THE CATALPA RESCUE
After a rather botched rebellion in Ireland, back in 1865, the court martials and legal proceedings that followed saw many Irish political prisoners, known as Fenians, banished to the most remote gaol in the world, Fremantle. And so this is the background of another of Peter Fitzsimons superb books on Australian History, that we really all should know. I finished it in two days, such was the intrigue and ultimate triumph of human endeavour over an overbearing authority, which back then was the British Government.
For one of these prisoners, on entering the Hougoumont, which would transport them across the oceans, “What hits O’Reilly first as he descends into these bowels of hell is, appropriately enough, the sheer stench, the bodily effluence of the prisoners who have been in the hold for days- an olfactory sensation matched by the sheer ugliness of what he sees now”. And what’s more, for anyone who strayed from the strict discipline required, whoa behold if you were sent to solitary confinement, in a 3ft x 5 ft cell, with “ the final bit of torture therein is an iron ring at knee height, through which the prisoner must pass his right hand, before it is handcuffed to his left wrist. It means that ………he can neither lie down nor stand up.”
Following the treacherous voyage, of course leaving all loved ones behind, the prisoners were then confronted by “Oh, the horror. Like a turd on a rose, the enormous structure sitting atop the hill behind the town is a disturbing vision-a stone-cold penitentiary that towers menacingly over all that dares stand below. One feels bullied, just to look at it.” So Fremantle Gaol forms the backdrop for one of the most enthralling prison breaks in Australian history. For anyone interested in history, seafaring, mateship and the ability of men to endure and eventually overcome incredible hardship, this real life drama is up there with the best of them. Ah, but of course there is also a love story with a unique twist involved, just to add to the already heightened state you will no doubt reach once you get into this book.
One has to be careful not to spoil the yarn for those who have absolutely no idea about the Catalpa, a small whaling vessel that captures the imagination of the Irish in America and beyond. There are many unique characters involved in the plot to rescue the last six Fenians from Fremantle gaol, with meticulous planning and fundraising involved. The actual rescue itself is utterly enthralling, with a boat rowing around off Rockingham overnight searching for deliverance, a cannon across the bow of the whaling vessel, the Georgette involved ( well known for other reasons in the southwest ) and a staunch Captain determined not to be bullied at sea, destined to deliver his precious cargo to the safety of America.
I cannot recommend this book any more highly and now that I have returned to the southwest, I will be dropping my edition into Laurie Keene, my book swapping mate, hoping he has a beauty for me in return.