Mary Bryant’s story

In the later 1700s, if you were convicted of a serious, or even not very serious, crime, you could face transportation to a British colony, that is if you managed to avoid the death sentence. Before 1777 convicts were taken to North America. After that point this option became unavailable. But there was an alternative far away on the other side of the world, in the continent of Australia, newly discovered by Europeans.

One of those sentenced to transportation at this time was Mary Bryant, born Mary Broad, of Fowey. In 1785, aged 20, Mary was part of a gang of three who robbed a woman on the road to Plymouth, making off with 11 guineas and her silk bonnet. They were caught and sentenced to death. Mary’s sentence was then reduced to seven years transportation. Almost a year was spent languishing in the prison hulks, before she was included in the first convoy of 11 convict ships carrying colonists to New South Wales in Australia.

After a voyage via South Africa of eight months, the convoy landed at Sydney and the 1,500 people on board, half of them sentenced convicts, set about establishing their settlement. Things did not go well, to say the least. Disease cut a swathe through the settlers, plants brought from Europe failed to thrive, farm animals perished, and hunger became their constant companion. To that we must add the harsh punishment meted out to anyone who complained too loudly.

Mary had married her Cornish husband Will Bryant and had a child on the way out and another while at Sydney. But this didn’t stop her joining with other malcontents who were fed up with conditions and who began plotting a way out. Over a year or so, they carefully prepared their escape plan. By March 1791 they were ready. Stealing the governor’s cutter, Mary, Will, their two children and seven others set off northwards along the coasts of New South Wales and Queensland. On reaching the northernmost point of the continent, they headed out to open sea and, two months later, landed at the Dutch colony of Timor in the East Indies.

Once there, they claimed to be survivors of a shipwreck. Their story was at first accepted. But then the local authorities at Timor discovered the truth, reportedly when Will Bryant got drunk and boasted of the true tale. Unwilling to alienate the British, the Dutch promptly handed the group over to be shipped back to England. Conditions on board were clearly not of the best. During the journey, Will, both their children and three other companions all died.

In 1792 Mary was tried again at the Old Bailey and sentenced to serve the remaining year or so of her sentence in Newgate Jail in London. But by then, her story was being publicised in the press. Supported by James Boswell, the biographer of the writer Samuel Johnson, a campaign was launched for her release. This did not succeed in getting her out early but when her sentence expired in 1793, she received a free pardon and, more importantly, a pension of £10 a year from Boswell. Unfortunately, however, he died two years after this, and the pension ceased. Mary returned to Cornwall but what happened to her after that remains a mystery.

Mary’s story has inspired historical novels, a TV series and here a song by Dalla

6 thoughts on “Mary Bryant’s story

  1. No they disembarked at Port Jackson. Sydney Cove was 1789. And New Holland. The name Australia was years later. It was the (British) Colony of New South Wales.

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  2. The landing place was occupied by people called Eora. Hundreds died from smallpox and other consequences of this colonisation.

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  3. What a story, what an adventure, what a life.

    It is right to say that the indigenous inhabitants suffered terribly from colonisation. I agree, but it is also right to remember the terrible and unjust punishments meted out to poor people in Cornwall and the UK more broadly. There are echoes of that cruelty every day these days too.

    A lovely, fantastically interesting post.

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    1. Interesting, but surely there is almost no documentary evidence as to her character and her dealings with people. History is very much subject to interpretation, and our interpretations generally say as much about ourselves (beyond very limited “facts”) as they do about the people we are trying to understand. In this case, Mary’s unkindness to an officer is surely an invention to liven things up a bit (unless there really is documentary proof and again that would per definition be open to interpretation, the prejudices of the documentor etc).

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