These leaves were among a store taken by Mary Bryant when she escaped and are said to have been given by her to Boswell. The plant is Smilax glyciphylla, commonly known as wild sarsaparilla; "a small straggling vine found on the coastal regions of Australia ... Tea made from it has a bittersweet flavour but is better than that made from ti tree". The plant contains ascorbic acid; early colonists drank it as a tea substitute and used it as a remedy against scurvy. Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (R807)

These leaves are held by the State Library of NSW and were among a store taken by Mary Bryant when she escaped and which she gave to James Boswell. The plant is Smilax glyciphylla, commonly known as wild sarsaparilla; “a small straggling vine found on the coastal regions of Australia … Tea made from it has a bittersweet flavour but is better than that made from ti tree”. The plant contains ascorbic acid; early colonists drank it as a tea substitute and used it as a remedy against scurvy. Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (R807)

Today’s Dictionary of Sydney segment on 2SER was inspired by the fascinating article that recently appeared in The Guardian (here) about an amateur historian in Japan who uncovered evidence that a story long thought to be myth – that a ship commandeered by convict pirates and escapees from Tasmania sailed into Japanese waters in 1830 as they attempted to reach China – was in fact true. 

Let’s have a look at some convicts who escaped from Sydney!

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One of Sydney’s most famous convict escape stories is that of husband and wife, William and Mary Bryant.

The pair met aboard their First Fleet ship, Charlotte, and married shortly after arriving in Sydney. William had been transported for impersonating Royal Navy seamen and Mary for robbery and assault.

In 1790 the couple, along with their two children and seven other convicts, stole Governor Arthur Phillip’s cutter, a small boat which Bryant had previously skippered on Sydney Harbour.

They managed to sail all the way to Timor, enduring near starvation and shipwreck along their hazardous journey. Despite reaching Timor, the gang were recaptured after Dutch authorities were unconvinced by their claims to be shipwrecked mariners. During the voyage back to England to face further charges, William, their children and three of the other convicts died.

Mary reached England with the other four convicts in 1792 and sent to Newgate Prison. Their cause was taken up by lawyer James Boswell, now known best as the biographer of Samuel Johnson. Mary Bryant was pardoned in 1793 and returned to her family home in Cornwall. The four other convicts were released in November 1793.

A sad story you might not have heard is that of Mary Beckwith, who at 14 had been convicted of stealing and sentenced to transportation for life. She arrived in Sydney in December 1801 with her mother, who had been similarly sentenced to transportation for life. French explorer Nicolas Baudin arrived in Sydney in June 1802, and on 18 November 1802 when Baudin’s ship Le Géographe left Port Jackson to continue its scientific expedition to survey the Australian coast, 17 year old Mary was on board with him. During the voyage she would have seen the coast of South Australia, probably the first European woman to do so, before travelling to Timor and Mauritius. Baudin died shortly after their arrival in Mauritius in 1803 however, and Mary’s fate after this remains unknown.

Other ill-conceived attempts to escape the penal settlement revolved around an ignorance of geography.

In November 1791, 21 convicts set out walking from Sydney with one week’s provisions in search of China, which they believed to be about 250 kilometres north. Most of them managed to return to Sydney, exhausted and malnourished, having only travelled about 40 kilometres.

Those convicts who attempted to escape this way were referred to by Watkin Tench as “Chinese Travellers” in his 1793 Complete Account of the Settlement of Port Jackson. There were accounts of other desperadoes still searching for China as late as 1803.

Other stories of escape you might want to explore on the Dictionary of Sydney include that of celebrated Scottish political prisoner Thomas Muir who escaped by rowing out to an American whaling ship called the Otter; Frederick Ward, who became better known as the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, the only convict to escape Cockatoo Island; and Molly Morgan who was transported to Sydney twice!

Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW.
She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.

Listen to the podcast with Nicole & Nic here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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