Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mary Bryant, Courageous Convict and Mother

Women in Early Australia

Susan Page Davis here. I've recently done a lot of reading on the early days of Australia, and I came across the amazing tale of Mary Bryant.

Mary went to Australia as a convict in 1788, when things were deplorable there for women.
Even in 1830, there were 7 men for every women in Victoria, Australia. Both free settlers and female convicts were sent to Port Phillip, where the city of Melbourne grew up. The labor shortage was so severe that many single women sailed out with families, to work as domestic servants. The life was hard, and servants who lost their jobs or became pregnant found themselves on the street.

Engraving of the view of Botany Bay at Gov. Phillip's arrival in 1789. Public domain.

For female convicts, a sentence of transportation, or being shipped to England’s colonies in Australia, often meant unwilling prostitution. The conditions were so unbearable that some women chose execution over transportation.

Mary (Broad) Bryant was one of the first young woman sent to Australia for her crimes. She became renowned for her dramatic escape from the colony. She was born in 1765 in Cornwall, England, to a fishing family also known for sheep stealing.

Mary went to the town of Plymouth to look for work, got in with the wrong people, and began a career of theft. At the age of 21, she and two other women were caught. Her crimes were highway robbery and assault, and she was convicted of stealing a silk bonnet, jewelry, and a small amount of money. She was sentenced to death. This sentence was commuted to transportation for seven years.
She spent some time with other prisoners in the hulk of an old ship at Plymouth. In May, 1787, she was placed on the ship Charlotte, which was part of what is known as the First Fleet. They sailed for Botany Bay.

The First Fleet consisted of 11 ships traveling from Great Britain to Australia to found a penal colony, which became the first European settlement in Australia. Since the American Revolution was underway, they could no longer send convicts there. The fleet included two Royal Navy ships, three ships of stores, and six convict transports, including the Charlotte.

Engraving illustrating the arrival of the first convicts, 1789, public domain.
More than 1,000 convicts, marines, and seamen were aboard the fleet. The Charlotte carried 100 male convicts and 24 females. The voyage to Australia’s Botany Bay took 252 days, and they arrived in January, 1788.

The women aboard were at the mercy of the sailors and other men. Mary was probably already pregnant when she boarded, and she gave birth to a little girl in Cape Town, a stop on the way to Australia. Historians speculate that the father may have been an English prison guard.
The land at Botany Bay was found unsuitable for the colony, and there was no fresh water supply, so the governor moved the location of the settlement north to Port Jackson, also known today as Sydney Harbor.

Early map of Port Jackson

A month after arriving, Mary was married to fellow prisoner William Bryant, age 31, also from Cornwall. William was a fisherman convicted of resisting revenue officers—he was probably caught smuggling. He was sentenced to seven years’ transport to America, but his destination was changed to Australia, and he ended up on the Charlotte with Mary Broad. William and Mary Bryant were among the first couples married in the new colony.

Life in the prison colony

The couple lived in a hut with the baby girl, named Charlotte after the ship. William was in charge of the fishing boats and planted a garden. About a year later, he was caught selling some of his catch illegally, and received 100 lashes.

A food shortage made the colonists desperate. William was no long in charge of the fishing boats. Life was very hard for them. Mary had another child in April, 1790, a boy they named Emanuel. People were starving in Port Jackson. They decided to try to escape the colony in order to save their children’s lives.

When a Dutch ship arrived, sources say William obtained a compass, charts, a quadrant, two muskets, ammunition, and some food from the Dutch captain.

In March, 1791, William and Mary and seven other convicts made their escape. They had waited until a night with no moon, when no ships that could pursue them were in the harbor. With the two children, eleven people boarded the governor’s cutter, which had masts, sails, and six oars.

Their voyage of 69 days has become known as one of the most daring feats of sailing ever. It has been compared to Captain William Bligh’s voyage two years earlier in an open boat after the mutiny on the Bounty. The party is credited with making several discoveries, including some of the previously uncharted islands along the Great Barrier Reef.

They reached the island of Timor after a journey of more than 3,254 miles (more than 5,000 km). Timor was under Dutch control at the time. The escapees claimed they were survivors of a shipwreck. It was later discovered that they were escaped British convicts, and they were sent back to England for trial.

During the trip back, William Bryant and both of Mary’s children died of fever. Little Charlotte’s death came just five weeks before they landed in England. Mary’s purpose for undertaking the dangerous escape was defeated, and she was now alone. She and four of the male prisoners survived, arriving in England June 18, 1792. James Boswell championed their case and appealed for clemency.

Usually the punishment for escaping from transportation was death, but this time the prisoners were allowed to serve out the remainder of their original sentences. Mary’s sentence expired about a year later, and she was released from Newgate prison May 2, 1793. Mary returned to her family in Cornwall. James Boswell sent her a small stipend until his death two years later.

Courtesy State Library of New South Wales, from the James Boswell collection relating to convict Mary Bryant.
Mary’s story has been fictionalized in several books and plays, and a British/Australian television movie entitled The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant. On display in the Mitchell Library in New South Wales are two Botany Bay leaves that came from a packet Mary sent to Boswell in thanks. These were leaves from the bunch she used as tea during the voyage.

To enter a drawing for a copy of Susan Page Davis’s new book The Outlaw Takes a Bride, leave a comment below, including your contact information.

Susan Page Davis is the author of more than fifty published novels. A history major, she’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. She and her son James S. Davis are writing a historical novel set in Australia and at sea. Susan is a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: .


  1. You always come up with the most interesting stories, Susan! I love this one!

  2. Thanks, Connie. I was appalled by some of the things I read about people being taken to Australia and dumped there. And we thought the American colonists had it hard! Never an easy time there.

  3. Hi Susan, enjoyed reading Mary's story. I hope she found some sort of happiness later in life.
    I guess that's one way to get rid of criminals; ship them somewhere else.

    1. We don't know much about Mary's later life, except that she returned to her family in Cornwall. I expect she lived quietly after that. Her letter of thanks to James Boswell is the last known documentation of her life.

    2. I seem to be having a small tiff with Google, Margaret. That was me answering. Susan

  4. This was most interesting. We don't often realize the hardships others in foreign places had in the history of their country. Helps us remember and be aware of the horrible things done to men and women all over the world.

    1. Thanks, Martha. There was so much more I could have told about!

  5. Susan, thank you for sharing this very interesting story. I cannot imagine Mary's life.

  6. Great story, Susan! England at this time was a very harsh place to live as well, unless you were of the aristocracy. It was hard to live without breaking laws and probably drove many to crime. This was also about the time period of the "Scarecrow" character when men were hauled off to sea to serve against their will.

  7. Yes, it was all part of that period, Ruth. I remember the Scarecrow too (Disney version). Loved it!

  8. Very interesting! Love to learn more history :) I would certainly enjoy winning this book!
    bettimace at gmail dot com

  9. Mary had such a sad, hopeless story! It makes my recent loss of my husband seem a lot less hopeless . I would enjoy your book. Some. Wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot) com. California

  10. Aw, I am sorry this post made you sad, Sharon. The book I am giving away isn't about Mary Bryant. It's a western! But I think you would enjoy it. (I'll tell you a secret: it has a happy ending.)

  11. Looks like an excellent read. Would love to win it.
    CherylB1987 AT hotmail DOT com

  12. What a life Mary endured! Thank you for sharing this fascinating post, Susan.

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

  13. What a journey, 252 day aboard a ship. I can't imagine being at sail for that long!


  14. What a story! I'm going to need to find one of those fictionalizations you mentioned. What a sad, fascinating story.

    I don't know if the giveaway has ended, but just in case! brandy(dot)heineman(at)gmail(dot)com

  15. Thank you, everyone who stopped by! The winner of The Outlaw Takes a Bride is Cheryl Baranski. Have a great day!