On this date in 1788, Thomas Barrett became the first person legally executed in Great Britain’s Australian colonies when he hanged at Sydney Cove for stealing from government stores. It was barely a month after the First Fleet had arrived from England to found the penal colony.
More than just a milestone, Barrett packed an amazing criminal career into the few years he surfaces for us in the documentary record.
Our man was condemned to death in 1782 for stealing a silver watch, the first of three death sentences he would hear. That sentence was reprieved in favor of convict transportation, a system which had ground to a halt with the American Revolution and still awaited the creation of the Australian pipeline.
In 1783, a convict hulk that had been rejected by the now-independent North American colonies, the Swift, mutinied. Barrett would meet survivors of that mutiny who were stashed away with him on the Censor, one of the earliest of the Thames’ frightful stationary convict hulks where reprieved felons awaited their deportation.
In 1784, Barrett and one of the Swift mutineers, Charles Kellan, rebelled once again on their next convict transport ship, the Mercury — earning Barrett his second death sentence, and his second reprieve. Three more years on the fetid hulks ensued while legislators* and cartographers stroked their beards over Britain’s next move in the convict transportation game.
And this is when Australia the prison was invented. That First Fleet Barrett arrived on was a flotilla of eleven ships carrying 700 or so prisoners was it, the literal first European colony Down Under.
Besides being a man of spirit and enterprise, as his mutiny showed, Barrett was a skilled craftsman who enlivened the tiresome trip around the world by fashioning little metallic mementos. The journal of the ship’s surgeon John White narrates with more admiration than censure an escapade off the coast of Brazil that revealed Barret’s talent for counterfeiting.
This morning a boat came alongside, in which were three Portugueze and six slaves; from whom we purchased some oranges, plantains, and bread. In trafficking with these people, we discovered, that one Thomas Barret, a convict, had, with great ingenuity and address, passed some quarter dollars which he, assisted by two others, had coined out of old buckles, buttons belonging to the marines, and pewter spoons, during their passage from Teneriffe. The impression, milling, character, in a word, the whole was so inimitably executed, that had their metal been a little better, the fraud, I am convinced, would have passed undetected. A strict and careful search was made for the apparatus wherewith this was done, but in vain; not the smallest trace or vestige of any thing of the kind was to be found among them. How they managed this business without discovery, or how they could effect it at all, is a matter of inexpressible surprise to me; as they never were suffered to come near a fire; and a centinel was constantly placed over their hatchway, which, one would imagine, rendered it impossible for either fire or fused metal to be conveyed into their apartments. Besides, hardly ten minutes ever elapsed, without an officer of some degree or other going down among them. The adroitness, therefore, with which they must have managed, in order to complete a business that required so complicated a process, gave me a high opinion of their ingenuity, cunning, caution, and address; and I could not help wishing that these qualities had been employed to more laudable purposes.
Duly impressed, White found that more laudable purpose by commissioning Barrett to create a medallion celebrating the arrival of their vessel to Australian soil. This Charlotte Medal from Barrett’s hand is one of the most celebrated artifacts of Australian colonization; it depicts the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay with a narration on the reverse of its long journey from home:
Sailed the Charlotte of London from Spit head the 13 of May 1787. Bound for Botany Bay in th Island of new holland arriv,d at Teneriff th4 of June in Lat 28 13 N Long 16 23 W depart,d it 10 D’, arriv,d at rio janeiro 6 of Aug in Lat 22,54 S Long 42,38 W, depart,d it the 5 of Sep’ arriv,d at the Cape of good hope the 14 Oct’ in Lat 34 29 S Long 18 29 E depart,d it th13 of Nov’ and made the South Cape of New Holland the 8 of Jan 4 1788 in Lat 43,32 S Long 146,56 E arrivd at Botany Bay the 20 of Jun’ the Charlotte in Co in Lat 34.00 South Long 151.00 East distance from great Britan Miles 13106
But Barrett’s legitimate artistic career was as brief as it was scintillating.
The colony had a tight supply situation and its isolation and heavy convict population seemed to Governor Arthur Phillip to demand the strictest discipline, like that of a ship upon the sea: any significant failure of order could imperil the entire project. He assembled the little colony in early February to impress upon all that stealing rations would be harshly punished.
White, again, in his entry of February 27, 1788:
Thomas Barrett, Henry Lovel, and Joseph Hall, were brought before the criminal court, and tried for feloniously and fraudulently taking away from the public store beef and pease, the property of the crown. They were convicted on the clearest evidence; and sentence of death being passed on them, they were, about six o’clock the same evening, taken to the fatal tree; where Barrett was launched into eternity, after having confessed to the Rev. Mr. Johnson who attended him, that he was guilty of the crime, and had long merited the ignominious death which he was about to suffer, and to which he said he had been brought by bad company and evil company. Lovel and Hall were respited until six o’clock the next evening. When that awful hour arrived, they were led to the place of execution, and just as they were on the point of ascending the ladder, the judge advocate arrived with the governor’s pardon, on condition of their being banished to some uninhabited place.
As the infant colony had scarcely prioritized establishing an executioner right off the boat, one of Barrett’s fellows was pressed into the disreputable role. Another narrative underscores the tension this incident must have created among the convicts, half-starved and under the lash on the empire’s most distant moon. “The unhappy wretches were conducted wt. a party of Marines walking before them … with a large party of Marines drawn up opposite the Gallows … in case an insurrection should take place … & all the Convicts were summoned to see the deserved end of their Companions.” Hall and Lovel’s pardons should probably be read in this light; Phillip had a job to enforce obedience without triggering rebellion and once he had established the firmest precedent wisely reflected that the quality of mercy blesseth him that gives and him that takes. Two other thieves (of wine, in their case) named Daniel Gordon and John Williams were likewise condemned on the 29th of February only to be spared for banishment instead.
Barrett is an important character in the BBC drama Banished.
* The Home Secretary who orchestrated the pivot to Australia was the Viscount Sydney: hence, the Australian city of Sydney.