“But let us avoid all frontier movements…War would only insure the oppression and captivity of tens of thousands who are happy in the bosoms of their families.”

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

James Gemmel was your average mid‐​nineteenth century “Young American:” he was an idealistic, romantic, revolutionary whose vision disastrously exceeded his real power and influence. During the heady, radical days of the Jackson‐​Van Buren administrations, the most restless and hopeful of Democrats gathered together across the northern border to agitate republican revolution in Canada. The Canadians, for their part, did not rise to match the Americans’ fury. Though there was indeed a flurry of relatively small battles between William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebel forces and British‐​Canadian militiamen, the American filibusters constituted the largest corps of individuals in support of Canadian independence. Insisting on trying their own luck at whipping the British, a few particularly brave (or foolhardly) companies actually invaded Canadian territory to meet battle. Unsurprisingly to virtually all observers, British forces easily prevailed and meted out swift, unyielding military justice to the American prisoners. James Gemmel, among many dozens of others, was sentenced to transportation and prison labor in British Australia. In the document below, Gemmel describes to his audience the conditions of life aboard the convict ships, within the colony, and the details of his fortuitous escape home to New York. Gemmel published his account of “Van Dieman’s Land” (Tasmania) in Levi Slamm’s New York Daily Plebeian and books circulated to eager locofoco, Democratic readers.

Those looking to Gemmel to reinforce Americans’ gradually‐​increasing feeling of imperial rivalry with Great Britain must have come away from his book sorely lacking, however. James Gemmel, for all his youthful filibustering gusto for revolution, concluded his narrative with a plea for prudent inaction. “But let us avoid all frontier movements,” he implored readers, “the best weapon…with which to revolutionize the world, is surely a strict adherence to that wise, just, and honest policy, which carries in its train prosperity and peace.”

By James Gemmel, “One of the Captives”

“Two Years in Van Dieman’s Land,” New York Daily Plebeian 1 No. 5, 1 July 1842

Mr. Editor:–The superintendent of the convict station on which I was employed last year, appointed me an overseer, a sort of spy upon my fellow prisoners, and insisted on my acceptance of that unpleasant office. To decline was in incense him, yet I flatly refused it, and was therefore immediately sent to the treadmill a month–very fatiguing for the legs it surely is, and the vile wretches whose company one is compelled to keep, double the punishment; I was next placed in the Bridgewater chain gang for two months, and kept standing in the water handling stones and building piers.

Linus W. Miller, the young law student from Chautauque County, made a bold defence at Niagara, when on trial for his life, though but 18 years of age. I presume that this boldness did him much injury with Sir John Franklin, for he was an object of special persecution on the island.

At length he joined [other prisoners] in a vain attempt to escape. They jumped into an open boat, and without rudder or compass, went out to sea, hoping that some vessel might be near that would aid their views. A storm overtook them–they were driven on the rocks on a desert island–their boat was smashed to pieces–and two weeks after that, they were found nearly famished, and carried back to Hobart Town.

When they were missed, the whole island was in an uproar. It was feared that they had got arms and joined the Bush Rangers…who, well armed and very resolute, keep the woods, and set the colonial authorities at defiance.

Miller and his comrades had no jury trial–two justices condemned them for two years to the coal mines at Port Arthur, a sentence the next in severity to the gallows–and there they were when I escaped.

It was to this place of torment, that Mr. Frost, late Mayor of Newport, with Williams and Jones, his comrades concerned in the Welsh outbreak, were sent, though some of the ablest lawyers and judges in England had declared their conviction and sentence to be at variance with law. They were at first treated better than the other wretched beings there, but bad is the best usage at Port Arthur, so they also put out to sea in a whale boat, were pursued, taken, and Williams was put in irons–in the day time he was made fast to a long and heavy chain fastened to an iron ring in the wall, and kept at hard labor stone‐​breaking, and Frost and Jones found their condition much changed for the worse. The editors were friendly to these Welshmen, but they could learn little and effect nothing. I am satisfied that in England they have no correct idea of Frost’s sufferings; his letters dare not tell the truth. A convict or person in my situation would have been severely punished had we been seen talking to a free emigrant, or to any one not of our class and station. I have seen captive Americans flogged and sent to confinement on bread and water, for receiving a little tobacco or a slice of bread from a stranger, and for speaking to strangers. Our rules were printed, and, as enforced, no man could live up to them…

After our arrival in England we were for some months on board the York Hulk, off Portsmouth. We were there taken into a square crib called a wash house, stripped naked, put into a big tub and well scrubbed by two convicts, our hair sheared quite close, and we attired in the convict garb. Grant and Miller came down with a gang of horrid looking wretches from Newgate, were sent to work, planned how to escape, but were informed on by Jacob Beemer, the Judas of the party, now a constable in Van Dieman’s Land.

Elijah Woodman, of Maine, drew up a memorial, in the shape of a round‐​robin, addressed to Sir John Franklin, in July, 1840, setting forth that fellows guilty of the foulest and most revolting crimes, were our overseers–that many of us had to work long and hard barefooted, with wretched food and worn out garments, toiling whether it rained or whether we were in a burning sun, with no place to dry ourselves when wet and weary, till the bell called us to be locked up in our prisons at night. Sir John was incensed, mustered us, called us mutineers, ordered us to be dressed in magpie clothing–one leg and arm black, t’other yellow–with a military guard to shoot us down if disobedient. We were then sent to the worst station on the island, at Green Pond. There, however, we found a friend in the Hon. Capt. Erskine, son to Lord Chancellor Erskine, and brother to the Ambassador from England, who had married an American lady. This noble youth won the affections of us all by listening to our complaints when cruelly used, and doing justice on the felons who had maltreated us. His heart was full of kindness and humanity, but his conduct gave offence as being at variance with the policy Sir John Franklin had been directed to pursue, and the station was soon broken up.

On the 14th of last February, those of the captives not ordered to Port Arthur, were to have tickets by which they would be enabled to labor for their living, each man having a certain township far in the interior, beyond which if he dared to go, severe punishment would follow.

These townships extend perhaps ten miles by five, and contain, on the average, perhaps thirty landowners, who will unite to pay the poor captive just what they please, as he can go nowhere else; and if he demand a settlement, they may assert that he was saucy; and, any two of them being magistrates, can send him to the chaingang for a year, or otherwise coerce him. Redress is a thing not to be thought of. I have seen enough of this. If I were now a Van Dieman’s-Land “relief captive,” I would gladly exchange for slavery in Virginia, as far preferable.

Chandler and Waite are the exception to these remarks. They are much respected, and have been allowed to set up a blacksmith and wheelwright’s shop; John Grant, of Toronto, being their hired assistant.

It is impossible for me fully to describe the state of society in Van Dieman’s Land. Nine‐​tenths of the people are convicts. The men are bad enough. Some of their crimes are so revolting that I forbear to name them; and as for the London prostitutes, they are there in thousands, and infinitely worse than the worst of the men.–Virtue itself would soon be contaminated in such a polluted atmosphere. There are no distilleries but money is plentiful, and Van Dieman’s Land is the most remarkable place for drunkenness I ever saw. The American and Canadian prisoners established temperance societies, at which sons of our ablest men lectured, and a very few of the English convicts joined us.

The law is administered in a very summary and severe manner. Sir George Arthur would sometimes sign eleven death warrants in a morning, and see them executed too. His severity was no doubt the reason why he was sent next to Canada, and is probably the cause of his promotion to the government of Bombay.

In April, 1841, Governor Franklin caused the American captives to be assembled, and made a speech to them. I think the pith of it was to this effect:–

He had received a letter from Secretary Lord John Russell, saying that our release rested entirely with the Governor General of Canada, who, if he could arrive at the conclusion that our return would not endanger the public safety, and prove the signal for renewed troubles on the frontier, might permit us to return home, but that so far as the condition of Canada was yet known to the government of England, our return was considered highly dangerous; that there was but little probability that we should ever be permitted to leave the island; and that his instructions were not to allow any of us a free pardon. He added, that as American vessels visited Launcestown and Hobart Town, he would keep us all in the interior, even after our first two years expired; that we might hope to be taken off by the sympathy of American seamen, but that if such a case should arise, the British and American governments being on the best possible terms, we would be demanded of the United States, authorities, given us, brought back, and receive a most exemplary punishment. As for Linus Wilson Miller, he would keep him in the coal mines, if he retained that government, to the last hour of his life, as a warning and example to others.

My object is to state plain facts, [I leave to] better informed men the task of applying them; but I may venture to remark, that it would surely be better for England to govern gently in Canada, and thereby gain the affections of the people, than to be careless there, and keep some hundreds of honest, well meaning men, who sought to get or give relief from a government acknowledged by the authorities of that nation to have been very wicked, 18,000 miles from their homes[,] miserable, and among the most degraded of God’s creation, under the pretext that their release would involved a million and a half of colonists in revolt.

So far as prudence will permit, I will not state the particulars of my escape.

Mr. Norries, a police magistrate, and formerly butler to Sir George Arthur, had received a large tract of land, which he was anxious to clear. I persuaded him that I could build a stump machine if I had the model from Mr. Woodman, of Maine, who lived beyond Hobart Town; and such was his anxiety, that he gave me a passport to that place, in which the ship that brought me, the places where I was born and tried, with my complexion and height, the color of my hair, eyes cheeks and eyebrows, the shape of my nose and chin, and size of my mouth, were faithfully inserted…

This passport (which I yet have) was, in direct contempt of the public orders of the British government; accordingly, the moment I exhibited to Mr. Gunn, the superintendent, a letter from several of the prisoners, asking for their own clothes, that shrewd Caledonian suspected my design, arrested and gave me in charge to an armed constable, I being still attired in the conspicuous magpie garb in which I had reached the capital. I was ordered to be taken back into the interior immediately, was handcuffed, and being accompanied by several male and female criminals thither bound, set out on my weary journey. At noon the constable took off my handcuffs, that I might eat, when I seized his musket, declared I was off for the bush, and disappeared. In the night I left my hiding‐​place, crept into Hobart Town, told some whole‐​souled American tars my unfortunate history, and they required no coaxing to perform the part of honest men. The victim of oppression found deliverers, and entertains no fears whatever that John Tyler, President of the United States, will send him back again, but would rather hope that the friendly aid of this great nation, through its Executive, will soon effectually relieve those who yet groan in bondage, and restore them to their free and happy homes.

The American prisoners were not all put in cross‐​irons at first; but for one cause or other, the most of them were in the long run thus accommodated.

I joined the insurgents behind Toronto, of my own free will, and had long been anxious for such a movement. Sir George Arthur visited us occasionally while we were under sentence of death, and when he told me I had been deluded by Mackenzie, I replied that it was not so–that we were in the right–that if ever there was a just cause it was ours–and that I had weighed the matter and was sincerely sorry we had failed. Sir George’s behavior to us was polite and affable. Of the justice of our cause, I have never since entertained nor expressed a different opinion; but this is not the time and place to discuss that question.

I was behind Toronto with the insurgents the first night, Monday–was in the Tuesday night’s skirmish in the suburbs–took Sheriff Jarvis’s fine blood mare, which Mackenzie rode until all was over on Thursday. I also brought in the Captain of Sir Francis’s Artillery, of which we had none ourselves, nor even a bayonet–was of the small party on Wednesday who went and took the mails and carriages–and in the final fight at Montgomery’s on Thursday. I parted with Mackenzie when he and Colonel Lount separated, (after the defeat,) near Shepard’s mills; and never saw him again till one of the refugees directed me to his home in this city, a week ago. I saw that he faithfully performed his duty behind Toronto, and if some who do not know have blamed him in the United States, I am sure that those who were his companions cannot have done so…

In concluding, I would again entreat every friend of humanity to endeavor to get the United States government to interest itself in the matter of my unfortunate comrades. It is visionary to assert that the exertions of a few dozens of men, uninfluential, unconnected with politics, and worn down by pain and privation, could have the least effect in changing the destiny of Canada. And if not, why continue thus to torture them? But let us avoid all frontier movements–the best weapon in the hands of this great republic, with which to revolutionize the world, is surely a strict adherence to that wise, just, and honest policy, which carries in its train prosperity and peace. That is the true way to create admiration for institutions theoretically liberal and free. Had we succeeded in Canada in 1837, independence would have followed, but no war with America. War would only insure the oppression and captivity of tens of thousands who are happy in the bosoms of their families, would inflame the bad passions of two great nations, speaking one language, and capable, under such forms of government as they may respectively choose to uphold, of enlightening, benefitting and blessing mankind; but it would not soothe the griefs of the orphans and widows, the fathers and brothers, of those manly hearts which now beat on a far distant shore with fond and anxious confidence and hope that they will yet find opportune friends and deliverers in the land of Washington…