Times Gone By – Coffs Coast Convict Connections

Jetty Beach and Muttonbird Island, c1908, Courtesy of Coffs Collections (coffs.recollect.net.au)


SEAGOING transport was essential in Australia, not only for overseas travel, but also along its vast coastline.

Not having any rivers, Coffs Harbour (Garlambirla – River Oak Country) was isolated between the nearest ports of Boat Harbour (Bellingen) and Grafton.

Essentially, the Gumbaynggirr people remained undisturbed by the new Australian arrivals until the 1840s, with one known exception.

On the night of 28 March 1791, William and Mary Bryant, their children, three-year-old Charlotte and one-year-old Edmond and seven other convicts, escaped from Sydney in a government-owned cutter.

Inspired by Captain Bligh’s infamous mutiny, where he and his remaining loyal crew rowed a 23-foot launch around 5000 km to Kupang, West Timor, the escapees rowed their way northward along Australia’s coastline.

Intending to reach Batavia (now Jakarta), this journey was well planned.

They hoarded food; included companions who had carpentry and navigational skills; bought navigational equipment from a foreign trading vessel; and timed their departure on a dark night when no ships were in port to give chase.

They stopped occasionally to collect water and food or to repair leaks in the boat, calling into Glenrock lagoon, where they found ‘a Quantity of Fine Burn Coal’ and Port Stephens.

They also stopped at Coffs Harbour describing the harbour as ‘superior excellence and capacity’.

Initially they landed on the shore and began repairing the seams of the boat with tallow, however they were continually harassed by the ‘indians’, so retreated to ‘a small island in the harbour’ to finish their repairs.

Despite rough weather and being chased by Indigenous people, they crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria, then the Arafura and Timor seas, to arrive at Kupang in West Timor (now Indonesia) with no deaths among them.

Upon the discovery that they were convicts, they were sent back to England, sailing to Batavia, Cape Town then Portsmouth, losing both children, William Bryant and three convicts along the way.

Arriving on 18 June 1792, the remaining group of five were immediately sent to Newgate prison where the men served their remaining sentence while Mary received a pardon in May 1793.



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