There were eight of them at the outset - eight convicts escaping from a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land, today’s Tasmania.
|Macquarie Harbour: escape was impossible|
They were led by Alexander Pearce, a violent and pockmarked Irishman. He, like his fellow convicts, had been incarcerated in the dreaded Macquarie Harbour penal settlement on the remote west coast of Tasmania.
On September, 1822, Pearce made his escape by stealing a boat from the harbour where he was working in a labour gang. Seven others jumped into the boat and made their escape with him.
They were a motley crew of thieves and highwaymen: Matthew Travers, William Dalton, Robert Greenhill, John Mather, William Kennedy, Thomas Bodenham and ‘Little’ Brown.
The men rowed across the harbour, sank the boat and made their way into the dense forest. Their goal was Derwent River, where they hoped to steal a ship and sail to England.
|Convicts: the only way out was by boat|
What they did not know was that they would have to traverse some of the most rugged terrain in Australia.
The weather soon took a turn for the worse, soaking them to the bone. They were hungry, freezing cold and scared: some of them could no longer keep up.
They soon began to argue about food. One of the men - William Kennedy - made a cruel jest: ‘I am so weak,’ he said, ‘that I could eat a piece of man.’
It soon transpired that he was not joking: he thought they should kill the weakest
Several argued that murder, even in desperate circumstances, was wrong. But Robert Greenhill agreed with Kennedy: he was so deranged with hunger that he decided to kill the hated William Dalton.
He picked up his axe ‘and struck him on the head… Matthew Travers with a knife also came and cut his throat, and held him… [we] tore out his insides and cut off his head.’
The next morning, the remaining seven men divided him into portions and ate him.
|Pearce: a taste for human flesh|
The meal proved poor sustenance: two of the men soon fell behind the others and were lost. Both were eventually recaptured and died soon after.
Now, there were just five escapees left. They crossed the Franklin River, dragging each other over with a long pole. But they were now so hungry that another man had to die. This time it was Thomas Bodenham’s turn. Greenhill split his skull with an axe and the remaining four men ate him until there was nothing left.
The four survivors had been on the run for nearly a month when John Mather fell seriously ill with dysentery. Knowing he was next for the axe, he begged to be allowed to pray before they killed him. He then ‘laid down his head and Greenhill took the axe and killed him.’
Shortly after Mather had been eaten, Matthew Travers was bitten by a snake. As he weakened, he, too, was killed with an axe.
Now, there were only Pearce and Greenhill left. Greenhill had the sole axe which he zealously guarded. Neither man slept, for fear that he would be killed by the other.
But after several days without sleep, both men were exhausted. Against his better judgement, Greenhill fell asleep.
Pearce seized the opportunity. ‘I run up [sic], and took the axe from under his head, and struck him with it and killed him.’ He hacked off Greenhill’s arm and thigh and took it with him.
|The judge refused to believe Pearce's diary|
Pearce was now the only escapee left alive. He continued walking for several days until he was spotted by a shepherd, who took pity on him and gave him shelter.
Soon after, Pearce fell in with a couple of criminal bushrangers and lived with them for two months before all three men were finally captured.
Pearce was sent back to Macquarie Harbour; he escaped execution because the judge did not believe his stories of cannibalism.
Within a few months, Pearce again made his escape, taking with him a young lad named Thomas Cox.
Cox’s freedom was short-lived. Pearce killed him within a few days and was still in the process of eating him when he was once again captured.
|Pearce's skull: still on display|
This time his stories of cannibalism were found to be true, for poor Cox’s remains were discovered nearby, in a gruesome state.
Pearce was hanged, dissected and given to a surgeon. His skull was eventually presented to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia where it was given pride of place in a glass showcase.
It remains there to this day.
For more information about my new book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War, please visit my website: http://www.gilesmilton.com
Further reading about this week’s blog:
+ Alexander Pearce - 'Narrative of the escape of eight convicts from Macquarie Harbour in Sep. 1822, and of their murders and cannibalism committed during their wanderings' (manuscript)
+ Robert Hughes: The Fatal Shore