The real pirates of Pirates Bay

The story of the pirates of Pirates Bay will be celebrated at a three-day event beginning on Friday.
The story of the pirates of Pirates Bay will be celebrated at a three-day event beginning on Friday.

On the beautiful but windswept eastern peninsula of Tasmania there's a bush-lined horseshoe of white sand known as Pirates Bay.

Despite the intriguing name, though, it was only last year that local historians discovered the story of the convict pirates who inspired it.

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the day six escapees attempted to abscond Van Diemen's land aboard a stolen schooner called the Seaflower.

But unlike most stories of piracy, these villains - who had been transported to the colonies for crimes such as stealing a shawl or a quilt - were not on the hunt for gold and treasure but a chance at freedom and a return to loved ones back in England.

Their tale was only uncovered when members of the local Eaglehawk Neck History Group were studying a map of the island from 1824 early last year and noticed a note under the name Pirates Bay: "Schooner taken, 30th Jan. 1822".

The group began researching court records, old newspapers and books to piece together a full picture of the escapade.

Richard Hurlstone, John Wilkinson, William Walker, Matthew Travers, Robert Greenhill and a sixth unknown convict stole a pilot boat from the Hobart Town public works, made their way around the island and hid in the bushland surrounding what was then known as Monge Bay.

When colonist George Meredith and son Edwin anchored a few days later and hauled their empty water cask onto the beach to refill at a nearby creek, the escapee party rushed down and took the Seaflower.

They pushed the crew ashore and left them with only a dinghy and one oar to journey back to Hobart to raise the alarm. It took three days, giving the pirate crew a good head start.

It took a few weeks but eventually a government-dispatched boat caught up with the now-argumentative pirates.

Travers, Hurlstone and Greenhill were captured when they disembarked on Waterhouse Island off the northern tip of Tasmania to replenish their water supply.

The other three convicts were able to out-sail the authorities and escape.

"The remainder in the schooner put to sea, and the Government boat pursued for several hours; but owing to the very heavy sea, could not then come up with her," a report in the Hobart Gazette dated March 2, 1822 said.

"The schooner had no provisions but a few mutton birds, and no compass and the pirates had lost their powder on shore.

"Thus having no means of leaving the coast, the desperate and misguided criminals (who are stated to have quarrelled amongst themselves) can hardly fail of being overtaken."

The remaining three pirates eventually ran the Seaflower aground near Port Kembla on the NSW south coast, where authorities caught up with them once more.

"Walker and Wilkinson invented a detailed story to cover their tracks, which was initially believed," says Eaglehawk Neck group historian Ruth Moon.

"However soon reports were received of people seeing them deliberately running it into the rocks and the news had arrived for Hobart of their escape."

The pair were arrested again and returned to Macquarie Harbour where 150 lashes awaited them, like it had the three who had been captured earlier.

"Therefore one only remained, for whom active search and pursuit was made," reported the Hobart Gazette on March 30, 1822.

However the sixth convict would never be found or identified.

Moon says it is the convicts' "determination and tenacity" that makes them so fascinating to modern Australians.

But also the fact that their actions were quite understandable, given the crimes they were originally transported for and their strong desire to see their families again.

Travers and Greenhill would attempt an escape again but this time chose a more dangerous accomplice - the cannibal convict Alexander Pearce. They both met a grisly end before they could leave the colony.

It was only Walker who would eventually make it back to the UK to see his wife and three children, only to discover his wife had remarried, not anticipating his return.

"The more I research people's lives from 200 years ago, the more it becomes obvious that basically people haven't changed - apart from becoming a bit softer physically," Moon says.

"They are our history."

The Library of Tasmania has recorded that more than 160,000 men, women and children were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868.

"There are still a lot of stories to tell," says Moon.

"Every convict had a story as does every immigrant."

The story of the Pirates of Pirates Bay will be celebrated at a three-day event beginning on January 28.

The pirate-themed festival will include the theatrical premier of historian James Parker's play The Pirates, the Unknown Cannibals and the Man Who Changed His Feathers and a pirates ball and market.

A two-masted brigantine called Windeward Bound will sail into Pirates Bay and anchor to represent the Seaflower.

Australian Associated Press