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William Swallow’s Excellent Adventure

Back when Australia was a penal colony, Macquarie Harbor, Tasmania, was the place that Britain sent criminals who were really bad… or really clever. On August 16th, 1829, one William Swallow — a former sailor who used a long list of aliases — led a group of convicts who talked their way out of manacles and seized the supply ship Cyprus. The crew was taken by surprise (the captain was fishing) and put ashore mostly unharmed, along with any convicts who didn’t want to join Swallow. What followed was one of history’s most incredible long-distance prison breaks.

The 17 convicts who agreed to come along with Swallow first sailed the 78-foot-long Cyprus to New Zealand, then north past Tahiti to Keppel’s Island, or Niuatoputapu, in the Tonga island chain; they spent six weeks on this idyllic paradise, and seven men chose to stay. The remaining ten (one was lost overboard) sailed on to Japan and then southern China.

Smooth Criminals

As they approached the Chinese coast, three men asked to be left on an island near Hong Kong, where they were later captured. Then in February 1830, the remaining seven scuttled the Cyprus and rowed into the southern Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou) claiming to be shipwrecked sailors. They probably looked the part, and in an era before telegraphs or passports, British authorities in Canton had no way of knowing who they really were. Four of these men, including Swallow, signed on with the merchant ship Charles Grant, bound for London; the other three signed on with a Danish merchant ship, Pulen, headed for America.

Everything went smoothly until September 7th, 1830, when the Charles Grant pulled into London — six days after a faster ship arrived with news from Tasmania and Canton, where police had finally put two and two together. All four were arrested, but only three were hung for piracy: somehow Swallow, the ringleader, convinced the jury he had been forced to navigate across 14,000 miles of ocean against his will. He was nonetheless sent back to Tasmania, where he died in 1834 at the age of 42. Thanks to him, however, the seven escapees on Keppel’s Island and three who sailed for America got away scot free.

In 1852 historian John West, who had visited Tasmania a decade before, recalled hearing a folk song telling the tale of the epic escape aboard the “The Cyprus Brig,” sung around campfires by convict colonists. The ballad, composed by a convict known as “Frank the Poet,” is still recognized in Tasmania today. The adventure was also recreated in London’s popular theaters for audiences clearly rooting for the underdog escaped convicts.

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