Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Convict Pirates

Seizure of the Harrington in 1808

Convicts seized the Harrington during the evening of 15th May 1808 while the vessel lay at anchor in Port Jackson. The success of the venture and fate of the Harrington convicts is one of the more remarkable tales of convict escapes from the colony of New South Wales.

The ringleader seems to have been Michael Stewart alias Seymour alias Robert Stewart who had been tried at the Old Bailey on 20 May 1801 and found guilty of deception and forgery. He was sentenced to death, the sentence being reprieved to transportation for life. Robert / Michael Stewart was transported to New South Wales on the convict ship Calcutta in 1803.

The convicts numbered about fifty. The vessel was boarded whilst the master was on shore. The mate and twenty three of the crew were made prisoners, the ship's cables were cut, and the vessel sailed out past the fort under cover of darkness before clearing the harbour successfully (1)

The Sydney Gazette reported.....On Monday morning last the vessel Harrington was missed from her anchorage in Farm cove, which was directly in view of Captain Campbell's (the owner) house there. Between 8 and 9 the captain reported the extraordinary circumstance to His Honor the Lieutenant Governor, who issued immediate orders for a search to be made to discover whether any of the Government gangs were absent; the result of which was, that one Robert Stewart, and others had not joined their work that morning.

Upon further enquiry it next appeared, that a vessel had been seen at day light from South Head, standing off, from which joint circumstances, no further doubt was to be entertained of her having been taken away by a body of desperadoes. A small vessel called the Halcyon, was manned about 9 o'clock and with 10 privates of the NSW Corps commanded by serjeant Windsor, was towed out to pursue the delinquents, accompanied by a fleet of boats filled with other parties of the military and a number of officers and inhabitants who volunteered on the occasion: But so dead was the calm that prevailed within the heads that it was dark before the Halcyon could make any kind of progress, and the small boats were obliged to put back; the Harrington being then out of sight for many hours.

Between 3 and 4 in the afternoon Mr. Fisk, chief officer of the Harrington, arrived back in port with the hands in two boats who jointly report, that about 10 on Sunday night, while the vessel was riding at two anchors, the ships' company in bed within the steerage, Mr. Fisk was suddenly awakened in his cabin by two men at his bed side, one of whom held a pistol to his head, and commanded him to be silent, on pain of instant death; that others had proceeded in the same manner to the steerage; unshipped the ladder, and menaced also with immediate death the first that should offer to make any alarm; that the villains appeared to be very numerous, and frequently struck the deck with the butt ends of firelocks, that they had cut away both anchors, and towed the vessel out; and that about 7 in the morning, when upwards of 20 miles at sea, they had ordered Mr. Fisk and the crew to go on deck, one by one, in which order they were put into two boats and sent away from the vessel; and that after being 8 hours on the water they reached the shore.

Stewart seemed to be the leader in the desperate affair, and the people suppose their number to exceed thirty. Captain Campbell, who was owner as well as commander, intended to sail for the Fejees during the present week, and had provided all necessaries for the voyage.

The Pegasus was sent in pursuit but failed to secure the pirates and returned to Sydney after an exhausting search. The names of the Harrington pirates seem never to have been identified nor the final number of those who escaped. .....

.....It is reasonable to suggest, that most of the men have been surprised into the infamous plot by a few designing characters, whose previous conduct had rendered their circumstances hopeless. It is much to be lamented, that men who have everything to hope from on orderly deportment, if such there be among the delinquents, should suffer themselves to be ensnared by crafty advisers into a project, the most ample success of which must eventually prove destructive to themselves ; for should they even escape the present pursuit, whither must they fly, where hope security.

Can they promise to themselves protection in so flagrant an act from any civilized nation? Can they weakly imagine that by even running into an enemy's port they are to regain the freedom they have unhappily forfeited? If so, how illusive have their conjectures been ; how impotent their reasoning! They must find an enemy in every port, if they should ever gain one ; for to countenance a pirate would be a disgrace to any power. [4]

The following article was published in the Aberdeen Journal on 4th October 1809.....

Calcutta March 24 1809...... On Friday last, a young man of the name of Robert Bruce Keith Stuart, a convict from New South Wales, was brought on shore from the Phaeton frigate, and lodged in gaol, by an order from Government - It appears that he had been convicted of an offence in England, for which he was transported to New South Wales; from whence, in concert with several other convicts, he carried off, in May last, the brig Harrington, and made the best of his way for Manilla. On the passage thither, when off the coast of Luconia, the Dedaigneuse frigate fell in with the brig Harrington, and sent a party of seamen on board to take possession; and transhipping the party above named to the frigate, brought him to Prince of Wales' Island, where he was transferred to the Phaeton, in which frigate he has been brought to this port. (Calcutta)

On being received on board the Dedaigneuse, her Commander, Capt. Dawson, affected by the gentlemanlike appearance of his prisoner, allowed him every reasonable indulgence, and forbore to place him under personal restraint; but having made an attempt to escape, in which he had nearly succeeded, Capt. Dawson judged it necessary to place him in close confinement. We understand that this unfortunate youth was once a Lieutenant in the navy, that he had the benefit of a liberal education, and is respectably connected. The Harrington after being boarded by the seamen from the Dedaigneuse, ran aground and was lost on the coast of Luconia, when all the convicts on board effected their escape' ...[2]

It seems that Michael Stewart may have escaped. Nothing further has been found of him. The following letter to Edward Luttrell of the Union indicates that ultimately he pulled off his escape......

Secretary's Office Sydney 20 January 1810
To Mr. Edward Luttrell, Commander of the ship Union, Sydney Cove
His Excellency the Governor having received a written communication from the Governor General of India representing that he had thought to send to this colony by the ship Union commanded by you a person of the name of Robert de Bruce Keith Stewart, considered by the Government of India as a fugitive convict from hence. And the governor being informed that the said Stewart had effected his escape in India from your ship, it is his desire that you do forthwith furnish him in writing with a full and accurate account of the time and means by which said Stewart was enabled to effect his escape.

I am Sir You obedient servant, Thomas Campbell[3]

Notes and Links

1). An article by Ian Duffield....Identity Fraud: Interrogating the Impostures of 'Robert de Bruce Keith Stewart' in Early Nineteenth-Century Penang and Calcutta .......discusses the escaped convict and pirate Michael Stewart (his aliases were Robert Seymour, Robert Stewart, or Robert Stuart). The study evaluates a transported convict, Robert Stewart, and his serial-invented identities. They culminated in him creating much sympathetic support among Calcutta's white residents, as the honorable, romantic, and well-connected natural son of an aristocratic admiral. While not denying that he had escaped from Sydney by participating in the spectacular piratical seizure of the brig Harrington, he deluded his Calcutta supporters that his transportation offence was no mean felony but a crime of honour.

2). Article in the Hobart Mercury about Captain William Campbell, owner of the Harrington, an Australian buccaneer, who was closely associated with the Bass Strait Islands; his adventures in privateering off the South American Coast and his squabble with Governor King.

3). Terence Flynn was on Tuesday last put on board the King George, for Hobart Town, there to be executed in pursuance of sentence for the murder of Thomas Dawson. Following is a short account of the life of Terence Flynn - Flynn was tried at about 13 years of ago, at Lancaster, for robbing a bleach ground, of which offence being convicted together with his father, who was his accomplice, the latter was executed, and the son sentenced to be transported 14 years; under which sentence he arrived here in the 2d Royal Admiral, in November 1800; in his approach to manhood appeared most to delight in acts of atrocity, and has frequency been heard to boast of his having been the projector and principal in the crime which had proved fatal to his misguided parent. Shortly after his arrival he was placed in the Dock Yard, to learn the art of boat building, under the humane presumption that with the advantages of a profession he might, be enabled to obtain an honest livelihood, and that the youthful mind might by habits of industry be gradually alienated from those propensities with which he had at so early a period been assailed; but notwithstanding every effort to reclaim this hardy boy, his vices strengthened as his age matured, and clemency and severity at length were equally lost upon him. He was one of the desperadoes who piratically took away the Harrington in May, 1808, and was apprehended in India with the man for the murder of whom he is to atone, and shipped on board the Venus to be returned to this colony: but on the vessel's arrival at the Derwent both effected their escape - Sydney Gazette 23 June 1810

4). Captain William Campbell - Australian Dictionary of Biography


[1] HRA, Series 1, vol.XI p 740

[2] Sydney Gazette 22 May 1808

[3] Colonial Secretary's Papers, Copies of letters sent: local and overseas, 1809-1813

[4] The Sydney Gazette on 29th May 1808