Right from the very beginning convicts tried to escape from the Colony. They believed by heading off into the bush, they could walk to China. These ventures were mostly doomed as the escapees lacked the skills to survive in bush and were ill-prepared. The following melancholy tale was brought to mind after listening to a talk last week about the various escape attempts made by the inhabitants, unaware of their environment or their locality on a map. Early newspapers provide informative accounts of some of these attempts and although it might seem astounding to us in the 21st century, in the late 1790s and early 1800s, little was known about the geography of this continent, particularly the interior, and China could have been just a short stroll through the bush.
The following remarkable account of this 'Fatal Excursion' was published in the Sydney Gazette 26 June 1803 with details provided by John Place, apparently the only survivor. Place, "who now lies in a very weak state in Parramatta Hospital" tells "of an attempt made by him and three of his fellow prisoners, to escape from this Colony." The article continues:
"John PLACE declares that he, John COX, William KNIGHT and John PHILLIPS, all late of the Glatton (prisoners), formed a resolution on the road from Castle Hill to Hawkesbury, to attempt their escape. They formed this determination in consequence of having heard people say [moral below] on board the Glatton, and while at work at Castle Hill, that they could get to China, by which means they would obtain their liberty again; being all married men (excepting one) they were very anxious to return to their families. On the 7th May (three days after their arrival at Hawkesbury) they left Cornwallis-place, resolved to pass the Mountains, and took with them only their week's rations, which they received on Saturday and consumed on the Wednesday following. After travelling for 17 days, in hopes of passing the Mountains, and despairing of accomplishing the object on which they set out, they resolved (if possible) to return. After they had eaten their provisions they found nothing to subsist on but wild-currants and sweet-tea leaves, and had been oppressed with hunger for 12 days. Before they set off to return, John Phillips left them to gather some berries, and they saw him no more; they heard him call several times, but could render him no assistance they being so reduced by hunger, and conclude he perished. Being asked in what direction they went, Place says, that they travelled the whole of the seventeen days with the sun on their right shoulder, and found great difficulty in ascending some of the Mountains, and also attempted to return by the direction of the sun. After travelling for upwards of Twenty-days, all (except Phillips) reached within five miles of Richmond-Hill, when William Knight, unable to proceed any further, lay down, where Place says he must have died. On the same day, Place and Cox made the river above Richmond Hill, and in attempting to cross the Fall the current carried them down. One was carried to one side of the river, and the other to the opposite side, with difficulty pulling themselves ashore by the branches of the trees. Cox had only his shirt and shoes on, Place saw him lain along the bank, where, being very weak, and the night extremely cold, he supposes he died. Place also lay down, despairing of life, and was found on the day following by a man, who with some of the natives was in quest of kangaroos : he was then too weak to walk alone, but was led by the natives to the nearest hut, where he remained all night; in the morning he was taken to Hawkesbury, and thence sent to the Hospital at Parramatta.
None can read the above account without pitying the ignorance, and commiserating the sufferings of these deluded prisoners; and it is fervently to be hoped that the inconceivable hardships they have endured from hunger and cold, with the almost constant prospect of death before their eyes, will deter all other prisoners from either advising any of their companions, or from making a similar attempt themselves. It is well known, that those are not the only unfortunate men who have perished in this wild attempt, many others have never returned to relate the hardships they underwent, and must therefore have perished under every accumulation of misery by their rashness and folly.
Place who appears to be the only survivor, resigned himself to despair and death, and was when found, within a few hours of eternity. He seems to have been preserved by a particular providence, to give the above awful admonition to all others who now do or shall in future, entertain any idea of regaining their liberty by a similar act, in which nothing but inevitable death must be the final event."
In December 1803 John Place was mentioned once more in the Sydney Gazette and again a few months later. He absconded, along with two others (Edward Hill and Dick the Waggoner) trying to escape from the colony. They left the Hawkesbury hoping to cross the Mountains, but after about a month away returned Hill gave himself up at the Hawkesbury whilst Place went to Sydney. At the time of the article appearing in the newspaper, Dick was still at large. The journalist, as well as the officials, were dumbfounded that he had tried to escape a second time, they wrote: "From this circumstance it would be reasonable to conclude, that no man in existence had the hardihood to make a second experiment of this nature - a consideration, which together with undebilitated appearance of the prisoner, seemed strongly to sanction a supposition that the major part of his relation had been fabricated, and that he had concealed himself in a remote employ. The Bench, after serious consideration sentenced him to receive 500 Lashes."
|Convict arrow from the monument at Wisemans Ferry. Taken M. Nichols|