Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Convict Pirates at Newcastle


There were many attempts by convicts to escape from the colony by water. A few were successful, many were not. Below is a description of the fate of convicts at the hand of natives near Newcastle in 1804.

Escape from Port Jackson

Lieutenant Menzies to Governor

King's Town 15th June 1804

On the 29th ult, James Field, one of three persons who ran off with Sergeant Day's boat from Sydney gave himself up; he was quite naked, speared and beat in several places by the Natives, and has not eaten anything for five days; I took him just as he came in, and showed him to all the prisoners; I could wish to be allowed to retain him here, as I think from the account he gives of his misfortunes, and the truly miserable and wretched spectacle he exhibited, it will prevent others from attempting the same with any of our boats that go up the River, by his representing to them the punishment and misery that awaits their rashness and offence.

The transactions with Sergeant Day's boat after leaving Port Jackson with Broadbent and Johnson, each victualled for six months and most completely equipped were as follows:


They made the place in three days, got the boat into a creek, and decked her with cedar slabs, which occupied a week, came down the harbour in the night and passed a schooner at anchor.

Port Stephens

They shaped their course to Port Stephens, remained there three days, left that Port with an intention of reaching Timor, proceeded about 100 miles further to the Northward.


A a heavy gale of wind came on, the boat drove on shore and dashed to pieces, they however got safe on shore, saved everything that was in her, and remained there a week with a view of repairing her, at the end of which all hopes vanished; they then determined to return to Sydney and give themselves up; with this intention they were packing up their provisions when the natives came suddenly on them and threw a number of spears, one of which mortally wounded Broadbent. Johnson received six in different parts and died in five days afterwards; Field also received several; they were then stripped of everything, but he found the natives more friendly as he approached the settlement, generally supplying him with a little fish and fern root, by which means he was enabled to crawl to this place.[1]

Return to Newcastle

The Sydney Gazette reported in June 1804 -

When the Resource last made the Coal Harbour, on Tuesday the 29th ultimo, the vessel was faintly hailed from the North side of the river; in consequence of which Mr. Craft got into the boat with one of the hands, and proceeded towards the shore; where, to his utter astonishment he beheld a human being in a condition too deplorable to be described or imagined. The unhappy author of their astonishment was unclothed, wore a beard that swept his breast, had received a spear in the right shoulder by which it was pierced through, and had his right hand barbarously crushed : he endured additional torture, if humanity could be susceptible of more than the wounds already recounted were capable of inflicting, from three ghastly wounds on the head.

The air was cold and penetrating, and the unhappy sufferer endeavoured to alleviate the misery of his condition by shielding his mutilated head from the wind with a scrap of withered bark. Eyeing with heartfelt gratitude the good Samaritans sent by Heaven to his relief in this last stage of human wretchedness, the transport of his soul rose superior to his accumulated afflictions, and he sunk to all appearance - lifeless, when the hope of preserving him vanished.

It was the will of Heaven, however, again to restore him; and he was conveyed with care and tenderness to the Settlement, where such marks of attention were shewn him as reflect honour to the feelings of the Gentleman in Command, as well as of the resident Assistant Surgeon, Mr. Mileham; but when the Resource sailed the prospect of his surviving was by no means promising. As the hardships he had undergone, added to the dreadful wounds he had received precluded the possibility of recognizing him, who or what he was could only be ascertained upon probable conjecture until he was sufficiently revived concisely to gratify the interested curiosity that prevailed.

He proved to be James Field, who in company with William Johnston and James Broadbent some months since made off with a boat belonging to Serjeant Day, in hopes of being taken on board an American vessel about to leave the Port; but disappointed and rejected, were driven to the Northward of Port Stephens, about 30 miles beyond Hunter's River; where, after a series of unspeakable hardships they were assaulted by a body of natives, who showered spears upon them with a barbarity only to be conceived by those that have witnessed the brutal ferocity of these unfeeling savages.

Johnston, he believed, was the first who fell a victim to their fury; but very soon sinking beneath the wounds he had himself received, only recollected that when Providence had restored him to life both his companions lay breathless by his side. The boat was staved, and death in a new shape again presented itself. - Famine and extreme anguish were now to complete a destiny which the cruelty of the savages had only half accomplished. Unconscious of the situation of the place, he left the massacred associates of his imprudence, and wandered hopeless along the extensive sand-beach that separates Point Stephen from the entrance of Hunter's River, and after a three days fatiguing travel, arrived at the spot of his deliverance. A thousand times did he rebuke his destiny, for having reserved him alone for still protracted sufferings, and as often did he envy the peaceful condition of his unfortunate companions.

Good heavens, how strange and paradoxical must be the texture of the human mind, that can consent to renounce the certain benefits attendant upon industry acquired without hazard, for a chimerical desire of emigrating from a spot to which nature has been so truly bountiful ; and where those very unfortunate people had, notwithstanding the sentence under which they laboured, enjoyed a comfortable maintenance! Johnston, indulged with the privilege of providing for his own support, had successfully engaged in petty trade, and in the course of a few months made himself master of an excellent house and in other respects appeared to be tolerably circumstanced. Broadbent, as a stonemason, and the above survivor as a carpenter, could always earn a comfortable subsistence, and yet no conviction could dissuade them from embarking in the rash and fatal enterprise.

All attempts that have been made of this kind have proved uniformly ruinous and abortive; and if example can deter surely none will leap headlong into the destructive vortex, through the want of unhappy instances to warn them of the certain danger.[2]

Notes and Links

1). James Broadbent arrived on the Barwell in 1798

2). James Field arrived on the Coromandel in 1802

3). Some of the convicts at Newcastle settlement at this time had been sent there after the Uprising at Castle Hill. Lieutenant Charles Menzies was commandant and James Mileham surgeon at the settlement when James Field arrived there. Read more about the penal settlement at Newcastle in 1804


[1] Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol. 3, p. 112

[2] Sydney Gazette 10 June 1804