The Extraneous Adventures of a Whaler


A LITTLE before noon one February day in 1869, the New Bedford whaling barque Gazelle, Captain David R. Gifford, sighted a boat on the open sea off the headlands that mark the end of Geographe Bay. This was not, however, the surprise to her captain that one might suppose it would be: indeed, when the Gazelle had run down to the boat in answer to signals, he called one of the three men in her by name and took him aboard his ship for the journey to America — a runaway convict from the English penal colony near by.

The convict was a young man named John Boyle O’Reilly. Three years before, while serving in the 10th Huzzars, then stationed in Dublin, he had joined the Fenian Brotherhood and had participated in plotting against the British Government.

Together with intellectual gifts and a vigorous constitution, young O’Reilly had inherited the quality of patriotism, and all his early environment had nourished its growth. His maternal grandfather had distinguished himself in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and, later, in the French Legion — a family tradition of love of country which was daily augmented by Irish music and poetry. Thus it was that he passed from boyhood into youth; quiet, studious and affectionate, he dreamed always the Irish dream of setting Ireland free. As he grew up he saw his country oppressed politically and depopulated by famine and by the emigration of those who could only have starved at home; small wonder, then, that at eighteen he enlisted in the army for the very purpose of recruiting among its ranks more members to the Fenian Brotherhood. In his own words: ‘They said, “Come on, boys, it is for Ireland” — and we came.’ By the time set for the Rebellion, fifteen hundred British soldiers were enlisted as revolutionists.

But the plot was discovered and, on the charge of ‘having, at Dublin, in January, 1866, come to the knowledge of an intended mutiny in Her Majesty’s Forces in Ireland, and not giving information of said mutiny to his commanding officer,’ O’Reilly and several other conspirators were arrested, courtmartialed and sentenced to death. This sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and, after a scries of prisons under whose horrors two of the Fenians died, the little group remaining were sentenced to penal servitude in Australia and were carried thither in the prison ship Hougoumont.

There, in the penal colony at Fremantle, they were set to work making a road through the almost impenetrable bush. O’Reilly was a quiet and law-abiding prisoner and in the course of his first year there he even earned by good behavior a certain degree of liberty. But existence in the colony was nevertheless intolerable and he determined to escape into the bush — a wild scheme, for a runaway was almost sure to be recaptured, and if he did by the grace of God evade the trained native trackers, he faced death from thirst and starvation. A prisoner at Fremantle dwelt, with singular literalness, between the Devil and the deep sea.

One day in the late fall, he confided his plan to Father McCabe, the one priest in all that hundred-mile parish of convicts and ticket-of-leave men.

‘It is an excellent way to commit suicide,’ the father replied. ‘Don’t think of that again. Let me think out a plan for you.’

For months O’Reilly waited and at last in despair he determined to try his own efforts; then in December a man named Macguire appeared at work near the colony, with a secret message from Father McCabe. In February the whalers used to touch at Bunbury and the good priest had arranged with Captain Archilaus Baker of the barque Vigilant of New Bedford to take O’Reilly on board, provided O’Reilly would get himself outside the three-mile limit.

It was nearly two months before O’Reilly saw or heard from Macguire again, but early in February he appeared and details of the plan were agreed upon. On the appointed night O’Reilly walked down the road and into the woods — there were few locks or guards at the penal colony for there was thought to be no possibility of escape; besides which, O’Reilly had, as we have said, more freedom than most of the prisoners. He had got himself a pair of freeman’s shoes, the better to baffle identification of his tracks, and in them he set forth. Almost immediately he realized that he was being followed. But the man behind him was himself an ex-prisoner, now a mahogany-sawyer, and when he knew what O’Reilly was doing he wished him good luck and promised to put the authorities on a false scent. On went O’Reilly and at the appointed place he hid in the woods beside the road until he heard whistled the opening strains of ‘St. Patrick’s Day,’ the signal agreed upon with Macguire. Another man was with Macguire, both on horseback, and with a horse for O’Reilly; together the three rode for hours through the night till they reached the shore, put to sea in a rowboat, and, after a detour that took the boat nearly out of sight of land, reached, in the afternoon, the headland where they were to watch for the Vigilant.

They saw the whalers standing out to sea, and pulled out to meet them. In their haste to escape they had forgotten both food and water and they suffered greatly in consequence. But they pulled strongly and in all possible haste to overhaul the Vigilant and, when they had come near enough, made frantic signals for help. For a time she seemed to be bearing down toward them, but as a matter of fact she had not sighted them; she tacked, before their unbelieving eyes, stood out to sea again, and soon left them far behind.

The other two took O’Reilly ashore and, hiding him in a remote little valley, left him until they could arrange a new plan for his flight. Search revealed no water he dared drink and at last he caught and killed an opossum and ate some of the meat.

The next day, so bitter his impatience, he rowed to sea alone in the merest shell of a rowboat, and sighted the Vigilant; but again, although he got near enough to hear the voices on deck, he failed to catch the lookout’s attention, and only by rowing all night did he succeed in regaining the shore.

During the three days and nights that followed, O’Reilly slept almost continuously. Before they went back to Father McCabe, Macguire and his companion had arranged to get food and water to him; now they returned and next morning the three once more rowed out to sea. Captain David R. Gifford of the Gazelle had agreed with Father McCabe to pick up O’Reilly, and had accepted ten pounds to bind the bargain.

The rowboat soon sighted the whalers (the Clarice, also of New Bedford, was gamming with the Gazelle) and was shortly afterward sighted by them, and by the end of the morning O’Reilly was aboard the Gazelle and bound for America.


Now O’Reilly’s escape in a New Bedford whaler made no great stir in the world, but it suggested a later project on a scale so large that it commanded attention on both sides of the Atlantic. When those young Fenians were sent to Australia, one of them, named Wilson — who had defiantly pleaded guilty to treason — appealed for help to John Devoy, an ardent Irish patriot who had fled to America. The possibility of royal pardon kept hope alive among the prisoners for several years, O’Reilly’s escape giving it added strength; but in 1870, when a general pardon was granted to all political convicts in Australia, those were excepted who had been in the army at the time of their offense. When the Queen assumed the title of Empress of India, an appeal was made for the pardon of these remaining Fenians, but it was rejected. Then Wilson wrote again to John Devoy. But it was five years before any definite plan took shape.

At last in pursuance of this plan Devoy came to New Bedford in February, 1875, to find a whaling vessel and a whaling captain. Henry C. Hathaway, third mate of the Gazelle when she rescued O’Reilly, had become a captain in the New Bedford police department, and to Hathaway O’Reilly sent Devoy, and he, in turn, took Devoy to John T. Richardson, the whaling agent.

Now there was in New Bedford at the time one Captain George S. Anthony, who had recently married Richardson’s daughter and retired from the sea after a relatively brief but successful career as master. Captain Anthony was growing impatient of his job at the Morse Twist Drill works, and Jonathan Bourne, for whom he had sailed ten years in one vessel, had persisted in offering him a ship.

Meeting his father-in-law one day, Captain Anthony said, ‘I ‘m tired of this. Go down and see Mr. Bourne and ask him if he will let me have a ship.’

‘Wait a few days; I have something better for you,’ Richardson replied.

The next evening, in Richardson’s store at 18 South Water Street, with the lights out, a little group of men — Devoy and other members of the Clanna-Gael — told Anthony the story of the Fenian convicts and proposed that he sail from New Bedford, ostensibly on a whaling voyage, meet the convicts off the Australian coast, on a day to be appointed, take them on board, and sail for home. He met the committee for the second time, twenty-four hours later, and promised to go.

Acting as agents for the committee of the Clan-na-Gael — which names did not appear in the affair—Richardson and Anthony bought the barque Catalpa on March 13, 1875 for $5500. She was a whaler that had been sold into the merchant service, and they were obliged to make extensive alterations and repairs, of which one was remarkable: the carpenter removed from under the foot of the mainmast the riding keelson, which had rotted, and so skillfully replaced it with a new piece, that from the beginning of the voyage to the end the rigging did not settle.

To represent the committee, one man, Dennis Duggan, shipped as carpenter and sailed in the Catalpa. For his first officer, the captain chose Samuel P. Smith, a capable whaler from Martha’s Vineyard, in whom he had great confidence; but besides Captain Anthony, Duggan was the only man on board who knew the purpose of the voyage when, on April 29, 1875, the Catalpa put to sea.

With orders to cruise some six months in the Atlantic, then, shipping home from Fayal any oil that he might take, to sail for Bunbury, West Australia, where he was to arrive in the spring of 1876 and wait for the Australian agent of the committee to communicate with him, Captain Anthony left his baby and his bride of a year on the exact anniversary of his wedding.


There has been, probably, no other whaling voyage like that of the Catalpa in ‘75. Whaleships have sailed from New Bedford, ostensibly for the whaling grounds, on voyages that have had no concern with whaling; but Captain Anthony, who carried in his head an international conspiracy, cruised in good faith for whales and took eight before he touched at Teneriffe for fresh water. His troubles, though, had been various: in fitting a key to his chronometer he had so changed the rate that his observations, taken when he was several days at sea, showed the Catalpa to be in the interior of the State of New York, and a second chronometer, which he brought from Captain Crapo of the barque Osprey, proved also to be unreliable; Captain Anthony himself, going ashore at Flores with a boatload of fresh fish, was arrested for smuggling; at Fayal he discharged three sick sailors, and nearly all the others deserted; and before leaving Teneriffe, whence he was to sail on the long voyage round Good Hope to Australia, he was obliged to tell his first officer the true purpose for which the owners had sent the Catalpa to sea.

Calling the mate into the cabin, when they were a few days out from Fayal, he said, ‘Mr. Smith, you shipped to go whaling. I want to say to you now, before we get to Teneriffe, that the Catalpa has done about all the whaling she will do this fall. We’re bound to the west coast of Australia to try and liberate six Fenian prisoners who are serving a life sentence in Great Britain’s penal colony. This ship was bought for that purpose and fitted for that purpose, and you have been utterly deceived in the object of this voyage. You have a right to be indignant and leave the vessel at Teneriffe. You will have the opportunity when we arrive there, and if you go, I can’t blame you.

‘But this ship is going to Australia, if I live, and I hope you will stay by me and go with me. God knows I need you, and I give you my word I will stand by you as never one man stood by another, if you will say you will remain in the ship and assist me in carrying out the plans.’

After asking a few questions and sitting for a few moments in silence, Mr. Smith replied, ‘Captain Anthony, I’ll stick by you in this ship if she goes to Hell and burns off her jib boom.’

Sailing from Teneriffe on November 25, the Catalpa took three small whales on December 19, crossed the Equator on December 25, spoke the barque Platina, Captain Walter Howland, of New Bedford, about the middle of February, and on February 26 spoke the English barque Ocean Beauty, from Liverpool bound for New Zealand.

It was an amusing coincidence that the master of the Ocean Beauty had been captain of the Hougoumont in 1868 when she took to Australia the very men the Catalpa was to rescue; and in reply to Captain Anthony’s questions about the coast, the unwitting Englishman gave him the very chart by which he had sailed the prison ship.

At ten o’clock, March 28, 1876, the Catalpa anchored in Bunbury harbor, at the head of Geographe Bay, and the next morning Captain Anthony received the following telegram: —

To CAPTAIN ANTHONY, - Have you any news from New Bedford? When can you come to Fremantle?

He replied, —
No news from New Bedford. Shall not come to Fremantle.

J. Collins, whose real name was John J. Breslin, was the agent of the Clanna-Gael, as Captain Anthony had suspected. Breslin was a man of keen ability, striking appearance, grace of manner, and great personal charm. Having long before proved his capacity for such daring adventure, he was made the head of all land operations in this projected rescue. He sailed from San Francisco in September 1875 for Australia; associated with him was Captain Thomas Desmond, and in Australia they were to meet one John King. These three were the active agents of the escape by land, Breslin being in charge. Arrived at Fremantle, Breslin separated from Desmond and assumed with his new name the character of a man of wealth, in search of investments. He was soon established in the pleasantest of social relations with the Governor, and meanwhile he made the acquaintance of an ex-prisoner through whom he was able to notify Wilson (whose appeal to John Devoy had originated the whole plan of rescue) how matters were going forward. Two other Irish revolutionary agents volunteered their services and agreed to cut the telegraph wires after the escape.


It was Breslin’s plan that with a whale boat Captain Anthony meet the escaping prisoners at Rockingham, some twenty miles south of Fremantle, on a day to be appointed, and take them out to the Catalpa, which should lie far enough off the coast to attract no attention. Captain Anthony went to Fremantle and Rockingham to see how the land lay, and, having arranged with Breslin a code for communicating by telegraph, returned to Bunbury.

After a series of accidents, which nearly wrecked the plot, Captain Anthony sailed on Saturday, April 15. On Sunday afternoon, in a boat manned with a picked crew, and with a supply of food and water, he left the Catalpa, and shortly after dark he landed on the beach at the appointed place. He did not know until daylight next morning that, by the scantiest possible margin, he had escaped wrecking his boat on an outlying reef.

At approximately eight o’clock in the morning, Breslin with two traps, each with a team, was waiting a little less than a mile from the prison, when the convicts to be rescued came in two groups of three down the Rockingham Road. By good conduct the six had earned the rank of ‘constable,’ which permitted them to communicate with one another, and they were working outside the prison walls. There was a seventh Fenian prisoner at Fremantle who had offered, on being sentenced for treason, to betray others of his fellows: him they intentionally left behind. The fugitives leaped into the wagons, covered the prison uniforms with big coats that Breslin had provided, and drove like the devil down the long road to Rockingham.

On Rockingham beach one Thomas Brennan drove up to Anthony with his horse at a dead run. With singular perversity Brennan, himself a member of the Clan-na-Gael in America, had insisted on joining the Catalpa, against the orders of the others, who desired to take no chance of arousing suspicions by the presence of several Irishmen on board the whaler. At New Bedford Brennan had planned to stow away, but had arrived too late. He had followed the Catalpa to Fayal, but Anthony had hastily left, to escape him. He had sailed from Fayal to England and from England to Australia, where he made himself known to Breslin and insisted on having a hand in the escape; and at last, like the bad penny of the proverb, he turned up on the beach, to make one more passenger for an overloaded boat.

Finding Captain Anthony in conversation with a stranger, this wild Brennan demanded to know who he was, and would have shot him, had not the captain intervened.

From the trap that he drove, Brennan began throwing valises and bags. The mail steamer Georgette was in the offing, and haste was urgent. At this juncture King rode up on horseback and, comprehending the peril in which the approaching steamer placed them all, dashed off to urge the others to greater speed.

Soon after, the fugitives drove up in breathless haste, with pistols showing under their long coats, whereupon the boat’s crew leaped at the notion that Captain Anthony had been smuggling, and in their eagerness to defend their skipper from arrest, nearly wrecked the whole plan by attacking them.

In wild confusion they loaded their belongings into the boat and scrambled in, the prisoners stowed on the bottom, Breslin, King, and Desmond in the stern, and Captain Anthony at the steering oar. As Anthony roared at them in good whaling language, the men at the oars grew steadier and settled into the long pull.

When they were half a mile from shore, a detachment of mounted police and native trackers appeared on the beach. At five o’clock in the afternoon the boat passed the outer reef. A storm blew up, washed their provisions overboard, and carried away the mast. They rigged an oar for a jury-mast, lowered the centreboard, and held aft the sheet of their makeshift sail. All that night, nearly swamped, they bailed for their lives, and once more fortune saved them, for the gale subsided. At sunrise they saw the Catalpa, and made for her under oars and sail.

But an hour after sunrise they saw the Georgette steaming out of Fremantle.

Down came the sail. They dared not even row, but shipped their oars and lay flat on the bottom of the boat, which, being so heavily laden, was low in the water and rolled like a log. Thus it came about that the Georgette, though she twice passed the whaleboat on her way to and from the Catalpa, did not sight her either time.

When the Georgette was a safe distance away, bound for Fremantle, the crew of the whaleboat once more pulled toward the Catalpa, which had not yet sighted them. Alongside her was a craft which they thought was a fishing vessel, until Desmond cried out: —

‘My God! There’s the guard-boat, filled with police. Pass out those rifles.’

They loaded rifles and revolvers with fresh cartridges, and fighting off their exhaustion, rowed as if the Devil were behind them. Then the lookout at the masthead of the Catalpa sighted them, and the barque swept down on them with all sail set.

At that the police made sail and set men at the sweeps. But with the fugitives lying flat on the bottom and the crew straining at the oars, the whaleboat shot alongside the Catalpa, and the mate ordered all sails thrown hard aback. The men seized the swinging tackles, and passed them to the second mate and to Captain Anthony, who themselves secured them. The prisoners scrambled up the side. With the captain still aboard her, the whaleboat swung to the davits.

And then the guard-boat crossed the bow of the Catalpa.

The whaler sailed slowly on but, soon after, the wind failed completely and she lay becalmed until daybreak next morning, when the Georgette, with a detachment of soldiers on board, came out to her. Once a British gunner sent a shot across her bows, and Captain Anthony, fearing lest the British colonel send a boat to board the Catalpa, armed his men. But neither the mail-steamer nor the guard-boat had authority to board an American vessel in defiance of the captain’s refusal to admit them; so, although there was a mighty exchange of verbal shot and shell, the engagement never progressed beyond a war of words.

’May I come aboard your ship? ‘

‘Not by a d—d sight.’

‘You’ve six British prisoners aboard.’

‘You’re mistaken; they’re all free men.’ And so on.


On August 19, 1876, when the Catalpa landed her passengers at New York, Richardson, agent for the vessel, telegraphed Captain Anthony to leave the vessel in New York and come home. He reached New Bedford on a Sunday morning, and thousands of people met him. His hair, which had been black when he sailed, was gray; he had lost thirty-seven pounds in weight.

The committee that had sent out the vessel settled with the crew according to an average of the oil taken by other vessels that had sailed the same season; and to Captain Anthony, Mr. Richardson, and Captain Hathaway, they gave the Catalpa herself. The expedition cost besides the money raised to give the escaped convicts a start in their new land, approximately $30,000.

The affair made a great to-do in its day. The Catalpa had been decidedly the aggressor in her brush with England, and the Fenian convicts were indeed lucky to get out of their scrape so well. Angry leading articles in British journals did them no harm, and even from the point of view of many Englishmen, who believed that the government should in any case have pardoned the six Irishmen, the outcome was not, perhaps, wholly unsatisfactory.

Probably to Irish and to Irish sympathizers everywhere Breslin’s farewell was in every sense the last word in the affair: —

ROCKINGHAM, April 17, 1876


This is to certify that I have this day released from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty 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, —

In 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,