Bill Wannan: Cyprus Brig


The convicts stole up behind the unwary soldiers and quickly disarmed them
The Argus Saturday 14 July 1956 p.10

A SONG, very popular among the convicts of Van Diemen's Land in the early 1830's, and passed on by word of mouth to every chain gang on the island, told of the daring seizure of the brig Cyprus at Recherche Bay. Written by a prisoner known as Frank the Poet, the song ended with the rousing chorus:

Then sound your golden trumpets,
play on your tuneful notes
The Cyprus Brig is sailing,
how proudly now she floats.
May fortune help the noble lads,
and keep them ever free
From Gags, and Cats, and Chains, and Traps, and Cruel Tyranny.

In August, 1829, the Cyprus left Hobart Town with a party of 31 convicts, bound for Macquarie Harbor. Ten soldiers, commanded by a Lieutenant Carew, guarded the prisoners night and day. They were all looked on as "incor rigibles," and were being sent to "Hell's Gates," as Macquarie Harbor was called, for the term of their natural lives.

On August 9 the vessel put in to Recherche Bay to shelter from the wintry gales blowing up from the Southern Ocean. The prisoners, chained in groups of four on the lower deck, whispered among themselves. Two of their number had already tasted the appalling wretchedness of life at "Hell's Gates." They said death would be better than the fate that lay in store for them there.

A former seaman, Bill Swallow, said he knew how to navigate the ship. If he and his mates could capture her he'd have no difficulty in setting her course for China, or any other country they might choose. But what chance did. chained men have of seizing a vessel?


THE opportunity came sooner than anyone had expected. Seven of the convicts were taken up on deck for exercise. Among them were two who had most consistently talked of escape, Ferguson and Walker. They saw at a glance the deck was guarded by only two soldiers, who at that moment were leaning over the rails, muskets carelessly held, looking at something in the water below.

There was immediate agreement the time had come to strike. In a flash the guards were over powered. Before a signal could be given, the mutineers battened down the hatchway leading to the deck where the other soldiers and a number of passengers were at tea. Irons were soon removed from each convict, and the ship was in their power.

Next morning the Cyprus sailed down the bay. Thirteen of the convicts did not want to stay on her, so were put ashore, along with the passengers — 45 men, women, and children. Bill Swallow took over the navigation of the vessel, setting her course for the Friendly Islands Mutiny! (Tonga Group). When they arrived there seven men deserted. Two of these we're subsequently captured and returned to Hobart Town, where one was hanged and the other condemned to Norfolk Island.

The Cyprus next headed up into the China Seas, its company depleted by several more desertions. One day as they were moving towards the China coast they came abreast a derelict craft, the Edward. Some of the men boarded her, and among the articles left in her cabin was a sextant bearing the engraved name of the captain, William Waldron.

It occurred to Bill Swallow the Edward might be the means of throwing off all suspicion as to their true identity. They would abandon the Cyprus and land not far from Canton.

They would pose as survivors of the wrecked Edward, and they would have the ship's sextant to prove it. The men agreed to the plan, and divided into two groups. One, led by Swallow, came to Canton, where Swallow, introducing himself to the British Committee of Supercargoes as Captain Waldron, told a pitiful story of wreck and privation.

The committee arranged for a free passage to England for the men; but before they had time to leave, other members of the Cyprus company arrived at Canton, and they, too, were taken before the British committee.

They told substantially the same tale as their mates, but said that the name of the Edward's captain was James Wilson.

Doubts were at once aroused. The eight men were taken into custody and sent to the police authorities in London.

Brought before magistrates at the Thames street police office, the men pleaded their story was in most details correct. There seemed to be no evidence to warrant their detention. They were on the point of being freed when the clerk of Court happened to remember a curious story told by an ex-convict, Popjoy, who had been brought before the Bench to answer a charge of begging around the London docks.

This man Popjoy had pleaded, as evidence of good character, that he was one of a party of men, women, and children landed in Recherche Bay by mutinous prisoners of the brig Cyprus, many months earlier.

The clerk of Court suggested there was a possibility that the men now before the magistrates might be some of the Cyprus mutineers.

At that time a Mr. Capon, the Hobart Town gaoler, was on a visit to London. He soon identified several of the convicts, and they were taken before the Court of Admiralty for punishment.

Two men, Watts and Davis, were hanged in London. One was freed from lack of evidence. The remainder were taken back to Hobart Town to stand trial for piracy.



Seizure of the "Cyprus Brig" in Recherche Bay (c1842)
See also Cyprus Brig sighting: Sydney Gazette (1829)

Listen to Jack Davies sing the Cyprus Brig from a 1961 field recording
John Popjoy and the Cyprus Brig (1830)