(This article was the first of four part radio series on Newstalk FM, you can read a review of the series by the Irish Independent here)
Just over 200 years ago, nearly 200 Irish men and women experienced a voyage of sadism in their transportation to Britain’s new penal colony of Australia.
It was late in December 1796 and the Britannia set sail from Cork. She was a square rigged ship of 500 tons, that for twenty years lumbered across the tea trading routes around India and America, until its owners refitted its decks to turn a shilling in the burgeoning private enterprise of the convict trade.
144 Irish men and 44 Irish females plucked from counties across Ireland would be the shackled passengers on this voyage into hell. Kealy, Sheehan, McCarthy, Maher, Shaughnessy, the names on the convict list echo of home.
Thomas Dennott was the master of the ship, and aided by the incompetence of the half mad ships surgeon, Augustus Beyer, Dennott would embark on a sadistic rampage.
Dennott looked for signs of mutiny to unleash his cat’o nine tails. Beyer, in a later testimony about the events on the Britannia, drew this picture of the Ships master.
Cruel angry was the master, Thomas Dennott,
Driven by the devil and storm scudding his mind.
When he blew hot, the seams’ pitch waxed warm.
Swore by the cat and the cutting cane, did Dennott;
Dennott had a supposed ringleader, William Trimball, flogged until he gave a list of 31 convicts who had allegedly taken an oath to mutiny. The ship was searched for weapons; the guards found home made saws, six home made knives, a few lengths of hoop iron and a scissors. It was cause enough for Dennott to unleash his depravity.
Cut the line, Mr Beyer! Repair to your cabin, if it please you.
You may take cold on deck.
Floggers, wet your whistle with a tot of rum directly
‘Ere you warm to your work.
With the bumbling surgeon cowering in his quarters the bellowing Dennot was free to inflict his whistling lash on the decks of the Britannia.
Damn you! I will cut you bog-trotters to pieces!
Hanging is too gentle a death for the likes of you! Strip his masthead!
This will open your carcase!
One convict, James Brennan, received the unfathomable total of 800 lashes on two successive days.
With this burst, Brennan’s back steadily sliced open
In drizzles of blood that the cat flicked away with nonchalance.
‘I beg you cease, Mr Dennott. This wretch can bear it no longer.’
Damn a horse’s hind leg if I do. Methinks ‘tis you, Mr Beyer,
That can bear it no longer.
It ripped Brennan apart but it took several days for him to die as the screams of the Irish bounced of the waves. One female convict, Jenny Blake, tried to commit suicide for which Dennott plunged further into his particular pool of evil.
Caned her at the bulkhead,
Beat her about the face and naked torso, all the while
Taunting ‘infernal vixen’, ‘blone’, ‘chuckey’ and such like.
Then ironed both legs and chained her.
Bark on, curs! Dennott mocked those tinkers brought up from the hold
To witness the colleen’s shame, cussing under their breath.
Let her cry! She’ll piss the less.
To Beyer’s astonishment the Irish spirit still endured against these waves of hate.
Although pinched by want and in the greatest tribulation,
These croppies were tough as tack.
A mere ten men and one woman died on the passage,
Whereas on the Scarborough six years before we lost seventy-three.
Six of the Britannia’s ring-leaders died after their flogging.
Er, possibly from thirst. Such was Patrick Garnley,
That stood the welter of four hundred lashes.
But even he cried out for water.
I’ll give you plenty to drink soon enough, ye limb of a gypsy!
In a watery grave! barked Master Dennott.
After 169 days of torture the ship docked in Port Jackson on 27 May 1897. Ten men and one woman had died. Those that survived were brutalised and emaciated, their appearance so disturbing it led to an inquiry in Sydney.
Neither Dennott nor Beyer were held accountable, with the former being found to have ‘bordered on too great a severity’, while the latter had been merely ‘negligent.’