Part 3: Mission Impossible: The Catalpa Rescue
Wild Mad Chivalry And Unparalleled Bravery
In 1876 the Clan na Gael pulled off an audaciously bold, clever and daring rescue of six Fenians from an “inescapable” British jail in Australia. After the British crackdown on the Fenian Uprising in 1867, the leaders were arrested and sent to Australia on board the Houguemount, to the infamous prison in Botany Bay. Several years later, public pressure forced the British government to release most of the leaders from the brutal prison. But the six rebel leaders who had been Irishmen enlisted in the British Army were not released – their offense was deemed unpardonable. One of the prisoners, Wilson, managed to smuggle letters out, reaching out to Devoy in New York.
“Think that we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb since our first arrest, and that it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain that is upon us. One or the other must give way.” Wilson wrote, begging Devoy to find a way to free them. “Remember this is a voice from the tomb. For is this not a living tomb? In the tomb it is only a man’s body that is good for worms, but in this living tomb the canker worm of care enters the very soul.”
Devoy approached the Clan na Gael for several years in a row, suggesting they mount a rescue mission. His plea was dismissed as impractical – the prison, located between shark-infested waters and thousands of miles of desert, considered inescapable. But in 1874 the Clan eventually was persuaded, and came up with a scheme that took 18 months, 7,000 contributors, and $17,000.00 to implement. That it went without a hitch, freeing the prisoners from under the British wardens’ noses, was both galling and a huge embarrassment to Britain and an exhilarating victory for the Clan na Gael, winning them world-wide acclaim.
According to John Kenny’s obituary he played “a prominent role” although it does not say just what that role was. However, this newspaper clipping is among Devoy’s papers on file in the National Library in Dublin. It says: “…John Kenny, Tallaght, and Thomas Brennan, Dublin, were responsible for the arrangements to get the imprisoned Fenians on board the Catalpa.” (This may or may not be a different John Kenny)
As soon as Devoy convinced the Can na Gael to attempt the rescue, fund-raising began immediately, if disappointingly. Wary of informers among the membership, the Clan had begun fund-raising without revealing any details of the project. They soon realized that the members were reluctant to contribute to a project about which they knew next to nothing. The organizers printed the resolution along with the letters from the prisoners Hogan and Wilson, and circulated them to the eighty-six branches of the Clan. Eventually, over 7,000 men knew the plans. Incredibly, the British did not get wind of it.
The next step was to formulate a fool-proof plan. Numerous meetings were held with former prisoners of Freemantle, documenting as much as possible about the layout and the routines of the prison. Slowly the plans took shape. One of the original ideas, suggested by Thomas McCarthy Fennell, a “ticket of leave” man who had himself been imprisoned in Western Australia, involved sending a ship on some legitimate business or other, to dock in the waters not too far from the prison where the prisoners could schedule a rendezvous.
Fund raising continued, and eventually the Clan collected $17,000 towards the mission. Coming from the struggling immigrant class this was an enormous amount of money; however, it was only half the cost of chartering or buying a ship. There was no way to wring more money out of the contributors. The project stalled again.
Then the idea arose to use the money to buy and outfit a whaling ship which the Clan na Gael could then borrow against the ship to underwrite a whaling expedition to the South Seas. Whaling was a high stakes investment and they were treading a fine line. The odds were high that they would capture no whales at all, and lose their entire investment. Capturing just one whale would more than cover their costs – however, if they were too successful at catching whales, the hired crew might abandon the mission altogether to keep on with the whaling.
In April 1875, a Clan na Gael committee traveled to New Bedford and to purchase a ship named The Catalpa, and to hire a captain. Captain George Anthony, who had no Irish ancestry or connections whatsoever, was brought in on the scheme. Fortunately, the idea of helping six freedom fighters regain their rightful freedom appealed greatly to him, and he signed on.
Next was the difficult task of deciding which Clan-na-Gael men would be allowed to accompany the voyage. “There are so many men in the Irish movement who want to have a hand in any work involving danger that it will be impossible to satisfy them all…” Devoy wrote. It was decided that two men who could fill needed roles on board ship would be selected. John O’Connor, an experienced cook who could serve as steward, and Duggan, an experienced carpenter, were selected. The rest of the hired crew – none of them Clan members – were kept in the dark about the true purpose of the expedition. As far as they knew, they were simply on a whaling expedition to the South Seas.
The crew was settled upon, and on April 29, 1875 the ship set sail from New Bedford for what was expected to be a twelve-month trip.
The next step of the plan was put into action: an advance team was sent to Freemantle to scope out the situation and to establish contact with the prisoners. In August John J. Breslin, who had orchestrated the liberation of I.R.B. founder James Stephens from Richmond Prison, set out from New York for San Francisco, where he met up with Thomas Desmond of the California branch of the Clan na Gael . Despite the fact that they had never met before, they immediately sensed that they would work well together, and on September 13th, they boarded a ship sailing for Sydney. Traveling as “Collins” and “Johnston,” Breslin and Desmond arrived in Sydney on Oct 15th. Desmond traveled to Melbourne where he stayed, and Breslin continued on to Freemantle, arriving on November 13th.
Using forged documents that showed he held large interests in lands and mines in Nevada, Breslin soon established himself as an American millionaire in the area looking for some promising investments. Using his considerable charm and good manners, Breslin befriended the governor and by mid-December had managed to get himself a tour of the prison, including all the corridors, chapels, punishment cells, hospital, cook-house, workshops and storerooms.
He felt there was not much hope of springing the prisoners from within the prison. They would have to somehow arrange for all six of the prisoners to disappear from outside work jobs at the same time, and for their disappearance to go unnoticed long enough for them to get to the Catalpa.
Meanwhile, the Catalpa was running six months behind schedule. Breslin, anxiously waiting in Fremantle for its arrival, increasingly worried that he would run out of funds or that his cover would be blown. The Catalpa was plagued by misfortune: the ship’s marine chronometer was broken, and the crew was forced to fall back on their navigation skills. In addition, the Catalpa was not having much success on its whaling mission. After an early success of catching one whale (actually, killing four but being able to capture and take on only one), they had not captured any more whales. Landing in Faial Island in the Azores to offload the sperm oil they lost almost all of the crew: most of the crew deserted, and the rest were sick. Anthony managed to hire another crew, and set sail again.
Despite the string of bad luck, they experienced an extraordinary, serendipitous event that reassured them that the fates were on their side. On a beautiful sunny morning, the Catalpa came across the Ocean Beauty, a British ship heading for New Zealand. Anthony boarded the ship and spent a convivial hour with the large, friendly English captain. Asking the captain if he had ever traveled these waters before, Anthony was stunned when the captain told him that yes, in fact he had captained a convict ship called the Hougoumount in 1868. Anthony realized after a moment that that was the very ship that transported the Fenians he was now on a mission to rescue. The captain reminisced about how the Fenians had written a newsletter, and would gather together to read it aloud by lamplight in the evenings on board ship. Anthony asked if the captain could recommend a good place to stop for refitting and provisioning. The captain could do more than that: he offered Anthony a roll of charts and told him to take whatever he liked. Anthony unrolled the charts and selected one with the western coast of Australia in large scale, showing the Swan River, Freemantle, Bunbury, Rottnest Island and lighthouse.
Bidding the captain farewell, Anthony returned to the Catalpa with his charts. The fact that he had taken the very chart which had been used by the captain of the Hougoumount to transport the prisoners they were now going to rescue, kept Anthony and his first mate Mr Smith, in good humor for a long time.
But now, a major decision faced Captain Anthony. The trip had not come close to covering costs, and he had to decide whether to head straight for Australia and arrive on schedule, or follow the whales in one last attempt to make the trip pay for itself. He chose the latter. In Freemantle, as January slipped in to February, Breslin daily checked the shipping posts; still no word came. His money was running out, and he was finding it hard to stretch out his “fact-finding” mission much longer without arousing suspicion.
In addition, two strangers had shown up in town, asking questions. Thinking they might be British spies who had gotten wind of the plot, Breslin decided to get to know them. He decided grimly that he would have to kill them if necessary rather than have the plot uncovered at this point. Meeting with them, he discovered that they were in town for the same purpose. Unknown to the Clan, the prisoners had also written to friends in Ireland, who had also come up with a rescue plan. John Durham and Denis F. McCarthy, from Kenmare, County Kerry, had also been sent to Freemantle to free the prisoners.
Finally, at the end of March, Breslin saw with great relief that the Catalpa had arrived in Bunbury. He traveled to Bunbury to meet with Captain Anthony. The two men took a ride on the mail boat Georgette as it steamed up the coast, with Breslin pointing out to Anthony the exact location 12 miles offshore where he, Anthony, should lie in wait for the prisoners. Breslin and Desmond would pick the prisoners up and deliver them to the beach at Rockingham, where Anthony would send a whaleboat from the Catalpa to pick them up.
The next few days saw a few false starts – plans had to be delayed because British ships were in the area. When the coast was finally clear, plans again had to be put on hold one more day: it happened to be Good Friday, a day when there would be no “business as usual.” Breslin managed to get a letter in to Wilson, detailing the plans, and ending with: “We have the money, arms, and clothes; let no man’s heart fail him, for this chance may never occur again.”
Finally it appeared to be all clear for the day after Easter, a fitting day for the prisoners, previously in a living hell, to be restored to a life of freedom. (The date would have echoes years later, when the Easter Uprising would also take place on the Monday after Easter) On Saturday afternoon, Breslin saw one of the prisoners, Wilson, out on work detail in the town and gave him the signal that meant they were on. To ensure there was no confusion, “keeping him in sight, I walked leisurely across where the prisoners were working and sufficiently near to say: “Monday morning” without being observed by the warder or any of the other prisoners.”
to be continued…