The Plot on the Barwell

From The Convict Ships, 1787-1868 by Charles Bateson

The Barwell, having embarked 296 prisoners, sailed from Portsmouth on November 7, 1797, and although detained for a fortnight by calms and adverse winds, ran out to the Cape in 74 days. She was detained there until March 19 because her officers, fearing they would not find a profitable market at Port Jackson, desired to dispose of their European trade goods, and she did not reach Sydney until May 18, 1798, 192 days out from England and 60 from the Cape.

Soon after leaving the Cape a plot was allegedly hatched between the convicts and the soldiers to combine to seize the ship. Ensign George Bond, of the New South Wales Corps, was named as one of the ringleaders, and the Barwell's master, John Cameron, having consulted the ship's officers and Ensign Bayly, Bond's superior officer, ordered Bond to be confined in irons. Several of the soldiers of the detachment were also thrown into irons, and at least one received three dozen lashes. Many of the convicts were flogged, one or two being given eight dozen lashes as principal ringleaders, but the majority being given three dozen. In all, about a score were punished for having their irons off or as being implicated in the alleged mutiny. This was, apparently, the second conspiracy in the Barwell. Although the ship's log is silent on the matter, a private letter written from the Cape by Richard Dore, who was proceeding to Sydney to take up his appointment as judge-advocate, states that on the passage to the Cape 25 prisoners had planned to seize the cuddy arms while the sailors were aloft and murder the officers. The plot was disclosed by an informer the night before the attempt was to be made, and next morning, as the convicts reached the deck, the conspirators were seized, double-ironed and chained together.

When the Barwell reached Sydney, Ensign Bayly charged Bond with drunkenness and other offences, but the commanding officer of the New South Wales Corps, Major Foveaux, supported, apparently by his officers, represented to Governor Hunter that Bond should be permitted to resign his commission rather than face a court-martial, and to this course Hunter agreed. On reflection, however, he regretted his too ready acquiescence to this request. "Coming here thus degraded (i.e. under arrest) and charged with offences of so serious a description," wrote the governor in a despatch of September 12, 1798, "I may have reason to regret that I listened to Major Foveaux's interposition in behalf of a man whom I am sorry to say has not answered my expectations." In acknowledging this despatch, the Duke of Portland bluntly declared that Bond's resignation "should not have been accepted, as it was evidently given in with a view to defeat his being tried by a court-martial".

While the authorities were prepared to hush up Bond's actions, Captain Cameron was not. The court-martial for the ensign's trial had been summoned to meet on June 7, but this order was cancelled when Bond resigned. Cameron soon learnt that he had been liberated, and on the 11th swore an information before Judge Advocate Richard Dore in which he stated that "he hath good and sufficient grounds from the testimony of various persons to believe that the said George Bond was not only an accessory to but the principal ringleader and projector of the dreadful conspiracy" to seize the Barwell and, having murdered her officers, to carry her to Mauritius. He, therefore, prayed the governor to bring Bond to justice.

As a result of Cameron's insistence a Vice-Admiralty Court was assembled for the first time in the colony's history. Its members were drawn, of course, from the naval and military officers at the settlement, and there is little doubt that they had determined in advance to acquit the prisoners. Five privates were first arraigned, but one was promptly discharged on a legal technicality, the indictment being found defective because it wrongly recorded his Christian name. The case against the remaining four was weak, since it rested principally on the testimony of convicts, and they were acquitted.

Bond's trial followed, apparently on a private prosecution launched by Cameron. The Barwell's master, however, expected an acquittal, as he made clear in his address to the court. Bond was charged that "with force and arms upon the high seas ... he piratically and feloniously did endeavour to stir up, excite and make ... a revolt and mutiny" in the Barwell. The principal witness was the ship's surgeon, John Thomas Sharpe, but, as in the earlier cases, the evidence was weak and unconvincing and Bond was acquitted without being called upon for his defence. He later announced his intention of bringing a civil suit against Cameron for false imprisonment, and estimated the damage he had suffered at £10,000, but did not proceed with the action.

The full story of what transpired in the Barwell was never told, but whether or not Bond was implicated in a plot to take the ship, his conduct was in some way reprehensible. This seems evident, but the military coterie at the infant settlement succeeded in hushing up the affair.