William And Mary Bryant’s Heroic Escape From Australia

Mar 10, 2023 1 comments

The penal colonies that the British established in Australia during the 18th and the 19th centuries were nearly impossible to escape from. Surrounded by oceans and a vast, unforgiving desert in the interior, most escape attempts usually ended with the convicts either drowning or dying of starvation in the bush. Although hundreds of attempts were made, very few prisoners actually succeeded to achieve freedom. Among them was William Bryant, his wife Mary Bryant, his two children and seven other convicts. This motley group of prisoners pulled off one of the most incredible sea voyages on an open boat.

William Bryant’s escape from Australia in 1791. Source: The World’s News 9 Sep 1931

William Bryant was among the first batch of prisoners to arrive in Australia, landing in Port Jackson in New South Wales in 1788. His crime: impersonating two Royal Navy seamen in order to obtain their wages. William served three years at the prison ship Dunkirk at Plymouth, before he was shipped off to Australia to serve the reminder of his seven-year sentence.

William Bryant’s future wife Mary Broad was convicted of highway robbery, and she too was sentenced to seven years' transportation. Mary Broad arrived in Australia aboard a ship named Charlotte. On the journey from Portsmouth to Port Jackson, Mary gave birth to a daughter, who she named Charlotte after the ship.

Within a few days of arriving in Port Jackson, William and Mary were married. Two years later, they had a son named Emmanuel.

William was a fisherman, and this valuable skill afforded him his own hut—a rare privilege for a convict.

William’s sentence was due to expire in March 1791 but he couldn’t just leave yet, because his wife had two more years of her sentence to run. Also the governor of the colony ruled that no convict, even if their sentence had expired, would be allowed to leave the colony if they left behind a wife and children who could not support themselves. Fearing starvation if they spent another two years in the colony, William and his wife decided to escape.

In December 1790, a Dutch ship named Waaksamheyd arrived with provisions from Batavia (present day Jakarta). William and his wife befriended the captain and managed to acquire from him a large number of items they would need to effect their escape—a compass, quadrant, chart, rice, salt pork, flour, a barrel for water, two muskets and ammunition. After the Waaksamheyd left Port Jackson, William, along with his family and seven other convicts, stole the governor's boat, and under the cover of darkness left the harbor and headed towards the open sea. The escapees then sailed north on a 5,100-km odyssey following the east coast of Australia, passing between the Great Barrier Reef and the mainland, through the Torres Strait and across the Arafura Sea to Timor Island.

Map showing the approximate route of the escapees from Sydney to Timor. Photo: Tales from the Quarterdeck

Bryant and his crew kept close to the coastline so that they could make landings whenever required to collect food and fresh water. Often they met with hostilities from Aborigines, who gave them chase in canoes. Their boat had two sails, but were also equipped with oars which the men used when the wind dropped.

Finally, after 69 days at sea, the escapees landed on the Dutch settlement of Kupang on the island of Timor, some 500 km north of Australia. They explained to the villagers that they were shipwreck survivors, and the villagers, believing their story, allowed them to stay. But hardly four months passed when suspicion arose and the escaped convicts were imprisoned. Shortly afterwards, Captain Edward Edwards of HMS Pandora arrived in the settlement. He and most of his crew had survived the loss of their ship on the Great Barrier Reef and were returning to England. The governor of Kupang handed Bryant and the others to Captain Edward to take them back to England.

Willian Bryant took ill during the voyage and died in a hospital in Batavia. His son Emmanuel also didn’t survive. Mary Bryant and those who survived returned back to England and was put on trial. The punishment for escaping from transportation was generally death, but Mary Bryant was pardoned and released. Mary returned to her family in Cornwall, where she died two years later.

William and Mary Bryant’s voyage from Port Jackson to Timor in a small open boat has been hailed as an amazing feat in the annals of human endeavor. The story of William and Mary Bryant's escape has been the subject of numerous books, drama and films.


  1. That sucks. Losing your family and then dying 2 years later made the whole effort pointless.


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