The stench from the ship was ‘unbearable’. But the Samurai disguised as a fisherman had no choice but to board the strange vessel that appeared near Mugi on Shikoku Island in January 1830. Japan was closed to foreign shipping and the local authorities were anxious to know what had just arrived on their shores.
The secret Samurai took careful note of what he saw and heard. The ship was crewed by a rag-tag bunch of foreigners with long noses, strange gaudy clothing and a small object they stuck in their mouths, lit and inhaled. They had a dog that the Samurai thought did not look like food and were clearly in some distress, pleading for water and firewood, though not food.[i] An alcoholic drink was offered, though the Samurai declined and went back to report to his commander. After considerable discussion, the Japanese decided that the men on the strange ship were pirates and should be destroyed.
In fact, the men were escaped convicts. They had mutinied aboard the brig Cyprus in Recherche Bay, Van Diemen’s Land, five months earlier. The overcrowded brig was carrying around thirty ironed prisoners to the dreaded Macquarie Harbour penal station but became storm bound for a week during which the convicts plotted a mutiny. Four were able to seize the ship. They unchained their fellow transports and then sent ashore any who did not want to join them, along with the soldiers, sailors and civilian passengers. Forty-four were cast away on the beach and later rescued through the bravery of one of the convicts marooned with them. One of them was a convict named William Pobjoy, who had deserted the mutineers in favour of the castaways. He would play a crucial role near the end of an epic tale.
The eighteen convicts still aboard the Cyprus sailed boldly into the Pacific Ocean for a life of piracy and plunder. Their only experienced sailor was a man who named himself for a free-flying bird, William Swallow. His real name was William Walker, though he had a long list of other criminal aliases and a colourful record. Born in 1792, Walker was transported for stealing, arriving in Van Diemen’s Land in 1829. The records describe him as nearing five foot nine inches in height with brown hair, blue eyes and a small scar across his nose and chin. He was married with three children.[ii] He escaped back to England, where he was eventually recaptured and tried under an alias, escaping a likely death sentence for returning from transportation. Back in Van Diemen’s Land, he again attempted to escape, for which crime he was being sent to Macquarie Harbour aboard the Cyprus.
Now William Swallow and his companions were praying for the Japanese to stop firing on their bedraggled vessel. They had been given a few days to leave but a lack of wind prevented their departure. This delay gave the Japanese time to confirm that the ship was British, and so, a legitimate target. Their warning ‘hail of cannon and musketoon balls’ became a fusillade of cannon balls aimed at the waterline. Two smashed into the ship. There was nothing for William Swallow and the other convicts to do but pray. Their prayers were answered when the Japanese decided to help them out with some advice about the weather and winds, allowing them to set sail and drift away to sea. After dusk the Japanese heard the strains of ‘a strange pipe and singing’ from the Cyprus as it floated away to China.[iii]
Without much experience as navigators they managed to reach China, losing only one man overboard. Three more departed the crew and in February 1830, the remaining mutineers scuttled the Cyprus and took to the ship’s boat with the aim of pretending they were shipwrecked sailors. The authorities in Canton believed their lies and the convicts scattered. Some headed for America never to be heard from again, but Swallow and three others sailed for England.
While they were in transit, news of the mutiny on the Cyprus reached Canton and one of the convicts who had remained there confessed to the crime. A fast ship carried the news to England and when Swallow and his accomplices arrived there six days later the authorities were waiting. Swallow managed to escape but was later recaptured. Not only did Swallow tell convincing lies about how the other fugitives had forced him to sail the Cyprus, but Pobjoy was now in London and prepared to testify against them. Two of Swallow’s accomplices were hanged but he escaped the noose by convincing the court that he acted under intimidation and navigated the ship to save himself. He was found not guilty of piracy and sentenced to serve out the remainder of his sentence. For the third time, he sailed to Van Diemen’s Land and arrived at the destination of his original voyage – two years late. He died in 1834 at another notorious prison a few years after returning to penal servitude. William Walker alias, among other names, William Swallow, was laid to rest in an unmarked grave on the Isle of the Dead, the Port Arthur cemetery.
The sensational story of the mutiny and subsequent voyage of the Cyprus inspired a defiant ballad that vividly put the prisoner’s point of view and added another item to the clandestine traditions of convict underculture.
Come all you sons of Freedom, a chorus join with me,
I’ll sing a song of heroes, and glorious liberty.
Some lads condemned from England sail’d to Van Diemen’s Shore,
Their Country, friends and parents, perhaps never to see more.
Unlike the official view of the escape, the convicts knew Bill Swallow and his runaway mates had indeed made it to Japan:
… For Navigating smartly Bill Swallow was the man,
Who laid a course out neatly to take us to Japan.
These triumphant verses of convict revenge concluded:
Then sound your golden trumpets, play on your tuneful notes,
The Cyprus brig is sailing, how proudly now she floats.
May fortune help the Noble lads, and keep them ever free
From Gags, and Cats, and Chains, and Traps, and Cruel Tyranny.[iv]
Even as late as the 1960s an elderly Tasmanian could sing a version of this ballad to a visiting folklorist and it can still occasionally be heard today performed by revival folksingers. It was one of many similar ballads in the underground repertoire of convicts.
From Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britain’s Empire
[i] They had plenty, as the Cyprus was provisioned to supply the penal station.
[ii] ‘William Swallow’, Convict records at https://convictrecords.com.au/convicts/swallow/william/119608, accessed April 2019, citing Australian Joint Copying Project. Microfilm Roll 89, Class and Piece Number HO11/6, Page Number 538.
[iii] Joshua Robertson, ‘Australian Convict Pirates in Japan: Evidence of 1830 Voyage Unearthed’, The Guardian, 28 May 2017 at https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/may/28/australian-convict-pirates-in-japan-evidence-of-1830-voyage-unearthed, accessed August 2018.
[iv] John Mulvaney, The Axe had Never Sounded: Place, People and Heritage of Recherche Bay, Tasmania, ANU E Press, c. 2007.