Part 4 (conclusion) Mission Impossible: The Catalpa Rescue
Wild Mad Chivalry And Unparalleled Bravery
Desmond arrived from Perth on Easter Sunday afternoon, April 16th. Arising before 6 a.m. on Monday, Breslin set off for Rockingham to check that all was okay along the route. He was back in Freemantle by 7 a.m. He quickly loaded rifles and revolvers into the trap, then tossed coats and hats for the prisoners to cover their uniforms, over the guns to hide them. As planned, Desmond [note – see photo of newspaper clipping from John Devoy’s papers – says that Desmond, John Kenny and Thomas Brennan were responsible for the arrangements to get the imprisoned Fenians on board the Catalpa] headed quietly out of Freemantle via a side street that would eventually lead to the Rockingham Road. Breslin conspicuously rode his horses and trap up the High Street in the direction of Perth; further up the road he turned back and headed toward Rockingham. King, a fellow conspirator, followed up on horseback at a good distance, to watch and see if they were being followed.
A false message was delivered to the warder that Wilson, Cranston, and Harrington were wanted at the governor’s house to move furniture.
At 7:45 a.m. Breslin and Desmond arrived at the spot, a five-minute run from the prison, they had designated as the meeting point for the prisoners.
At 7:55 a.m., the first of the prisoners appeared marching down the Rockingham Road. As Wilson, Cranston, and Harrington approached the trap, Desmond instructed them to climb aboard and don the black coats and hats to hide the prison uniforms. Desmond wheeled his trap around and set off, just as Breslin saw three more men coming down the road – Darragh, Hogan, and Hassett. As soon as the men drew close enough to recognize Breslin, one flung the spade he was carrying high and wide into the bushes and another, carrying a kerosene can, kicked it vehemently off to the side. Together they reached the trap. To Breslin’s wild exasperation, the horses refused to turn around. Frantically, he started them up, and reaching a good speed further up the road, wheeled them around and dashed back to the men. The men threw themselves into the trap as Breslin urged the horses on towards Rockingham. King caught up to them and told them that so far, all was quiet.
Breslin raced the 50 kilometers towards Rockingham. Within an hour, he had closed the gap between himself and Desmond. At half past ten, they arrived at their rendezvous spot on the beach.
The whale boat from the Catalpa was waiting. Desmond, Breslin and the six prisoners clambered into the boat, stowing themselves and the guns in as little space as possible, and the boat was shoved off. The boat’s crew, completely taken aback by the unexpected appearance of six extra passengers, all carrying rifles and revolvers, pulled badly at first. But they soon got their stride, pulling as if their lives depended on it – which, indeed, they did.
Two miles out from shore they looked back to see the mounted police arrive on the beach. They had been tipped off by someone who had seen the whale boat pull out to sea.
Breslin pulled out a letter he had written to the governor and read it to the prisoners and crew:
Rockingham, April 17, 1876
To His Excellency the British Governor of Western Australia –
This is to certify that I have this day released from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc, etc, six Irishmen, condemned to imprisonment for life by the enlightened and magnanimous government of Great Britain, for having been guilty of the atrocious and unpardonable crimes known to the enlightened portion of mankind as “love of country” and “hatred of tyranny.” For this act of “Irish Assurance” my birth and blood being my full and sufficient warrant. Allow me to add that:
I’m taking my leave now, I’ve only to say,
A few cells I’ve emptied (a sell in its way).
I’ve the honor and pleasure to bid you good-day.
From all future acquaintance, excuse me, I pray.
In the service of my country,
John J. Breslin[i]
He then “posted it to [the governor] by ocean mail” by attaching it to a piece of wood and setting it afloat back to shore.
Now that they had been spotted, it would be only a matter of time before they were pursued by boat. They bent themselves to the back-breaking four-hour row to meet the Catalpa, waiting for them just inside international waters. Around 7 p.m. a bad squall struck, breaking off the mast. They stowed the mast and sail in the ship. But looking up, they saw with sinking hearts the Catalpa disappearing in the encroaching darkness. They continued to pull in the direction of the Catalpa until 10 p.m., hoping to see lights, but with no luck. The weather became more severe, with the men spending the night in the open boat.
On board the Catalpa, Capt Anthony, with a heavy heart, watched the storm, losing any hope that the whaleboat would survive.
As dawn broke the storm eased up, and at 7 a.m. the men in the whaleboat elatedly caught sight of the Catalpa heading towards them. Their elation was short-lived: behind them, they saw the British ship Georgette steaming out of Freemantle with all sails set, heading in the direction of the Catalpa.
Desperately, the whale boaters rowed as hard as they could, but they were outmatched by the Georgette. Realizing the Georgette would reach the Catalpa well before they could, they pulled down the mast and laid low in the boat, hoping the Georgette would not see them. The strategy worked – the Georgette steamed past without seeing them, and as soon as the ship was far enough away, they pulled into her wake and followed, undetected. They watched the Georgette pull alongside the Catalpa and stay there for about ten minutes, then gradually steer away from the Catalpa and head back towards shore.
The Catalpa was now only about 5 miles away from the whale boat. It was now 8:30 a.m. The Georgette heading away towards land, the whale boat crew put up the sails and again rowed with all their strength, heading for the Catalpa and keeping an eye on both the Georgette and the Catalpa.
Although the Georgette was increasing its distance from the whaleboat, so, unfortunately, was the Catalpa. Three hours of rowing only resulted in the Catalpa being an additional six miles away from the whale boat. Desperately, whale boaters watched as the Georgette turned away from the direction of the harbor and headed up along the coast. They realized that the Georgette was now looking for the whaleboat. If she put out to sea just a little more, they would be in her line of vision. As the Catalpa continued to recede from view, the whaleboaters doubled their efforts in heading towards her. They began to refer to the Catalpa as a phantom ship, as the more they strove to reach her, the further she receded from them.
The Georgette now changed direction and was bearing down on the whale boat; discovery was all but inevitable. They put the mast down and continued to row, laying as low as possible and at one point stopping rowing altogether.
Around 12:30 p.m., the Georgette passed so close that the whale boaters were able to make out men on the deck – who incredibly appeared not to see the whale boat and continued out to the Catalpa. Dauntless, the whaleboaters picked up their rowing and continued towards the Catalpa, feeling an iota of hope as it appeared that they were making some progress.
About 2 p.m. they jubilantly saw that the Catalpa had changed course and was now heading towards them. Wilson stood in the bow holding a blue flag and around 2:30 p.m., they were certain the Catalpa, now heading directly for them, had spotted them.
But it was too soon to celebrate victory. Fast approaching the Catalpa from the other side was another ship – the water police cutter, with thirty to forty armed policemen on board. Almost for certain, the cutter would reach the Catalpa before they could, but they made one last super-human effort. Miraculously, it paid off: a half hour later they reached the weather side of the ship and scrambled aboard minutes before the police cutter reached the leeward side. As Breslin’s feet hit the deck he barked “Hoist the flag and out to sea.” Within two minutes, the Stars and Stripes were flying on the peak and the ship was on its course.
As the police cutter dropped alongside, Breslin blew a kiss to the “gentlemen who had lost the race” and shouted “Goodbye, Captain, goodbye.” The police cutter lingered briefly alongside the Catalpa, and then turned and headed back to shore.
On board the Catalpa after their twenty-eight hours in an open boat, the men were soaked with rain and sea water and emotionally gutted. They craved nothing more than dry clothes and a hot drink of rum and coffee. Later revived by supper, they walked around the deck exultantly, enjoying what they took to be their last sight of Australia. The ship was moving steadily in a gentle breeze as they reveled in their freedom. By 9 p.m. they were all asleep below deck.
At 5 a.m. the next morning, Breslin awoke and came up on deck, exulting in their success. It was then that he realized the wind had shifted and they were now drifting helplessly back towards Freemantle and out of the safety of international waters. Overhead, the lookout announced the sighting of a ship. With the rising of the sun, they saw that it was again the Georgette, refueled and now heavily armed, heading straight for them.
Within the hour the armed steamship was only a half mile from the unarmed sailboat, close enough for the Catalpa sailors to see the man-of-war ship and the vice-admiral’s flag flying. The Catalpa raised the Stars and Stripes and held to its course. The Georgette turned and followed, and as the breeze picked up and died down, the Georgette, with the advantage of steam power was able to catch up with the Catalpa, which was at the mercy of the wind. The Georgette approached so near that the Catalpa crew was able to make out guns, artillery, and the water police on board, as well as whaleboats to be used for boarding the Catalpa.
Breslin went below deck to the men. Grimly he told them that they were in every way outmanned and outgunned; if recaptured, the prisoners could be hanged. He asked them what their choice was: did they want to surrender, or did they want to fight to the death. The decision was unanimous: they would hold out to the end rather than surrender. Breslin ordered the prisoners to stay below deck, and headed up on deck himself.
The Georgette pulled up alongside the Catalpa, guns manned and directed towards the whaler, and fired a shot across the bow of the Catalpa. The captain of the Georgette shouted over that they knew there were six convicts on board. “I telegraphed your government; don’t you know that you are amenable to British law in this Colony?” he shouted. “You have six convict prisoners on board. I see some of them now.”
Breslin leaned in toward Capt. Anthony, and told him the Georgette’s captain must be bluffing – he could not have sent a message to Adelaide in that time frame.
“I give you fifteen minutes” called the captain of the Georgette, “and you must take the consequences; I have the means to do it, and if you don’t heave to I’ll blow the masts out of you.”
Captain Anthony pointed to the U.S. flag and reminded the captain that an attack on the Catalpa would be considered an act of war against the U.S.
“That’s the American flag” he shouted, “I am on the high seas. My flag protects me. If you fire on this ship you fire on the American flag”.
Realizing that firing on the Catalpa would indeed be an act of war against the US, the captain of the Georgette fumed but did not dare to fire. The Georgette kept abreast of the Catalpa for an hour or so, then, with her coal supply running low, she steamed slowly across the Catalpa’s stern, but did not discharge any shots. The two ships missed each other by inches. The Georgette headed back to the dock at Freemantle, where the townspeople had gathered for the last few hours to watch the drama.
Thanks to Durham and McCarthy’s cutting of the telegraph cables, the news of the rescue didn’t reach London until June. The story reached John Boyle O’Reilly, on June 7, and he released the news. A David-and-Goliath story, the story of the Catalpa rescue created an international sensation. The rescue engendered celebration and pride in Ireland and the United States, and humiliation and anger in Britain and Australia (although among the civilians in Australia there was sympathy for the prisoners).
The rescued prisoners arrived in New York on August 19, 1876, where they were treated to VIP treatment by New York politicians and citizens, and given a huge parade. Celebrated for its wit and ingenuity, their story became legend. For the Fenians and the Clan na Gael , the rescue was a resounding triumph.
When John Joseph Breslin died at his New York home on November 18, 1887, a local newspaper, “Irish World,” reported:
“Between three and four thousand people, four deep, marched in procession after the hearse that bore the remains … to their last resting place. All the various elements of Irish nationalism were represented …”
“The Catholic News” editorialized:
“There was no more romantic figure in the stormy history of modern Ireland than Breslin, whose unselfish life, burning love of country, wild, mad, chivalry and unparalleled bravery are written in the hearts of Erin’s sons and daughters …”
In Australia, it became a punishable crime to sing any of the songs written to laud the prisoners and their escape. Captain Anthony never again sailed into international waters, where he was liable to arrest by the British Navy.
Their years in Freemantle, however, had taken their toll on the prisoners. Despite their new-found freedom and frame, their physical and mental health were damaged beyond repair.
Memorial and sculpture dedicated to the Irish convicts sent to Western Australia.