The Catalpa

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The Catalpa Rescue is an epic tale of truly international proportions, linking Ireland, Australia and the United States of America.  It ranks amongst the great escapes of the world and is a "David and Goliath" story, recounting the ultimate triumph of the small and helpless, over almost insurmountable odds.  It is an essential part of Rockingham's history.

This commemorative sculpture speaks to all who promote the ideals of freedom.  It is inspired by the historical dramatic incident, which took place here in the year 1876, when the daring rescue of six Irish Fenian Prisoners were extracted from Fremantle Prison through Rockingham and on to Massachusetts.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in 1858.  Its American counterpart, the Fenian Movement, was named after a legendary band of warriors.  The Fenians had on objective - the establishment of a Free and Independent Irish Republic.

Hunger and Poverty forced many Irishmen to enlist in the British Army.  In 1867 there was an uprising by the Irish against England and hundreds of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were arrested.  Those serving in the British Army were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.  The British Government, however altered many of these sentences to long term penal servitude.

It was the convict transport Hougoumont that transported 62 of these men to Fremantle in 1867, one of them being young activist John Boyle O'Reilly.  In 1869 with the help of an Irish priest, O'Reilly escaped from a Vasse road party which was working near Bunbury.

After spending some days hiding in the coastal dunes, O'Reilly was rescued by the American Whaler, the Gazell. He settled in the United States of America where he became a reporter for the Boston Pilot and established himself as a well-known humanitarian, writer, poet and orator.

By 1871 all convicted Fenians had been pardoned except those who had served the British Military.

Of these, ten were in Fremantle Prison. One wrote a letter, which was smuggled out of Fremantle Prison and posted to America, where it came into the hands of John Devoy and John Boyle O'Reilly. This letter sowed the seed for a rescue mission which took four years to plan and was funded by Irish families all over the world.

The Whaler Catalpa was purchased for the mission and this sailed from New Bedford in 1875 under Captain George Anthony.

Meanwhile agents John Breslin and Thomas Desmond were given the task of travelling to Fremantle, making contact with the prisoners and preparing for their escape.  Desmond obtained work as a carriage maker and Breslin posed as a wealthy man. He was adopted into the community mixing with the most affluent people. Together they made contact with the Fenians and waited for the arrival of the Catalpa.

Arriving in Bunbury and meeting up with Breslin, Captain Anthony agreed to prepare for the escape which was set for Easter Monday - 17 April 1876.  This day was traditionally used for a boating regatta on the Swan River.

Due to good behaviour six of the ten imprisoned Fenians had been appointed "trustees" which meant they had some freedom to come and go from the prison during the day.  On the day of the escape, these six Fenians worked outside of the prison walls and managed to escape.  Aided by Breslin and Desmond, who both had horse drawn buggies, made their way from Fremantle to Rockingham where a whaleboat was waiting to row them out to the Catalpa.

Upon receiving the news of the escape the Water Police in Fremantle sent their fastest Police Steamer, the Georgette, to Rockingham to recapture the escapees.

The Georgette pursued the Catalpa and eventually fired a shot across the whaler's bows, demanding that the prisoners be handed over. Captain Anthony denied having any prisoners on board and, pointing to the 'Stars and Stripes', shouted the words that if not taken seriously could have changed the course of history. He stated .... "That's the American Flag. I am on the high seas. As I am in international waters my flag protects me. If you fire on this ship you fire on the American Flag!"

Due to the bad weather the poor Fenians were still at sea on the whaleboat and had not at that time reached the Catalpa. Good luck and quick thinking enabled them to elude the Georgette. The Georgette seeing the whaleboat still making its way to the Catalpa gave chase. Once the escapees were hauled on board the Catalpa it set sail heading for the open waters of the Indian Ocean with the Georgette following in close pursuit.

After a short time, the Georgette steamed slowly across the stern of the Catalpa but did not fire any more shots. She kept the whaler company for an hour, then slowly swung off, steaming back to Fremantle empty handed.

News of the escape of the Fenians spread around Perth and Fremantle and was a complete embarrassment to the establishment and authority of the day.  The people on the other handthought it marvellous and created songs about the event and sung these songs in pubs and in the town.

It took four months for the Catalpa to reach the destination of New York where she arrived to a Hero's Welcome on the 19th August 1876.