The Catalpa Rescue – Irish Revolutionaries
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The Catalpa Rescue

The Catalpa Rescue

.In what is probably the most daring prison escape in history, six Fenian prisoners are rescued from Fremantle prison in Western Australia and set sail for America on a ship called the Catalpa.

From 1865 - 1867 many Fenians were sent to prisons in Australia and others were forced to emigrate to the USA for planning a rebellion against British rule in Ireland.

Amongst those in America were John Devoy in New York & John Boyle O'Reilly in Boston who had escaped from a prison in Australia in 1869.

In 1874 John Devoy received a smuggled letter from imprisoned Fenian James Wilson asking for assistance in breaking out of Freemantle prison.

Devoy managed to persuade the Irish American organisation Clan na Gael to fund the rescue.

Fenian agents John Breslin and Thomas Desmond were despatched to Australia posing as American businessmen to plan the escape, they departed the US on September 1875 and arrived in Albany on November 1875.

In the meantime a whaling ship called the Catalpa was purchased, a captain & crew acquired, and they set sail for Australia on the 29th April 1875, from New Bedford, Massachusetts.

The captain George Anthony ran into many problems on the voyage to Australia, the chronometer was broken, so he had to rely on his own skills for navigation.

First, they sailed to Fayal Island in the Azores, where they off-loaded 210 barrels of sperm whale oil. Unfortunately, much of the crew deserted the ship, and they had to leave three sick men behind. Anthony recruited replacement crew members and set sail for Western Australia.

So after storms & dissertations, the Catalpa finally made it to Australia after eleven months at sea, five months late she dropped anchor off Bunbury on the 28th March 1876.

While waiting on the Catalpa to arrive Breslin & Desmond had made contact with the prisoners in Freemantle and told them an escape was imminent and had also made contact with Fenians based in Australia who were also planning an escape.

Now that captain Anthony had landed in Austraila he too helped in the planning of the escape, it was decided to wait until the prisoners were working outside the prison walls to mount a rescue.

On April 17th 1876 the Captalpa dropped anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatched a whaleboat to shore, at 8:30 am six Fenian prisoners absconded working outside Freemantle prison and were met by Breslin & Desmond and picked up in horse traps.

The men raced twelve miles south to Rockingham pier where Anthony awaited them with the whaleboat. A local named Bell he had spoken to earlier saw the men and quickly alerted the authorities.

As they rowed towards the Catalpa, a fierce storm broke breaking the whaleboats mast. The storm lasted a full day, at times it looked as if the small boat would not make it.

After the storm, they spotted the screw steamer SS Georgette which had been commandeered by the colonial governor, making for the whaler. The men lay down in the whaleboat, and the Georgette did not see it.

But the Georgette found the Catalpa, but in Captain Anthony’s absence, the First Mate refused to allow the colonial police to board as the ship was outside the colony’s three-mile limit. The steamer was forced to return to Fremantle for coal after following the Catalpa for several hours.

As the whaleboat again made for the ship a police cutter with 30 to 40 armed men was spotted. The two boats raced to reach the Catalpa first, with the whaleboat winning, and the men climbing aboard as the police cutter passed by. The cutter turned, lingered briefly beside the Catalpa, and then headed to shore.

Early on 19 April the refuelled and now heavily armed Georgette returned and came alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and attempting to herd the ship back into Australian waters.

The Georgette fired a warning shot with the 12-pounder (5 kg) cannon that had been installed the night before. Ignoring the demand to surrender, Anthony had raised, and then pointed towards, the U.S. flag, informed the Georgette that an attack on the Catalpa would be considered an act of war against the USA, and proceeded westward.

The Catalpa did its best to avoid Royal Navy ships on its way back to the USA, O'Reilly received the news of the escape on June 6th and released the news to the press.

The news sparked celebrations in Ireland and the USA, but anger in Britain & Australia.

The six Fenians freed were Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson.

In 1976 to mark the 100th anniversary of the rescue a memorial stone was erected in New Bedford, Massachusetts, home port of the Catalpa.

On September 9th 2005 a memorial was unveiled in Rockingham to commemorate the escape. The monument, a giant statue of six wild geese, the geese refer to the phrase "The Wild Geese", which was a name given to Irish soldiers who served in European armies after being exiled from Ireland.

From 22nd September 2006 to the 3rd December 2006 an exhibition, called "Escape: Fremantle to Freedom," opened at Fremantle Prison displaying many artefacts relating to the Catalpa rescue. The exhibition received over 20,000 visitors.


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