Simon Kleinig

Simon Kleinig was born in Adelaide. A lifelong passion for the wilderness regions of Tasmania led him to write articles for Wild magazine and several other publications. He considers himself a “history enthusiast”, rather than a historian, and loves delving into the human side of history. His first book, Jack Thwaites: Pioneer Tasmanian Bushwalker and Conservationist was published in 2008 and was short listed for the Tasmanian Book Prize. A second book, Rambles In Western Tasmania, is a collection of early twentieth century newspaper articles written by Charles Whitham, edited by Simon and published in 2010.


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Excerpt from Chapter 2: The coming of the white man

From the outset, the system at Macquarie Harbour was designed to be harsh and went to great lengths to ‘break’ prisoners. In September 1822, only eight months after the penal station had been established, a party of convicts plunged into
the bush fringing Kelly Basin and began a desperate journey towards the settled districts, and freedom.

One of the eight escapees was Alexander Pearce, the notorious ‘convict cannibal’. The subject of countless stories and fantasy, Alexander Pearce, physically at least, falls well short of the diabolical image of him conjured up and perpetuated over the years. In truth, he was a small Irishman aged about 30, with blue eyes and brown hair, ‘a neat, compact man of not unpleasing appearance’.

Originally a farm labourer from County Monaghan, Pearce was transported as a petty thief for stealing shoes, arriving in Van Diemen’s Land in 1820. Working initially as an assigned servant, he managed to get himself into trouble through a combination of theft, drunkenness and absconding. Pearce began his servitude in Van Diemen’s Land as a minor offender, but a harsh and unforgiving system succeeded in bringing out his very worst.

Alexander Pearce’s connection with Frenchmans Cap is as unlikely as it is significant. Pearce became the first person to cross western Tasmania successfully, from the shores of Macquarie Harbour to the settled districts in the east. Following his journey Pearce was interviewed separately by three people, including the Rev Robert Knopwood, the colourful magistrate of Hobart Town. His recorded narrative marks the first official use of the name ‘Frenchmans Cap’. Only a few landmarks were known in the west, making any reconstruction of Pearce’s escape route approximate.

Despite its macabre elements, Pearce’s escape is marked by his dogged determination and plucky endurance. A planned escape by sea, thwarted at the last minute, forced the party to change plans and take to the bush. Now in a state of panic, the first thought of the escapees was to put as much distance between themselves and Macquarie Harbour as possible. First, they tackled the slopes of Mount Sorell and spent their first night of freedom on its bare, windswept upper slopes.

The next day, they had their first encounter with serious bush — ‘very rough country’, Pearce described it.9 The party’s method of bush travel was simple: one man worked up front, bush-bashing, ‘making the road’ for the rest to follow. To ensure they maintained an easterly course, it would have been necessary to go against the ‘grain’ of the north-south aligned ridges, a very difficult undertaking indeed.

Robert Greenhill, a 32 year-old sailor from Middlesex, quickly assumed the role of leader of the party. He put his nautical navigation skills to good use, and in an extraordinary feat of navigation, he managed to keep the party on a steady, easterly course. Without the use of a compass, Greenhill’s sense of direction was remarkable under near-impossible conditions. He used dead-reckoning and the sun and stars, when not obscured, to guide the party across the ranges of western Tasmania. According to Pearce it was Greenhill who first suggested cannibalism, in the tradition of the ‘law of the sea’.

No doubt the first flush of freedom evaporated quickly, leaving them to ponder the empty reality of their situation and the enormity of the task that lay ahead. Far from being free men, they had simply traded the hell of Macquarie Harbour for another. Anyone who has walked any distance through trackless areas of western Tasmania will have some appreciation of the task that now confronted Pearce’s party. Exhausted and driven by desperation, the party forced a seemingly endless path through the dank twilight of range after range of dense rainforest-clad slopes. They pushed on, as Pearce later recalled, ‘in a very melancholy state’, trying desperately to maintain direction in terrain where travel in a straight line was impossible.

To make matters worse, late winter rains lashed at them, bringing a penetrating cold and damp, which ‘greatly added to make us far miserable than we was’. By now their meagre escape rations were gone, leaving the party demoralised and exhausted. Desperately hungry, the suggestion of cannibalism was met initially with protest and reluctance, then finally agreed upon.

Two of the party, dismayed at the prospect and physically spent, decided to return to Macquarie Harbour. They staggered back ‘in a state of the greatest exhaustion’, according to the official report10, and were admitted to the prison hospital. They died within a week of their return.

The weather improved for a while as the party pressed on ‘over the summits of a tier of mountains, near to that one called the Frenchman’s Cap’. To the convicts of Macquarie Harbour, Frenchmans Cap was a familiar landmark. Its height and distinctive shape set it apart, the one peak standing above a procession of mountains in all directions. ‘We then proceeded for four days thro’ a very bad country, till we came to a large river,’ Pearce recalled.

This river, which was probably the Franklin in full spate, delayed them for two days while they searched for a safe crossing. Next, they traversed the Deception Range, until ‘we came to a very fine plain, where we agreed to stop all night’. This welcome sight, after miles of battling through wet scrubs, was probably Lightning Plains. Further north lay the Loddon Plains. Ten years after their escape, near the junction of the Loddon and Adelaide Rivers, explorer William Sharland found human bones which very likely belonged to a member of Pearce’s party.

In this valley I discovered a heap of bones of a larger kind than could belong to a kangaroo or any other animal inhabiting these parts and they may probably be the remains of some of those unfortunate wretches who have absconded from Macquarie Harbour to seek this melancholy termination of their existence.

In 1840, James Calder found further evidence which may have been from Pearce’s party. At the foot of Mount Arrowsmith, near Wombat Glen, he discovered ‘in the last stages of decay, several articles which indicated that a party of runaway convicts from Macquarie Harbour, had, many years ago, passed this way. They were placed in the hollow of a fine old tree, which had been the means of preventing their entire destruction. They consisted of an old yellow jacket, a pea jacket, a blanket, and a pair of boots; and on searching about we found a large gimblet (a tool for boring holes), a hammer and a broken iron pot.’

For the surviving members of the party, the country east of the King William Saddle presented a far easier proposition. However, in their exhausted and half-naked state the remaining part of the journey still required a marathon undertaking. After cannibalising his sole remaining companion, Pearce struggled on, dazed and demoralised, and even contemplated suicide.

Before being sent to Macquarie Harbour, Pearce had worked as an assigned shepherd in the valley of the Ouse River. Now, guided by the flat profile of Table Mountain, he followed the river down past familiar sheep runs, arriving ‘nearly naked and quite barefoot, my clothing being torn from my back, my flesh being almost torn from my bones by the brush, my beard three or four inches in length’.

Pearce lay low for a while and was nursed back to health by a couple of fellow Irish convicts. Eventually he took up with a pair of bushrangers and remained at large for a couple of months until the party was arrested near the town of Jericho. Pearce gave a full account of the escape which was of great interest to the survey department, as western Tasmania was then completely unexplored. Pearce even confessed to eating his companions.

The authorities, suspecting the other escapees were still at large, refused to accept his story. Despite Pearce’s recorded narrative, it took another seven years for Frenchmans Cap to appear on maps of Van Diemen’s Land. Its use appears to have been confined to those who lived and worked closest to it: the inhabitants of Macquarie Harbour. Pearce was eventually returned to Macquarie Harbour, only to escape again and resort once more to cannibalism. This time, however, there was to be no escape. Found with human remains in his possession, Pearce was shipped to Hobart, found guilty of murder and hanged. Within months his story was shocking readers of daily newspapers in London.

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