TOUR TO HELL: Convict Australia’s Great Escape Myths

Chapter Summary

1 The Hopeful Fraternity
Here we meet the first convicts shipped out from Ireland and examine the state of the Australian colony when they arrived aboard the Queen in 1791.

2 An Evil Which Will Cure Itself
The first known convict escape myth was the Irish convict infatuation that China or Chinese settlements could be reached by walking about 100 miles north along the coast from Sydney.

3 Thoughts Of Liberty
More escapes by the Irish ‘Chinese travellers’ of 1791-2, and reflections on what may have influenced their reasoning.

4 The Greatest Villains On Earth
Enthusiasm for escape mythology is renewed with fresh Irish arrivals later in the 1790s.

Toongabbie penal farm in the 1790s, a starting point for many a runaway's flight to the nonexistent bush sanctuary of their dreams. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Toongabbie penal farm in the 1790s, a starting point for many a runaway’s flight to the nonexistent bush sanctuary of their dreams. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

5 The Phantom White Colony
The late 1790s saw escape mythology develop to include the idea of an inland white society a few hundred miles to Sydney’s southwest, a place where runaways hoped they might find their freedom.

John Hunter, Governor of NSW 1795-1800. Courtesy National Library of Australia

John Hunter, Governor of NSW 1795-1800. Courtesy National Library of Australia

6 Checking This Spirit Of Emigration
In January 1798, Governor Hunter, exasperated by escape myths, announces a special expedition designed to disprove the existence of the bush ‘white colony’.

7 The Opinion Of The Common People
This chapter shows that escape myths spread from the Irish convict minority to the English mainstream around the turn of the century, and reflects on the role Aborigines, bushrangers and the ‘inland sea’ theory played in developing and spreading the myths.

8 Their Natural Vicious Propensities
Why were the believers mostly Irish? This chapter examines convict escape mythology in the context of Irish society and culture in the late 18th century.

9 King Of The Mountains
Governor King appoints Francis Barrallier ambassador to the ‘King of the Mountains’, and sends him to explore the interior in late 1802, hoping to quash troublesome beliefs about phantom settlements across the mountains.

10 Almost Superhuman Efforts
The progress and repercussions of Barrallier’s expedition to the southern Blue Mountains, and how he used the ‘white colony’ in his dealings with Aboriginal people.

11 Wild And Madlike Plans
1803: Newly arrived Irish convicts escape Castle Hill penal farm to cross the mountains, again hoping to find China or the ‘new settlement’.

12 The Fatal Excursions Of John Place
After failing twice to reach the phantom colonies, English convict John Place plays a key role in the colony’s largest ever convict uprising, culminating in the Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1804. His story has never before been told in full.

13 Daemons And Chimeras
Early in the new century escape myths went into a period of decline. Why?

14 Boundless Regions Open To Our Sight
The crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1814 and the discovery of the Macquarie River reactivates escape mythology. Convicts run away believing that Timor and New Guinea are accessible overland destinations.

15 Full March For Timor
In the 1820s, Timor increasingly emerges as the name for an overland sanctuary. This chapter examines several convict escapes, drawing on contemporary newspaper reports and trial minutes.

Bold Jack Donahoe (sketched in death), one of Australia's most famous bushrangers. In 1828 he joined a gang who sought the phantom white colony. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Bold Jack Donahoe (sketched in death), one of Australia’s most famous bushrangers. In 1828 he joined a gang who sought the phantom white colony. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

16 Mistaken And Dangerous Men
The famous bushranger Bold Jack Donahoe joined a gang that plundered Bathurst farms in the late 1820s. Their goal was to provision an expedition to the mythical white colony in the far west.

17  Buckley’s And None
William Buckley, the ‘Wild White Man’ who lived among Aborigines for over 30 years after escaping from the first settlement at Port Phillip Bay, was also aiming to walk to China.

18 This Fancied Paradise
The final chapter summarises the impact of escape mythology in promoting exploration and its role as a vicarious fantasy of escape. Bushranging balladry and escape myth lore are compared, and reflections are offered on escape mythology’s impact in Australian culture and history.

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