Magazine article History Today

The Catalpa Rescue Mission. (Frontline)

Magazine article History Today

The Catalpa Rescue Mission. (Frontline)

Article excerpt

AS THE THREE-MASTED BARK CATALPA sailed out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on the morning of April 29th, 1875, she seemed like any other whaler on her way to the Atlantic and the Pacific. Nothing could have been further from the truth. George Smith Anthony, the thirty-one-year-old captain of the 90-foot-long, 200-ton vessel, was hiding the whaler's true mission from his crew. The Catalpa was bound for Western Australia to rescue six Irish rebels from Fremantle Gaol.

Anthony--a man with no Irish blood and with a young wife and infant daughter to support--was ready to defy the mightiest maritime. power in the world, with a lone, unarmed whaler. A confidante of Anthony's wrote, `... the commission which these Irish patriots proposed, of ... snatching a half dozen men from the jaws of the British Lion, was a supreme test of pluck.'

In the 1860s both in Ireland and the US, Ireland's centuries-old struggle for independence had materialised in the Fenian movement. It posed an immense threat to the British government: in 1865, of the 26,000 British Army troops garrisoned in Ireland, over 8,000 were sworn Fenians. Recruited from without by John Devoy and other Irish civilians and from within by soldiers such as John Boyle O'Reilly, of the 5th Royal Hussars, the Fenian Brotherhood took an oath to fight for their nation's freedom.

Membership in the Fenian Brotherhood surged after the American Civil War, as both Irish-born Yankee and Confederate veterans joined in hopes of pitting their martial skills against the Crown.

The Fenian rising, riddled with informers, was crushed by the British police and army. From 1865-67, the authorities rounded up civilians such as Devoy and `military Fenians' such as O'Reilly, and crushed rebel forces in actions in Cork and other sites. Ringleaders including O'Reilly were sentenced to hang but then granted the `mercy' of penal servitude at Millbank, Dartmoor, and other notorious prisons.

In October 1866, sixty-three Fenian prisoners were marched to Portland Harbour and aboard the HMS Hougoumont with 320 criminal convicts, the vessel destined to be the final convict ship sent to Australia. The Hougoumont dropped anchor at Fremantle in January 1867, and the prisoners were marched to `The Establishment', a sprawling white limestone prison bordered on three sides by the vast bush and on the west by the shark-infested waters of the Indian Ocean. For the Fenians, endless days of suffering unfolded in work gangs.

John Boyle O'Reilly, defying the odds, escaped in February 1869 aboard the Gazelle, an American whaler out of New Bedford, with the help of priest Father Patrick McCabe. O'Reilly reached Boston and earned renown as editor of the newspaper The Pilot, as an author, and as a poet; however, he could not forget his comrades in the Establishment.

In 1871, the British government issued conditional pardons to many of the `civilian Fenians' so long as the prisoners agreed to settle outside Ireland. Fiery young parolee John Devoy turned up in New York City and became not only a reporter and columnist with The New York Herald, but also a leader of Clan na Gael, committed to Irish freedom through arms.

At the Establishment, military Fenians Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston, and James Wilson received grim news: according to the Crown, `releasing these Fenian soldiers would be subversive of discipline. They must--and shall--die in chains.'

In December 1873 a smuggled letter from Wilson arrived on Devoy's desk at the New York Herald: `Remember this is a voice from the tomb ... Think that we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb ... In the name of my comrades and myself, [I] ask you to aid us ...'

Devoy, O'Reilly, and others pressed for a rescue mission, O'Reilly introducing Devoy to whaling agent Henry Hathaway--O'Reilly's comrade from the Gazelle and now New Bedford's police chief--and to John Richardson, a wealthy whaling agent and Fenian sympathiser. …

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