Saturday, April 14, 2012

Irish convicts nearly burned alive on Norfolk Island

I came across this interesting story whilst researching the voyage of the East India Company fleet from England to China in 1804.

HMS Athenienne, a 64 gun warship under the command of Captain Francis Fayerman, left England with nine ships of the East India Company bound for China in June 1804. A homeward bound fleet from China had been attacked by the French Admiral Linois as the fleet entered the Straits of Malacca earlier in the year. It was therefore decided that instead of sailing via the shortest route across the Indian Ocean this fleet would sail via the southern coast of Australia then via the Pacific Ocean to China to avoid confrontation with the French.

In a heavy fog whilst crossing the Southern Atlantic Ocean three of the ships separated from the remainder of the fleet. Two of missing ships rejoined the fleet a month later, but one ship, the Taunton Castle, remained missing. Captain Fayerman decided to make an unscheduled visit to Norfolk Island to ask whether the Taunton Castle had been sighted.

In 1804 Norfolk Island was a penal colony. Many of the convicts on the island were Irish who, it was thought, could be sympathetic to the French if the island was attacked by a French force.

The Athenienne and the accompanying ships arrived off Norfolk Island at 3.30 pm on 9th November. On seeing the fleet of ships approaching the island, the commandant, Captain Piper, reported that he was ‘very much alarmed’. Fearing that they were French ships, he had the Irish convicts locked in the gaol and mustered his forces ready for an invasion. According to one of the convicts, wood was stacked around the gaol (apparently without the knowledge of the commandant) with the intention of setting it alight and burning all of the Irish convicts alive if the ships turned out to be French.

Captain Fayerman sent a boat with Lieutenant Little on shore to inform the commandant who they were and to enquire about the Taunton Castle. The relieved commandant said that the missing ship had not been seen.

The Taunton Castle called in at the island three days later after the remainder of the convoy had departed. She arrived at Harlem Bay, China on 5th January 1805 after having been separated from the rest of the convoy for nearly four months.

My ancestor, Joseph Ashmore, was a midshipman on HMS Athenienne.

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