modern discussions about the use of torture by governments, Dennott had a supposed ringleader, William Trimball, flogged until he gave a list of 31 convicts who had allegedly taken an oath to mutiny. The ship was searched for weapons; the guards found home-made saws, six home made knives, a few lengths of hoop iron and a pair of scissors. It was cause enough for Dennott to unleash his depravity against all the convicts on board. The men Trimball named, in turn named him as being involved in the planned mutiny, so that he received another 300 lashes.

Whether there were really was a mutiny afoot or whether it was convenient to assert one has been in some doubt ever since Governor Hunter described it as ‘.. some conjecture.. ‘. Many of the convicts clearly were committed rebels who participated in later risings after landing in Australia. On the other hand, Dennott’s orders, before the ship had even left Cork, make his views on discipline very clear. The mate – Thomas Ricketts – was to ensure that the convicts were ‘exercised’ by bringing groups of 30 at a time on deck and chaining them to the ship’s side. Any prisoner found out of irons was to be given 72 lashes with Ricketts in charge of determining whether the prisoner could bear the punishment – not Beyer, the surgeon. It was unusual to keep prisoners in irons during the voyage itself and also rare to dispense corporal punishment to female convicts, though this voyage proved exceptional in both areas.

It’s surprising that Surgeon Beyer tolerated the transfer of responsibility for determining fitness for punishment since he was already on his third convict voyage; the first surgeon to make so many trips. His previous voyages (Boddington and Scarborough) differed markedly in death rates, though it’s unclear why that was. Only one convict died on the Boddington, but over one-quarter (28%) died on the Scarborough’s Second Fleet voyage when he had acted as surgeon. As it was, on the Britannia, Beyer did not always attend punishments being inflicted, saying that it was not his duty to do so unless Dennott ordered it. His duty to inspect the convicts’ quarters, on the other hand, was certainly clear. It’s also clear that he neglected it, making only about 3 visits below during the entire voyage. Convicts needing medical treatment testified that they were afraid to consult him, though the rarity of his appearance below decks would have meant that they would have had little chance to speak to him.

Convict ship. Credit Wikitree

Convict ship. Credit Wikitree

He certainly testified against Dennott’s treatment of the convicts in no uncertain terms in the later enquiry about the events on the Britannia, but seemed unable to assert his authority when it was needed – on the voyage.

Hall’s approach to the records means that the reader can get a vivid idea of just what could happen to individual convicts on an 18th century convict ship. Much of what we know about Dennott’s behaviour comes from the testimony of convicts and marines submitted to the inquest. One convict, James Brennan, suffered the appalling total of 800 lashes over two successive days.  Even after receiving the first 300 he insisted that he knew nothing about the mutiny. The next day when another 500 lashes were ordered he ‘expostulated with the captain’ and said that he had been a recruiting sergeant for His Majesty King George. The testimony goes on:

The captain, in return, damn’d His Majesty and himself and then ordered him to be tied up, and looking at the catt observed they were not sufficient to open his skin. He then got a piece of horse-skin and made the boatswain get another piece [..] and the captain took it and stood by while the boatswain tied knots on the leather. He then ordered the men some grog before they began to flog them, saying ‘damn your eyes, this will open your carcase’.

Brennan then confessed to taking the oath (of the Defenders) but still denied that he had administered the oath to others and insisted that the mutiny plans had been dropped. His physical toughness was such that it took several days for him to die but witnesses recalled his sufferings to the inquest.

Patrick Gormley received 400 lashes for alleged participation in the planned mutiny without the surgeon being consulted on his fitness. He died the morning after the flogging. At the later inquiry, the surgeon stated that he did not think he had died of the flogging, as he had been a ‘strong, muscular man’ but from drinking his own urine as no water was available to him. It’s hard to understand why Beyer, in charge of the living conditions of the convicts, would have seen this as an excuse. Indeed poor access to water (see below) was a problem throughout the voyage.

These are the most severe punishments ever to be administered during the entire history of convict transportation to Australia. A total of 7,900 lashes were administered on this voyage and 6 of the convicts died as a direct result of floggings.

The women were also treated with unusual cruelty. Several had their hair shaved and suffered public canings. One woman, Jenny Blake, fought with other convicts below decks and then tried to commit suicide for which Dennott personally cut off her hair, then had her caned at the bulkhead and ordered her to be put in double irons. Another woman, Mary Colligan (or Cogan), committed suicide in the night because, it was claimed, Dennott had threatened to punish her next morning. The treatment of the women led to one of the rare attempts at intervention on the Britannia when the commander of the guard, Lieutenant William Burn, of the New South Wales Corps, remonstrated with Dennott for placing a woman convict  in the neck-yoke for two hours. The master told him that he had no right to interfere with the convicts. After this Burn made no further protest about the brutality with which the prisoners were treated.

Water was not supplied regularly to the convicts. Some were not given a drink even after they had been flogged and were calling out for water. On one occasion when water was finally taken in to their quarters after a long interval, those convicts who could scrambled for a drink making a considerable noise about it. Captain Dennott sent the third mate, Isaac Frome, down to find out what the noise was about. He had ordered Frome to knock down any any man found out of his berth. Frome duly struck a convict named Connor across the back as he was bending down to drink. Connor had been flogged shortly before and died the following morning.

After 169 days of torture, thirst and semi-starvation the ship docked in Port Jackson on 27 May 1797. Eighteen men and one woman had died. Those that survived were brutalised and emaciated. Their appearance on landing was so disturbing that Governor Hunter ordered an inquiry into the voyage in Sydney.

Governor Hunter. Credit Clan Hunter

Governor Hunter. Credit Clan Hunter

Dennott was accused of having caused the deaths of six convicts by the severity of the punishments he had ordered; and secondly, he was charged that his general conduct as a ship’s master had not been conducive to the carrying out of the government’s intention that the prisoners should be conveyed to Sydney in health and safety.

In addition to the savage punishments, the ship’s refitting was inadequate since it was very leaky, adding to the convicts’ misery. Attempts to dry out their quarters had been abandoned early in the voyage and Beyer was criticised for having allowed this situation to continue. Inadequate rations had been supplied to the convicts causing near starvation conditions below decks.

The ship had sailed with sufficient rations for all on board and had stopped at Rio de Janeiro to replenish the stores.  The reason the convicts were half starved is that the rations were deliberately with-held. Dennott, like other oppressive masters, tried to sell the ‘left-over’ rations when he arrived in Sydney.  This practice was common and increased the profit margin for the captains.

The court found unanimously that Dennott’s punishment of the convicts had been imprudent and that his conduct had bordered on too great a degree of severity. It held that Beyer was particularly culpable in failing to protest steadfastly against the cruelties about which he had testified, and that the surgeon therefore had been so negligent and indifferent in the performance of his duty that he had become an accessory to the master’s inhumanity. Some witnesses at the enquiry testified that Beyer had been more than indifferent to their sufferings and accused him of active involvement in some of the cruelties but this testimony was dismissed.

The court’s verdict was astonishingly lenient. Dennott’s guilt was clear and obvious, and he should have been convicted of manslaughter, if not of murder.

To the everlasting shame of the British authorities, neither man was punished, except that they were never again employed in the lucrative convict service. This outcome needs to be seen in the context of the times when Captain Traill, master of the Neptune, was acquitted of murder despite the deaths of one-third of the convicts on his ship. Governor Hunter sent a transcript of the court proceedings to England, but no prosecutions were undertaken. Admittedly the legal difficulties were great but not insurmountable even under the conditions that prevailed at the time. Alternatively, if the British Government had really wished to punish such men as Dennott and Beyer, it could have set up a competent court in Australia by Act of Parliament.

Other convict ships that Barbara Hall has covered in a similar manner include:

The Irish Vanguard, the convicts of the Queen, Ireland to Botany Bay 1791
A Desperate Set of Villains, the convicts of the Marquis Cornwallis, Ireland to Botany Bay 1796
Of Infamous Character, the convicts of the Boddingtons, Ireland to Botany Bay 1793
A Nimble Fingered Tribe, the convicts of the Sugar Cane, Ireland to Botany Bay 1793.

Other convict ships’ voyages  reviewed in Tinteán include The Regalia and The Hive.

A copy of Hall’s ‘Death or Liberty’ is available to members in the Celtic Club library.

Tinteán’s interest in the voyage of the Britannia arose from a radio broadcast, Voyage into Hell, on 30th  May 2014 It was aired on the independent Irish talk back radio station, Newstalk in collaboration with Eoin HaHessy a Melbourne historian and writer ( flight of the cubs) and presented by Professor Geoghan of  Trinity College, Dublin. The story of the Britannia is part of a their Talking History series exploring Irish-Australian history.

Felicity Allen,
Tinteán Editorial collective.