Alexander Pearce: A Disturbing Journey Through  

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SYNOPSIS

This week we go back to the Penal Colonies of Australia to visit a story of grimey adventure, with Alexander Pearce, a convict who escaped into the bush and then, naturally, ate all his friends.

Knopf A., Alfred, (1987) The Fatal Shore: A history of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1787-1868, Collins Harvill, UK
 
Collins, Paul, (2004) Hells Gates, Hardie Grant Books, Australia 
 
Boyce, James. “Return to Eden: Van Diemen’s Land and the Early British Settlement of Australia.” Environment and History 14, no. 2, “Australia Revisited” special issue (May, 2008): 289–307.
Convict Life, libraries.tas.gov.au/family-history/Pages/Convict-life.aspx.
 
Pearce, Alexander, talis.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/names/search/detailnonmodal/ent:$002f$002fNAME_INDEXES$002f0$002fNAME_INDEXES:1424923/one.
 
“The Land of the ‘Free’: Criminal Transportation to America.” The History Press, www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-land-of-the-free-criminal-transportation-to-america/.

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Alexander Pearce: A Disturbing Journey Through The New World

Intro

Seven years is a long time. For a convict like Alexander Pearce, the prospect of seven years serving the crown in a distant land, effectively working as slave labour, was much too long. Arrested, tried and shipped off to the penal colonies of the New World, life had served Pearce a pretty bum hand over the past few years and now he found himself with no shoes, lost in the middle of a rainforest with only the forearm of one of the members of his old chain gang to chew on. Freedom was not panning out quite as he thought it would. When Pearce’s narrative of his misadventures in the penal colonies of Australia was initially published in pamphlet form in 1824, the introduction described it as “a rollicking story of escape, adventure, misfortune and intrigue”. Though it certainly glossed over a few gory details, cleaning it up for public consumption, it is hard to reach the end and then argue with the sentiment. Pearce, however, if he was still alive, might have called it something else entirely. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.

Transportation & Penal Colonies

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, being arrested, whilst gradually becoming less potentially fatal, could still harbour the very real possibility of life changing decisions being made against a defendant in court. London was overcrowded, unemployment was endemic and gaols were busting at the seams, a problem exacerbated by the abolition of capital punishment for petty crimes such as shoplifting and pickpocketing in 1808. Hand in hand with the sweeping social changes that the Industrial Revolution was creating across Britain, the rolling back of the use of execution as punishment was seen by its detractors as advancing the country morally, however, it was becoming clearly apparent that the infrastructure to house a population of criminals, many of whom were increasingly finding themselves forced into a position of desperation through economic displacement, was just not available. “Floating prisons”, large ex-Navy, French and East India Company ships converted into makeshift prisons, floated on the Thames. Hideously overcrowded and with little to no adequate facilities, these ships stacked inmates into packed chambers full of excrement and disease, leading to mortality rates as high as 30%.

With no suitable set up for medium to long term incarceration, the British government turned to a new, more novel idea for what to do with prisoners. In the early 18th Century, transportation became heavily utilised as a way to “drain the nation of its offensive rubbish” as it was so eloquently put by the Vicar of Wendover. Convicted criminals were systematically sent to American colonies to be sold for slave labour, accounting for almost 25% of all British immigrants to colonial America from 1700 until the Revolution.

Transportation, as it came to be known, was a convenient way to handle the prison overcrowding issues, deal with criminals in a more “humane” manor that execution, build a cheap, expendable workforce in the colonies and offer the convicts a landscape in which it was thought they could gain some element of redemption and start a new life. All they had to do was survive the 7 or 14 year stint, characterised by perilous travel, inhuman living conditions, constant starvation and back breaking labour.

When it inevitably rolled around, the American Revolution in the early 1780s had the unfortunate side effect of temporarily derailing Britain’s program of criminal exile, until, in 1787, the earlier founding of Sydney in New South Wales presented a new opportunity to offload prisoners to distant lands for expendable, colony building labour. On 13th May, 1787, the first ships carrying convicts sailed for Australia to establish a British colony. After 8 months at sea, the ships arrived with 778 convicts aboard, in Botany Bay, on the East Coast of Australia. Quickly realising that the land surrounding the bay offered little in the way of arable land and next to no shelter from the bracing Easterly winds, the party upped sticks and ventured further North, until they found a sheltered cove, which they promptly named Sydney Cove and declared the land their new home, in the name of the King. It was the first of what would become a steady stream of convicts to Australia over the next Century, creating Britain’s biggest penal colony that stretched across what would become New South Wales and later, Van Diemen’s Land, an large island 150 miles to the South of the Australian mainland.

Van Diemen’s Land, better known today as Tasmania, renamed in 1856, after Abel Tasman, the first European to discover the island in 1642, was home to one of the largest penal colonies in all of Australia and the primary penal colony from the early 1800’s until the abolition of transportation in 1853. During the half century that it operated as a penal colony, it saw the turnover of just over 40% of all transportations from Britain to Australia.

Upon British arrival, Van Diemen’s Land was a mountainous landscape with peaks of over 1600m and deep valleys of impassable, temperate rainforest interspersed with large areas of tall, grass plains. Small in comparison to the mainland, it is not an insignificant island, spanning 200 miles from East to West and North to South at its widest points. Whilst the weather could be mild year-round, it sees high rates of rainfall and high humidity along with brutally high winds, whipping off from the Southern ocean. The first penal colony in Tasmania was established in 1803-04. Initially settled as a defensive outpost, it would later become known as Hobart Town and was to be the principal town of the Tasmanian colony and the second largest penal colony in all of Australia. 

In 1820, the colony expanded to include Sarah’s Island, in Macquarie Harbour in a cove on the West coast of Tasmania. The harbour was guarded by a natural entrance of sharp rock, striking out from the shallow sea, known as “Hells Gates.” High winds, rough waters and a shallow seabed made for a treacherous approach to the harbours entrance, dangerous enough without the added fast currents that threatened to pounce on a ship, dashing it against the black, jutting rock. With the densely forested landscape and harsh terrain, it was deemed as practically impossible to escape from, making it well equipped to house the convicts who logged in the local area for shipbuilding lumber, cutting down the tall pines, to be sent back to the mainland. It was soon decided that the shipbuilding would be far more efficient if it was contained within the Tasmanian colony and soon after it became the principal shipbuilding facility within Australia. Due to the natural isolation and treacherous surrounding terrain, Sarah’s Island operated as a place of secondary punishment, where the more rebellious, difficult to control convicts could be transferred to further isolate them far away from the main population in Hobart Town and the surrounding area.

Life in Hobart Town for a convict was by no means a walk in the park, but it was a long way away from the typical ideas of modern incarceration. Convicts sent to Hobart Town were divided to work either for the government or contracted out to private citizens, usually working on sheep and cattle farms. In the afternoons, once their penal work was finished, they were permitted to work freely for themselves within the town, in order to pay for their own accommodation and food, which would only be provided to convicts working on select farms that had the space. For those up on their luck, alcohol and prostitutes made up the bulk of any excess expenditure. Not everyone chose to work of course, and there was always the possibility of making a more chaotic living through gambling and robbing the locals instead. Rum was cheap and easily available in one of the many inns and pubs that lined the unpaved streets, so for many, drinking oneself to oblivion of an evening with other convicts was a regular pass-time. At least, until the curfew bell rang at 9pm. At the end of the week, all convicts were expected to attend church service and skipping was a punishable offence. The level of freedom afforded the convicts of Hobart Town was only made possible via a strict regime of discipline and along with the back breaking daily work and nightly curfews, was mainly carried out with the threat of flogging. The primary method of punishment for any convict was the lash, where they would be tied up to the triangle, a quickly erected wooden frame, stripped to the waist and their back would be whipped with a cat o’nine tails. Floggings were harsh and frequently handed out. Minor misdemeanors such as being drunk and disorderly, thieving, insolence to one’s superiors or absconding from church or work were all dealt with by the lash. Sentences of 25 lashes were handed out remarkably casually, extending to 50, 75 and 100 depending on the severity of the crime, or how often the convict had wound up in trouble. If 25 lashes sounds like a minor punishment, it is worth pointing out that the skin would be broken before a handful of lashes were done and at times the triangle would be set up close to the surgeons office for the sake of convenience. By the time a flogging was done, the convict on the end of the beating would more often than not need to be hospitalised, being carried away from the macabre scene, as flecks of blood flecked across the ground, along with strips of flesh. Generally speaking however, transportation, despite all the grim facets, was for the most part seen as a more humane punishment than execution because it, on paper at least, encouraged hard work within a community that the convict could well end up living in once their sentence was completed. For some convicts though, a life living by the iron rule of the colonies authorities just didn’t come easy and breaking the rules was a common occurrence. When this happened and authorities finally got sick of the troublemakers, they were sent to more isolated colonies, set up as a form of “secondary punishment”. Sarah’s Island was the primary destination for these prisoners, a cold, damp and unforgiving colony on the Western coast of Tasmania, dominated by dysentery, disease and malnutrition. Convicts sent to Sarah’s Island looked forward to the prospect of hard labour, working long shifts in leg irons, after which they were sent to cells with very little freedom or future prospects at all.

In 1820, When Alexander Pearce stepped off the boat in Hobart Town to be catalogued and assigned work, he may or may not have heard of Sarah’s Island. It was, however, not long before he would become intimately familiar with the isolated colony. His trip to Australia had been a quiet affair, but his life as a Hobartonian would become anything but.

Pearce & The Journey to The New World

Alexander Pearce was born in 1790 in the North-East, Irish county of Monaghan. Standing 5’ 3” tall, thin, clean shaving with blue eyes and brown hair, his facial scars from small pox were a sign of the times he grew up in. In fact, small pox is one of the only things we can know about his early life in Ireland, with any other information remaining much of a mystery. Born at the start of an explosion in population size, he grew up in a country that saw cities and towns grow over 150% in size through his lifetime. Poverty was rife and the English rule was a fairly direct cause for a chaotic and tumultuous landscape. It seems fairly safe deduce that at least Pearces adulthood was driven by a tendency to commit petty crime, aside from his illiteracy, the only record for his life in Ireland is from the Armagh court system, where he was tried for stealing six pairs of boots in 1819, aged 29. In 1819, this was a crime that fell squarely into the realms of transportation candidacy, and so it was with Pearce, who found himself suddenly facing the prospect of 7 years transportation to Australia. Found guilty, he was marched on 200 miles on foot to Cork Harbour, where he awaited his departure aboard the “Castle Forbes”, a 439 ton, flat bottomed, triple masted merchant ship with a cargo of 140 other prisoners, all facing the same fate. Of the 140 convicts aboard, all but one was Irish, with age ranges from 14-64 years old. Of these, the majority, just like Pearce were heading out to Australia to face 7 years in the Penal Colonies, though 10 were facing 14 years and 16 were staring a life sentance in the face. Guarding the 140 convicts was a task that fell toa reasonably small force of 22 privates of the 34th and 89th Regiment, presided over by 4 non commissioned officers and one Lieutenant.

Although the Castle Forbes was built for capacity rather than speed, it is unlikely to have been a comfortable journey. Prisoners were locked below deck, stuffed into tiny quarters, 6 feet square, 4 beds per suite, with little in the way of ventilation or sanitation. The main prisoners took up the majority of the space below deck, with a doctors quarters crammed into one corner and vulnerable, young prisoners crammed into another. During storms, hatches would be closed, extinguishing any ventilation and as toilets flooded, stomachs rolled and seawater mixed with all manner of fluids and waste, the prisoner deck would frequently become the scene of absolute squalor. For the convicts aboard the ship, two hours a day on deck was their only escape, which, fortunately, was managed most days in small groups. Discipline was strictly maintained throughout the journey, with convicts forced to adhere to a tightly followed regimen. Issued with three shirts, two pairs of trousers, one pair of shoes, one woolen sweater and a woolen cap, each convict was expected to keep up an appearance of cleanliness, despite the rough circumstances and the allowed twice weekly clothes washing days of Mondays and Fridays. Shaving was allowed on Thursdays and Saturdays, decks and floors were scrubbed daily with Divine Service held on Sundays. The diet for convicts consisted of Bread, Beef, Pork, Pea-meal, Butter, Rice, Oatmeal, Sugar and sweetened Lime Juice, at least, whilst the stock lasted, after which the fall back was ships biscuits, a stodgy bread-like savoury that more often that not was stale and previously ravaged by all manner of bugs and maggots.

The Castle Forbes left Cork Harbour on 3rd October 1819 and headed on a course due south, cruising around the coast of Spain and Africa, Only moving further out to sea to avoid the Shallow flats of the West African coast before turning sharply East once it hit the Southern Ocean. The rapid and strong winds of the Southern Ocean made for fast, but treacherous travel, with storms whipped up from nowhere, causing waves to roll up to 90 feet. The storms would’ve been unwelcome aboard any ship, but aboard the Castle Forbes, they came at a reasonably good time. With trouble between the soldiers and the chosen lieutenant, who they deemed as incompetent kicking off before they even left Cork, resentment grew at sea, until by late December, 17 of the 22 soldiers aboard were dangerously close to mutiny. The storms that rolled in, therefore, were seen as something of a saving grace, as they worked to quell any urge to rebel, as most men suffered severe sea sickness and demoralising conditions. After a rough final leg to the journey, the Castle Forbes rolled up to Port Jackson, now better known as Sydney Harbour, on the 27th January 1820, with a belly full of convicts suffering from dysentry and food poisoning. With land so close, it must have come as some frustration when the convicts were promptly redirected to Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land before they had even disembarked. The only saving grace for the cooped up prisoners was the fact that they were at least freely allowed to venture up on to the main deck whilst they awaited orders, which finally came in Early February, signalling another 140 mile, 12 day trip to their final destination.

Arrival, Escape & Amnesty

Once the reached Van Diemen’s Land, the convicts were disembarked, catalogued with all marks of identification, such as scars, birthmarks and tattoos registered, Pearce was given the ID number of Prisoner 102, and then the entire flock was quickly assigned work, partly based on any relevant skills they had, if any, either for the government or on a private farm. As Alexander Pearce touched dry land for the first time in four months, he found himself in a strikingly strange land. At the time of his arrival, Hobart Town had a population of 4901, 58% of which were convicts. If the ratio of officers to convicts seemed out of balance on the Castle Forbes, it paled in comparison to the situation in Van Diemen’s Land, where hardline discipline ruled rather than raw numbers, creating a bizarre atmosphere that harboured the threat of a constant and chaotic rebellion just below the surface.

Pearces first work detail wound him up on a sheep farm belong to John Bellinger on the Northern outskirts of Hobart Town. At first, he seemed to continue his quiet attitude which he had been noted for aboard the Castle Forbes, returning to Hobart town after 9 months, where he was promptly sent to a second sheep farm, this time belonging to another private citizen named William Scattergood. Scattergood was an example of the perfect outcome of Transportation, himself an ex-con who had finished his sentence, only to re-integrate into the society he had helped to build and then go on to prosper within. His example did not leave much of an impression on Pearce, however, who escaped into the bush, growing tired of the dangerous shepherding work, that held a constant threat of clashes with the aboriginal tribes when the sprawling farms veered onto tribal territory. As an escapee, Pearce joined a small group of three other escaped convicts, who banding together, formed a gang that was colloquially known as “Bushrangers”. Bushrangers who had fled from work would frequently enjoy freedom for short periods, skimming the settled territories, living in the bush and stealing for sustenance, before inevitably getting caught or simply handing themselves in, once survival became too difficult. For Pearce, his brief sojourn as a bushranger lasted three months until they surrendered under an Amnesty in March 1821. For most escapees, the freedom fo the bushranger life was appealing as a short break, but eventually the inability to spend their evenings getting drunk on cheap rum surrounded by other convicts wore them down. The escape signalled the end of Pearces quiet honeymoon in Australia, however and within two months, he found himself in court once more for embezzling two turkeys and three ducks. He was sentenced to 50 lashes and hard labour for 14 days, with solitary confinement at night. The punishment was clearly not much of a deterrent and twice more that same year, he found himself back in court, first in November on a charge of Drunk and Disorderly and theft of a wheelbarrow, for which he was sentenced to 75 lashes and a third time on 26th November for being Drunk and Disorderly and for stealing a glass from the Ship Inn, the pub he had spent that evening drinking in. Once more he received a flogging and 6 months hard labour within a chain gang, but in March of 1822, two months before his punishment was due to end, he took off with 6 other members of the chain gang, to enjoy a second stint as a Bushranger. A £10 reward was issued in the local paper for each man who had escaped which quickly put an end to this second taste fo freedom, this time however, it was the final nail for Pearce, who had frustrated the officials one too many times. On 6th July 1822, he was tried for absconding and forgery of money, for which he was found guilty and sentenced to secondary punishment. For Pearce that meant being shipped out from Hobart Town, to Macquarie Harbour on the Western Coast of Van Diemen’s Land and the Penal Colony of Sarah’s Island.

Macquarie Harbour & Sarah’s Island

The location of the Sarah’s Island penal colony was chosen precisely due to it’s secluded location. Tucked into a cove behind the infamous Hell’s Gates and surrounded by dense rainforest and mountain ranges, it was a penal colony that focused on the far more traditional, modern idea of incarceration. Work detail centered around chopping lumber from the tall trees, most of which was utilised in shipbuilding. Prisoners were expected to work on meagre rations, their legs chained in irons. When Alexander Pearce arrived in 1822, there were 170 convicts serving their sentences, governed over by only 11 soldiers. Just like Hobart Town, the authorities kept a tight ship by ensuring strict discipline at all times, but here on Sarah’s Island, everything was magnified. Punishments for those difficult to manage prisoners routinely included 100 lashes and stints of extended Solitary confinement. Rations per convict were limited to 10lbs of bread, 7lbs of salted beef or pork, with a gruel like, watery stew fed daily. Scurvy and dysentry was prevalent, as was rheumatism, exacerbated by the almost constant cold damp weather, as the West coast bore the brunt of the Southern Ocean storms that rolled in relentlessly, especially throughout July to September. As the new arrivals stepped off the boat in Macquarie Harbour alongside Pearce on the 22nd July, 1822, the pubs and cheap rum of Hobart Town would’ve felt a long way away. Speaking of penal settlements, Thomas Lempiere, the commissary officer of Macquarie Harbour showed his own opinions on how a penal colony should be run along with the role of poor conditions in the colonies when he wrote,

  • “A penal settlement is, and ought to be, an abode of misery to those whose crimes have sequestered them from the society of their fellow creatures. Were it a place fo comfort, the very object for which such establishments are formed, the punishment and reform of malefactors, would become nugatory”

Pearce was assigned logging duty with a labour gang of 7 others, Robert Greenhill, a 40 year old Englishman who was serving a sentence of 14 years for stealing his wives coat, Matthew Travers, a 27 year old Irishman serving life for theft, Alexander Dalton,  a 25 year old Irishman, Thomas Bodenham, the youngest of the gang, was a 22 year old Englishman. John Mather and William Kennerly were English and Irish respectively. The eldest the group was named William “Little” Brown, who was in his late fifties. The eight man gang were hustled to their logging area every morning at 6am, where they faced a day of logging, stripping bark from trees and then tying their haul into makeshift rafts that they would then drag back to the penal colony. In 1822, the logs were shipped back to Hobart Town or Mainland Australia, but eventually, in 1824, the shipbuilding operation was moved to Macquarie Harbour itself.

Unsurprisingly, when small gangs of difficult prisoners prone to escaping were lumped together in the harsh environment of Sarah’s Island, talk would soon to turn to escape. The problem for the convicts was not one of motivation, but rather one of possibility. The environment was treacherous, densely forested and thought to be impassable. Much of the area outside of the direct locality of the colony was uncharted territory and entire mountain ranges, plains and rainforests sat on the horizon with whose legends on maps bore no names. In the months prior to Pearces arrival, a gang of men had attempted escape, three men were sent out after them, but none returned and had all been thought lost to the environment. Still, even stories such as these didn’t stop Pearce and his crew from planning out there escape. Greenhill, who had a background as a sailor assumed the role of leadership, and was probably the only member of the group with any knowledge fo geography and navigation whatsoever. As the days ticked by and the starvation began biting, along with the incessant cold damp, rainy weather, the gang began to seriously plan an escape attempt. It was ambitious at best and included stealing a whaleboat from the harbour which they would use to sail out through the difficult Hells Gates rock formation entrance. In late September, as the group were gearing up to perform their escape, however, Greenhill was transferred to a different work gang, 9 miles up the coast. It was a small hitch, and they adjusted their initial plans to now include Greenhill slipping away to be collected by the main group. On the cold and depressing, but not uncommonly grey skies of Friday 20th September, the main group made their move.

The first barrier to the groups freedom took the form of the overseer, Constable Logan. Logan was himself actually a convict. With so few official authorities, overseers were convicts who weer willing to work on their behalf, a job that was a quick ticket to unpopularity amongst other convicts. Unarmed, they operated successfully by utilising the threat of reporting anyone who stepped out of line to the authorities back in Macquarie Harbour, effectively sending their own kind to lash. As the group took their breakfast break, they jumped Logan, overpowering him, stripping him of his clothes and tied him to a tree. They then took their small whaleboat up shore to meet Greenhill. When they arrived at around mid day, they scuttled the whaleboat, raided a miners hut for provisions and stole a larger boat. Back together, the 8 man crew then sailed further up-shore. Greenhill’s slipping out had, sadly, not gone unnoticed however, forcing the group to once again altar their plans, as signal fires began sending out billows of white smoke into the sky to alert the authorities to an escape.

Aware that they would soon be followed, having only managed five hundred yards from the main penal colony, the group opted to ditch the boat and instead, to head inland on foot. The dense rainforest and bush would shield them from detection and it would be all the easier to throw off any pursuers, reasoning that the last group that chased a group of escapees into the bush never came back. Clambering out of the boat, back on shore, Greenhill began to guide the men due East, towards Sorell Mountain, headfirst into the dense rainforest of Van Diemen’s Land. The plan had shifted from the glory of sailing out to sea and finding port in some exotic far away harbour, to one of trekking across Van Diemen’s Land, back towards Hobart Town, where they could live as Bushrangers on the periphery for as long as they pleased, or were able. With the pressure of being chased, they made good ground, arriving at the base of the Mountain at 3 in the afternoon and hit the peak by nightfall. Looking back down over the bay below them, one of their number sat up and stayed watch overnight, whilst the rest slept. Most men seemed to feel that they would be pursued at the very least until they were off the peaks and had descended back into the valley below. In reality, the environment was so harsh and given the recent loss of manpower from the previous manhunt, it is perhaps more likely that the officials sat back and let the men go, safe in the knowledge that they would soon come crawling back and if they didn’t, the environment would consume them in due course.

The next morning, Greenhill marched the group further East along the ridge of the mountains, eventually descending into the valley, where they crossed the Clark River and back up the other side to Darwins Plateau, a small Ridgeline between Mount Darwin and South Darwin Peak, a 650 metre high mountain range that marked both the border for the Aboriginal tribes of the North and South West Tasmania and also was very likely the last known landmark to any European that the group would see. As they descended on the Eastern ridge, it is very probably that Pearce and his gang were the first Europeans to ever cross the range. Staring down into the valley below as they scaled the mountainside, it dawned on them why few, if any, had gone any further. The rainforest was denser than ever. The canopy housed an impenetrable scrub below, filled with razor sharp grasses, knotted weeds, branches and vines. Their progress into this damp, dark and humid atmosphere would have been intensely slow, with their only option to carve out a path forwards with the axe they bought from the penal colony. With their flimsy prison clothes, single axe and Greenhill guiding them, they were woefully underprepared for the journey ahead, a trek that even by modern standards would be classified as demanding, despite bushwalkers using water proof clothing, specialist tools and digital GPS systems. Whilst the group could feel assured that absolutely no one was going to be pursuing them this far into the wilderness, the slow, difficult and more than likely painful progress would have intensely demoralising for the party. Depending on how much they trusted Greenhill, even their navigation would have bore a niggling doubt that would bore away into the back of their minds.

By day two, “Little” Brown was becoming a problem. The eldest member, he at times found himself unable to keep up and within less than 48 hours from their escape, he felt fatigue settle in to his tired body. Unceremoniously, Greenhill and Co agreed that they would leave him behind if he was unable to keep up, at least opting to tell him outright. As they pushed on ant a crawling pace, the rain lashed down, soaking them through as a relentless downpour persisted for days on end. The fourth day walking offered them some small glimmer of hope as they approached the Andrew River, once they crossed, they would once again be transferred from the horrors of the rainforest to the peaks of the Engineer Mountain Range, as they made camp that night half way up the Western side of 700 metre tall range, however, misery once again set in when it dawned on them that their food rations were running low. With no wherewithal in the wilderness, the chances of them being able to forage or hunt was almost zero. It was a bleak realisation, coupled with their slow progress, that they had barely travelled 9 miles of what would be roughly a 70 mile trek. If life on Sarah’s Island had been difficult for the convicts, it had only worked to prepare them for the challenges that lay ahead, as they fell into an uneasy sleep below the sheer, rocky cliffs of the Engineer Range.

The following day saw more rain hit the island and the escapees morale was by now, noticeably damaged. The stresses of the trek was taking its toll, as paranoia, fear and suspicion crept from behind the backs of every mans mind. The poor diet available to Sarah’s Island convicts meant that even before the trek had started, the men were close to, if not already suffering from starvation and exhaustion and this coupled with the fear of the unknown ahead, along with the very real possibility ahead of not making the journey were all taking their toll. The group stayed in the camp on the Eastern Edge of the Engineer Range for two full days in an attempt to rest and gather their energy. By now the group was fracturing into cliques and paranoia was running rampant.

“We were all disputing who would get wood for the fire. Some brought it and made fires for themselves. Kennerly made some tinder this night and put it by as he had some intention of returning to the settlement.”

Kennerly wasn’t the only member doubting the journey ahead and considering a return to Sarah’s Island to turn themselves in. Little Brown was still struggling and he too considered a return to camp. The sixth night, whilst they sat around inc amp was the first night that anyway uttered the idea of cannibalism as a means to survive, though it was only in passing. It’s likely that Greenhill, with his sailing experience had heard stories of the sea before, men pushed to desperate measures had, for some time, considered cannibalism as a last resort and unspoken rule of the Oceans. The next night, Pearce, Greenhill, Travers and Mather sat down to discuss the idea in Ernest. During the day this group had separated from the older men, causing a clear split and now it fell to them to decide who of the second, older group, they should kill and eat first. As Dalton had volunteered to be a flogger back on Sarah’s Island, it was deemed perfectly acceptable that he should be the first one to fall. Convict floggers were well known to be on the lowest rung of respect within the penal colonies and the notion simply followed through to the bush.

The next day, as the group approached the rainforests near to the Franklin River, penetrating deep into the centre of Van Diemen’s Land, the group made camp. By now the two groups had noticeably split, with Dalton, Brown and Kennerly making a fire by themselves, camping separately from Greenhill, Mathers, Pearce and Travers. As the smaller group slept, Greenhill crept up upon them, axe in hand and struck Dalton in the head, killing him outright. Travers dragged the body away from the camp, slit his throat and bled him. Using his knowledge from a prior job as a butcher, he gutted the body, removing the heart and liver, which were placed on the fire and broiled, he disposed of the rest of the entrails, before cutting up and dividing the flesh between the rest of the group. Upon waking, Kennerly and Brown made the rapid decision to escape and head back towards Sarah’s Island, preferring to take their chances in the wilderness and accept a punishment for returning to the penal colony, tail between their legs, rather than risk spending another day in the heavy rainforest with a gang of murderous man-eaters. The only food they took with them for their trip back was their share of their previous friend Alexander Dalton. Despite all the odds, the pair actually did make it back to camp. Greenhills group had opted not to give chase, assuming they would never make it back to the colony alive anyway. As the pair collapsed into the colonies boundaries on the 12th October, 14 days after their initial escape. The journey had been punishing however, and both men soon died in the prisons hospital, “Little” Brown first on the 15th October and Kennerly following on the 19th. During their time back on Sarah’s Island, neater man mentioned the fate of Dalton to a single official.

Back in the thick of the punishing rainforests of Van Diemen’s Land, Greenhills gang were making to cross the Franklin River, after which, they would ascend yet another Mountain Range, this time the Deception Range, which rose to 600 metres. The immediate problem for the group however, was finding a suitable crossing point, given that neither Bodenham nor Travers could swim. After shimmying across with the use of trees and rope, they began the hike up the Mountain that would lead them 18 miles from Sarah’s island. By now, it’s increasingly likely that the men were suffering from hypothermia from the extreme levels of damp and cold they had been exposed to for an extended period, as well as the obvious state of starvation, exhaustion and the infections from the wounds that they would have unquestionably suffered from the knife grass and other dense underbrush of the forest as they had carved their way through. At least after the Deception range, the promise of the Lightning Plains and easier travel lay ahead, at least for a period. The lightning plains lay 80 to the North West of Hobart Town, situated around 360 metres above sea level and was characterised by large swathes of flatland, Pierced through by the Jane River, it was a swampy, marshy area, covered in thick grass and brush. Still, it was easier going than the previous rainforest landscape and the group soon found themselves passing into the Lodden Plains, another open, but swampy marshland. Though the brush was considerably easier to pass through, the mens clothing would have been muddy and sodden through, their feet dragging in the thick, molasses like churn beneath their feet. As they passed through the plains, the problem of food came to the fore once again. The accounts of what happened next between the four men is unlikely to be a true one, but using the words of Pearce, and the twisted, gentrified narrative that was later published in London, we can guess to the more disturbing reality. According to Pearce, the men decided to draw lots on who should be the next to die, in order to sustain the survivors. Bodenham pulled the short straw, and gracefully, accepted his fate,

“The only request he had to make was that we allow him a few minutes to implore pardon of his offended maker for past offences.”

Once he had made his peace with the Lord, Greenhills gang gave him further 30 minutes for prayer, before Greenhill once again took an axe to the convicts head and Travers gutted and butchered the remains. There is one more account of this scene, the original account given by Pearce in his own words, but once again, he is conveniently spirited out of the picture, only saying that he was off collecting firewood when Travers and Greenhil attacked Bodenham by the camps fire, this time with conveniently less religious sentiment and ceremony. Greenhill took the mans shoes, which were in better shape than his own. Ten years later, when the first European explorer that passed over the Lodden Plains made it to the area, he found the remains of a convict, unceremoniously dumped in the plains. Though never officially ID’d it seems likely that these were all that became of Bodenham, whose body now was a merely mealtime for Greenhill, Travers, Pearce and Mather. As the group traversed the plains over the next three days, a new rift began to widen. Increasingly, Greenhill and Travers grew closer, whilst Pearce and Mather formed their own duo, more out of the increasing need for protection than any deeper connection. As they approached the King William Mountain Range, Mather suggested to Pearce that the groups should officially split and go their operate ways. His fear of Greenhilll and Travers was far from unfounded at this point and it is likely that he saw it only as a matter of time before the murderer and butcher would look towards Pearce or Mather as their next meal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it became an acutely accurate hunch, as over the next nights, Mathers fell sick, which prompted Greenhill to attack him with the axe. He struck him in the head, but failed to fatally wound the unwell man. The two groups walked on a little more before making cam for the night, the entire time, Mather must have known he was very unlikely to see the dawn. Once again, conveniently, Pearce found himself alone, away from the group, only to find upon his return, that Greenhill had killed Mather, and Travers was making headway into gutting his carcass fo their next meal. Mather was divided up between the three men as usual, leaving only Greenhill, Travers and Pearce camping alone on the mountain range, deep in the wilderness, still miles from civilisation.

At this point of the journey, one could easily forgive Pearce for living in fear of what was, by now, surely an inevitability. Greenhill and Travers had formed a close bond and failing even that, both men had shown they had useful skills for survival, Travers was a skilled butcher and if not for Greenhill, it I likely the group would still be walking in circles on the border of Sarahs Island. He must have known that e was the next target for butchering. As each night drew in, Pearce lay with one eye open, barely getting any sleep at all. It was something of. Lucky break for Pearce then that as the trio began their march across the Navarre Plains, the ground becoming more open and the travel easier with every step, that Travers suddenly yelped in pain. His foot had been bitten by a snake and now, Pearce was no longer the greatest burden on the group. The weather had even begun to look up too. As the climate and landscape became easier, however, the men were now finding themselves encroaching upon Aboriginal hunting grounds. It is testament to how poor they must have looked, dragging themselves across the open plains, that they were still alive at all. From the moment they had made it into the territories, they would have been followed and if deemed a threat, they absolutely would have been dispatched. As it was though, the ragtag group were sodden through, dressed in filthy rags and exhausted. They clumsily stumbled through the wilderness, arguing, killing and eating one another. Fo their onlookers, Attack was simply an unnecessary act.

The snake bite set the groups travel back considerably. They made camp and rested for 5 days whilst Travers foot mended from the poisonous bite and even as they set back out on their trek, they were finding themselves carrying Travers more than they would have wished for. By the time they crossed the Nive River, his foot had gone gangrene and his condition was one of deep sickness and infection. As he fell asleep next to the camps fire the following night, Pearce and Greenhill discussed what should be done with the ailing man. The conclusion was, by now, fairly obvious, but with Greenhill growing so close to the man, it fell this time to Pearce to prove his worth and kill him with the axe. Pearce promptly dispatched of the job, and his body was carved up and cooked on the fire, though one would hope his rotten foot was given a wide berth by both men.

Down to two men, Pearce and Greenhill discussed their next move. They were heading towards Table Top Mountain, a large 1000 meter peak gently to the East of centre of Van Diemen’s Land. Once over the peak, they would be venturing into the outskirts of colonised territory and they knew that there were ex-Irish convicts who had taken farms in that area who would help them. Whilst their navigation had been far from bad for the entire journey, it was either wishful thinking or a sign of the delirium that both men were by now feeling, that they reasoned they must have been close, however, as their current position sat them 24 miles North East of their target. The two men then chose to forge onwards, though in fact they appeared to spend the next few days walking in circles as both men grew increasingly paranoid of the other. They had spent two days after killing Travers resting and feasting on his body and food was already becoming a problem. Down to two men, the situation was careening dangerously close to its inevitable conclusion and the thought preyed on both mens exhausted minds day an night. Each time they stopped to make camp, both men made their own fires at a reasonable distance from the other. Greenhill slept with the axe under his head, whilst Pearce chose not to sleep at all. On at least one occasion, Pearce swore that Greenhill had attempted to sneak up on him whilst he lay in bed, pretending to sleep, only being put off from attacking as he Pearce would suddenly sit up and stop the attack in its tracks. There was, according to Pearce, only one thing for it,

“One evening, while he was asleep I crept slyly to the brush where he lay and took the axe from under his head, and gave him a severe blow on the head which deprived him of his life.”

  • Pearce had killed the last remaining threat, but also the only man capable of navigating through the wilderness. He carved up the fleshier parts of his arms and thighs for food and ditched the rest of the body, stumbling onward in a direction which was, he guessed, in a roughly Eastern path. For seven days he walked on only roughly navigating by remembering a conversation he’d had with Greenhill who told him to simply follow the sun. Throughout the entire time, he became increasingly paranoid that he was being watched over by eyes in the brush. In reality, he likely was being closely followed and watched by the areas aboriginal tribespeople, however, whether or not that was what he could sense, or wether he was just suffering from a punishing paranoia from the stresses of the journey, is anyones guess. On the seventh day after killing Greenhill, 18 miles from Table Mountain and 49 days after this initial escape, Pearce broke through some brush to find a flock of sheep grazing in an area of low grass. Chasing the first lamb he could see, he tore down through the grazing land until he came to a riverbank, where he settled until the cold barrel of a musket pushed up against the back of his head. Startled, he turned around only to see the face of an old friend and ex convict, Paddy McGuire. Recognising Pearce, Paddy took him in and listened to his story, giving him shelter and a place to rest and recuperate. For five days Pearce stayed on the sheep farm with Paddy and a further 11 days at Paddys brother Micks until he felt his strength returning enough to get back out into the bush. The area was home to a small hut that Pearce had built before on a previous escape attempt. Seeking it out, he stayed there for a further seven days. During his time in the area, he fell in with two new escapees from Hobart Town, Ralph Churton and William Davies and the trio began a life of bushrangning that lasted for seven weeks, before finally, on Saturday 11th January 1823, as they sat by Lake Tiberias, soldiers from the 48th regiment caught up with them. One of their Irish ex convict buddies had apparently grassed them up and sold them out for the $10 reward. By the following Monday, all three were firmly secured inside the jail at Hobart Town.
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  • Whilst incarcerated, it fell to Pearce to explain where he had been the whole time since his escape from Sarah’s Island. The last any official had heard of him was when X and X had stumbled back into the colony, only to die a few days later. Pearces story was so unbelievable at first, that no one could actually believe it to be true. If what he was saying had been the truth, aside from the horrors of butchering and eating a gang of convicts, Pearce was expecting the officials to believe that with barely any provisions or equipment, he had traversed some of the harshest landscape on the planet and certainly within the Australian colonies. Instead, it was far more believable to think that he was simply covering for his companions, who they assumed were still alive and well out in the bush somewhere. Still, his story did seem to have a realism and level of detail that they couldn’t shake and eventually, with no evidence to prove the story either way, the officials were left with little other choice than to accept his story at face value. Pearce was sentenced to lashes, solitary confinement and finally back to hard labour in leg irons, sent back to Sarah’s Island with little more than a shrug from the officials, who were frankly bemused by the entire situation.
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…And Again

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  • Once back at the penal colony, Pearce found that his reputation had preceded him. Convicts spoke of him in whispers as the man-eating con who had escaped out into the wilderness and walked to Hobart Town with nothing but the flesh of his fellow convicts to sustain him. It didn’t stop him making friends, instead he found he had gained something of a hero status within the colony and even appeared to gain admirers. As time ticked by, he found one young convict, a young English thief serving a life sentence named Thomas Cox, in particular had grown a liking to him. The pair quickly began discussing a new escape plan, though this time Pearce wasn’t quite as keen but being swept up in the planning, he found himself making a break for it once more on the morning of Friday 12th November, 1823 along with Cox. It was once again, under the watch of Logan that he made his escape. Slinking off into the woods, the pair used an axe to pry off their leg irons, and headed off into the woods to lay low. They spent the first week sticking to rainforest peripheries in order to avoid detection. It wasn’t until the 9th day that Pearce allowed cox to set up any sort of camp or even light a fire. In a bizarre twist of events, Pearce quickly drew tired of Cox and attacked him on the night off the 21st November, striking him in the head with the axe and then, more disturbingly, he set about carving up the body, placing the head in a tree and chopping off the mans hands. He then slice dup his flesh and began to cook him. This is made all the more disturbing when its realised that Pearce still had provisions, both in fresh fish and bread and meat that he had taken from the penal colony. The next day, he stashed lumps of Cox’s flesh into his pockets, along with some salted pork and began walking North along the shore, when he spotted a boat in the cove. For reasons completely unbeknown to anyone, Pearce then did something utterly bewildering. He built and lit a signal fire, communicating to the boat, which promptly approached. When it met with Pearce, he willingly turned himself in. When he was searched by the officials on board, the flesh of Cox was found in his pockets and Pearce told them that he had drowned and Pearce had cut off the flesh to prove to the colonies officials that he had been “lost” in the bush. Knowing of Pearces history, they demanded to know the location of COx’s body and when they discovered the macabre scene of Pearces butchering, instantly realised that Pearce was absolutely not telling the full truth. It took little pressing from officials to convict Pearce to confess to the murder of Cox, though he added to the confession that “No man can tell what he will do when driven by hunger.” This may have been true, but had he really been so hungry this time, or had Pearce developed a taste for human flesh? Had he turned himself in after he had killed Cox, because he had finally felt a pang of guilt, or was he simply frightened of his own self?
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  • Once his confession had been taken, Pearce was clapped in chains and sent to jail in Hobart Town to await trial for the murder of Cox. Though the earlier murders were even more damning, there had never been any evidence as to what had actually happened out in the rainforests and mountains, but with the body of Cox in such a state as it was, finding Pearce guilty was a walk in the park and Pearce was sentenced to be hanged until dead and afterwards tased over to surgeons to be dissected for medical science.
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  • At 8am on Monday 19th July, 1824, Pearce was led out to the gallows, where his confession was read out by a priest. He was then allowed to pray and ask his forgiveness, before he was hanged at 9am on the dot. After the dissection of his body, his head was later passed to an artist to be drawn for the study of Phrenology, with his skull eventually being kept as a souvenir and passed down through the years to eventually reside in the university of Pennsylvania museum of archaeology and anthropology, where it still rests until this day.
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  • Pearces story is in many respects still as unbelievable today as it was in 1823 as he explained it to the incredulous officials back in Hobart Town. Undeniably a story of “rollicking adventure” it was an incredible feat of not only human endurance, but also human depravity.
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