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Document: The Deaf Mute: A Convict Incident of Macquarie Harbour

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A Convict Incident of Macquarie Harbour.

The west coast of Tasmania bids fair to fill a good space in the world’s history. Tasman and Cook sighted its preciptious cliffs and snow-capped peaks are they had any real ideas of the great Terra Australia, which lay to the north, and indeed both of them thought it was the southern portion of the unknown continent which was supposed to balance the north in the southern hemisphere. In long ages past this might really have been so, and many ignorant convicts who peoped the Island in the following century actually though (as did those of Botany Bay) that China might be reached overland. This profound geographical ignorance urged more than one felon to escape, and trust to the solitude of an Australian bush for freedom and better days. When the British Government decided to make a convict settlement of van Dieman’s Land in 1805 the number of transportees was so great that several stations had to be formed in addition to that of Hobart Town. Brown’s River, the different Tiers, and other outlying stations were established with Hobart Town as a base, but it was found that the more desperate of the felons managed to escape and attack the free settlers, plundering and murdering them whenever they could. This caused the authorities to seek a place where the natural difficulties to escape would be practically insurmountable, and Macquarie Harbour, on the west coast, was selected. This might almost be called an inland sea, and it contains numerous small ports. The forest timber in the vicinity was valuable, and that was an added inducement to found a penal settlement, as the convicts could be kept employed. In 1816 this was done, and a numerous draft of the most desperate transportees was sent to the Macquarie Station. The situation was wilde and desolate in the extreme. Far away to the south and west the rollers of the unknown Southern Ocean beat against the forbidding and dangerous coast. Woe betide the vessel that should be driven on that wall of sheer rock whence escape was impossible. From the coastline a dense scrub grew broken here and there with more open patches of gigantic trees – some of valuable quality. On rocky heights grew the mournful “sheoak,” (the aeolian sharps of the bush), and in some places dumps of pine were to be found. Back from the settlement the country sloped upward until in the distance rose the snow-capped peaks of Zeehan, Heemskirk, and the frenchman’s cap, the latter towering to a height of five thousand feet. These ranges were clothed with a verdant covering of impenetrable forest, which afforded no subsistence to man. This great table land, out of which jutted precipitous hills, and which was intersected by narrow gullies in which grew and dreaded bauri vine – the octapus of the forst – rendered it almost impossible for an escapee from Macquarie to reach the setllements in the south eastern or north eastern portions of Van Dieman’s Land. The very wildness and desolation of the place cause the western station to be abandoned with a dozen years of its establishment, but today it echoes to the hum of human industry, and from all parts of the world the seekers, after sudden wealth, are flocking to Mount Zeehan and the surrounding district. To Macquarie Harbour they come, for while the felons toiled, bled, and died in that wilderness a magician lay slumbering beneath the surface, which the stroke of a pick awoke to life. In that Sylvan deset probably the greatest silver deposits in the world lay hidden, and the mineral richness of the West Coast will soon transform the solitudes of the bush into a throbbing centre of industrial life. The locomotive will shortly rush through the primeval forest where many a despairing escape slew himself a violence rather stand the lingering agonies of deaf by starvation, or the equally horrible solitude which seemed to press on him as though spiriits of darkness encompassed him. The wilderness will be aubdued by the motive power of civilisation – money – and in a few years the landmarks which tell of the old convict days will be swept away, only to be revived, perhaps, by some prosy historian, who may choose to search the penal records. This will not for a matter of regret, but before the sight of the old penal station at Macquarie is swept away forever by the transformation which is taking place, it will not be amiss to arouse a passing interest by the narration of a tragic event which happened there in the 1819.
At that time there were upwards of two hundred felons at the station. They were supposed to be vey scum of the convicts. Norfolk Island settlement was not yet opened, and Macquarie was made to do the hideous duty that afterwards was carried out at Norfolk. Amongst the prisoners was a man named Michael Corran (No. 832). He was in a chain gang working on a road – or rather trak – that was being made through the scrub and bush to a belt of pine timber. He had been drafted to Macquarie from hobart Town when the western station was opened, and he had helped to put additions to the rambling structure as they required. He had a peculiarity which distingiushed him from all the other felons. He was a deaf mute. This might have been a blessing to him, or a curse as the case may be. He could not hear the brutal language of his guard or of the prisoners, but the senses of sight and feeling were left, and that was the sufficient to make his lot intolerable. the overseers or turnkeys, in deafult of his capacity for hearing, enforced their orders with blows and cuffs. They were certainly not gentle in their treatment, and the miserable convict meekly stood the ill usage for more than three years. He was a “lifer”, and had little hope in the future. His crime – or alleged crime – had been robbery, but there was a grave reason to think that he was not guilty of the offence for which he was enduring so terrible a punishment. He could not, of course, read or write, and his trial was a mere farce. The judge, with perhaps a devout horror of pauperism in his mind, thought he was doing his country a good service by sending Corran to Van Dieman’s Land, and as the deaf and dumb wretch had no one cared for him his transportation to another sphere occassioned neither regret nor comment. A deaf mute is not of much use anywhere, and shooting him on the human rubbish heaps of Van Dieman’s Land was the best thing that could be done.
Corran could not shut his eyes to the dreadful scenes which surrounded him. An incrutable providence had closed the avenues of sound. He could see the writhing and quivering wretches strung to the triangles, but he could not hear their agonised screams. He had even felt the sting of the lash, and he knew what they suffered. He had been ordered fifty lashes six months previously for a breach of regulations, and the spectable he presented when undergoing the punishment was on the hardened and callous gaolers did not soon forget. Corran was a giant in stature and strength, and as he had been a blacksmith’s laborer he was nicknamed Tubal Cain by a facetions prisoner, formerly of a good position, and who had narrowly escaped the hangman for forgery. In the beginning of the year 1819 a new superintendent named Smith (Ebenezer Smith) took the charged of the Maquarrie Station. If the great and numerous family of Smiths had been thoroughly and purposely searched a more unfit man for the position could not have been found; cruel by nature, he was at the same time capricious. instead of a stern unbending discipline, such as was thought proper in those days, Smith indulged in paroxysma of fierce cruelty, or in fits of misplaced leniency. There was nothing equable about his government, and consequently neither officials or prisoners knew how to take him. A feeling of perpetual unrest brooded over the place, and bad times were in store for all. From the first superintendent Smith took an aversion to the afflicted Corran, and with a brutal vulgarity which sat well upon him the chief official took a delight in tormenting the deaf mute. It is almost needless to say that the example of the Superintendent was copied and followed by his subordinates. What he did must be right, and they imitated him. If the lot of No. 832 was hard before the arrival of Smith it became intolerable after his advent. In a hundred ways he became the mark of ill treatment of the officials, and the want of speech and hearing was the cause of many a brutal blow from the men who were supposed to maintain a just discipline. Corran’s great strength was fully utilised by the overseers. The hardest tasks were alloted him, and he was given work to do that really needed two men to accomplish. But his progidious powers carried him through his labours successfully, and uncomplainingly he [toiled] from daylight to dark, anxious to please those who were such hard and unfeeling task-masters.
The gang in which he worked consisted of eighteen convicts of a very bad type. They were all life sentenced men, and seven of them had to serve for “the term of their natural life,” so that all hope was shut out from them. Two esxapes had been made from the gang, so that the most rigorous discipline was enforced. The guard was an unusually strong one, and overseer Hobb had an assistant with him. The trach they had to cut was about six miles in length, and led towards the ranges above which towered the lofty peak of the Frenchman’s Cap, with its [coronel] of glistening snow. The country was rugged and wild. Deep gullies intersected the road, and in places these had to be bridged over in a rough, temporary way. The bauri creeper abounded, and proved a formidable obstacle to progress. [It] spread itself horizontally over the deeo glens, forming a floor or roof (as the case might be) of tangled verdure, but it was dangerous in the extreme. At times it spread out like a level green sheet, giving no sign of the hidden danger, but if the wanderer stepped on it he might drop through fifteen or twenty fet below into the gloomy depths. If he were injured and assistance was not at hand, nothing but a miserable death would await him. Under these grwoths of horizontal bauri it was sometimes possible to walk for miles in a Cimmerian gloom, broken here and there by fitful gleams of sunlight. These places were in fact huge scrub caverns.
on the 30th may, 1819, the gain in which Corran worked was employed in crossing on e of those bauri glens about four miles from the station. It was one of the worst places that had been encountered on the track. On the eastern side of the gorge a steep range shot up fully five hundred feet, and that would have to be skirted when the glen was passed. The creeping scrub in teh gorge formed a floor about fifteen feet above the murmuring stream that ran and babbled below, but hidden from the human eyes. The discipline of the chain gang had been somewhat relaxed in this part of the route, as it was impossible to keep the felons in proper position and do the work, owing to the density of the forest. Giant trees, between two and three hundrer feet, reared themselves from teh stunted scrub which encircled their base, and it was on one of those forest leviathans, that the deaf mute was engaged. It was being felled to throw a bridge over the gorge, which, with some additions, would permit of the transport being carried on. Overseer Hobb eas anxious that the glen should be passed that day, and he was consequently urging the half-fed felons to extra exertions. The gaurd appeared to be taking matters very easy, and sat about on logs wearily warching the toilings convicts. They had evidently no suspicion that any attempy at mutiny or escape would be made. Winter fairly setting in, and nothing but sheer madness would induce a felon to take to the bush at such a time they perhaps though. The clank, clank of the irons mingled with the sounds of the axe and the crash of the falling scrub, whilst some fifty yards back from the gorge a huge crrackling fire, in which the felled timber was being sonsumed, threw its sparks heavenwards. It was two hours aftenoon, and the frugal mid-day ration had been partaken of some time previously. The tree wich Corran was felling was a perfectly straight one, and not a breath of air was blowing to influence the attention of its fall. It had been so cut, however – the eastern cut two feet lower than the western – that it would fall in the former direction where it was required. It was fully four feet in diameter, and though the convivt was a good axeman it took a considerable time to sever the trunk sufficiently to cause it to fall. This was almost accomplished at half-past two, when on looking up the steep range in front of him Curran saw an ominous breeze agitating the tees on the summit, and blowing from the north. Knowing that if it caught the tree he was helling it would throuw it in the wrong direction, the convict mutely drew Hobb’s attention to the matter by pointing upwards. The overseer looked and that a breeze was blowing, but he was in a bad humour, and besides the wind had no right to interfere with the operations of the System. Such meddlesomeness could not be tolerated, and the work must go on. Perhaps he really thought the lofty hill would shelter the tree from the wind. Whether he did or not will never be known. With a fierce oath he signed with energetic pantominic action for the convict to go on with his work, and he followed it up by a string of inventives on the stupidity of a man who would idle at such a moment, when a few strokes of the axe would lay prone to the forest giant. It took more than the few blows Hobbs spoke about to complete the work, and during the time the mute cast many an anxious glance at the tree tops, and also at the guard and felons who were working back on the track.
So far the extremely high range had kept the rising wind over the lofty summit of the gum, but gradually through every wooded avenue down the steep sides of the hills faint breezes whispered of the presense of Eolus. Naturally they first kissed the top of the lofty vegetation, and overseer Hobbs was either so stupid or obstinate that he could or would not hear the faint rustling of the slighlty agitated leaves. It was too late now to stay the axe. As Corran struck the last blow a loud crack, liek the report of a gun sounded, the sylvan monster awayed for a moment like a drunken man, then an unseen but irresistible force appeared to seize it, and, as a hoarse cry of warning reverberated through the wild forest, it was almost instantly silenced by the groaning and screaching of the tearing timber as the tree fell headlong in the opposite direction to which it was intended.
When Corran saw what was about to happen a horrible sound broke from him that was only half human. A convict working near, seeing the danger, gave the alarm that the afflicted deaf mute could not, and the guards and felons who were in the path of the tree fled for the lives. Not all, however, escaped. A sentry, who had been sitting in a droway state on a prostate log, was taken by surprise and alarms that he actually ran right into danger, adn was instantly killed by a limb of the tree. A convict named Ransome also met his death, but in a more shocking manner. he could have escaped had not his leg irons caught in the tangled scrub, and he was firmly held for a few awful moments until life was crushed out of him. Perhaps it was best. He was one of the “natural life” man. Had the gang wished to escape at the moment there is little doubt they could have done so, for the consternation among the guard was great. When the tree crashed to the earth, bearing down the lesser growth, and with deafening noise throwing up a cloud of dust and woody fragments, the convicts were for a moment appalled, for they did not know how many lives had been sacrificed, and when they recovered from the momentary consternation, Lieutenant White had them covered with the firelocks of the five men who had gathered rounnd him. The felons made not the slightest move, however, and under orderes from the convicts act about rescuing or recovering those had been caught by the tree. Meanwhile Corran stood at the stump of the tree, mutely gazing at the catastrophe. It was not his fault that the affair had happened, but there was little doubt that whatever blame there was would be placed on his shoulders. He was only a convict, and that was sufficient. Before he had time to obey the order which had been given. Overseer hobbs came up to him with an evil looks in his face. Hobbs was at best a contemptible bully and petty tyrant. He had made himself peculiarly obnoxious to the mute through his persistent and unjust ill treatment of the prisoner, though Corran had meckly put up with the persecution. Hobbs, of course, well knew that it would only be a waste of breath to abuse the deaf mute, and he was a man who never cared about wasting anything on convicts, unless it was brutality. He carried a stout stick in his hand as he approached the transportee, who silently awaited him an enquiring look in his expressive face, which was not yet written over with the unmistakeable signs with which the System marked its victims. The overseer was a diminutive man, not more than five feet four in height, but the authority which he wielded made him feel a perfect Goliah. He was a man of action, too, and when he reached the felon he raised the sapling, and without a word began to belabour the giant before him. His excuse mgiht have been (but he was never called upon for it), that with the deaf and dumb man it was the only way he could argue. Lieutenant White heard the whack of the falling blows, and he turned to see what was the cause. In justice to him must be said that he was evinced some surprise when he saw what was the matter. The regulations did not provide for such treatment by an overseer of a prisoner, although it frequently occurred, and Lieutenant White, who had only been a few months at the settlemtn, was about to interfere, when he was staggered to see Corran dash aside the stick which Hobbs held, and the next instant he seized the overseer as though he were only a poodle, and putting forth his enormous strength he flung him several yards out into the gorge and on the horizontal scrub. The weight of the man and the force with which he was thrown broke the frail support, and with a muffled cry Hobbs disappeared head first through the creepers. Lieutenant White instantly summoned his men to dire on Corran, but before the scattered guard could obey the mute made a jump on the bauri, and dropped through the versant but deceptive floor of vegetation. White ran to the spot, but no sign nor sounds of Hobbs or Corran could be seen, and the officer at once divided the guard convicts, so that one portion might continue the work of extricating the bodides from the fallen tree, whilst the other rescued Hobbs from his awkward position, and endeavored to capture the deaf mute. The work of making a passage into the gorge was no easy task, but the gang had good tolls, and after half an hour’s cutting they made their way down to the spot near which the overseer was supposed to be. He had no answered any of the calls which has been made to him, and the lieutenant concluded that he must have been stunned by the fall, unless Corran followed up his attacked in the gorge and slain his foe. Orfering one of the soldiers and a convict to get torchers, White accompanied them into the gloomy dell to where Hobbs had been thrown, and as they came near the place they could see the outlines of motionless body. As the torches flickered they reached the place, and found the body was that of the insensible overseer. Summonng a couple more men it was conveyed to the open, and in the daylght the lieutenant noticed a peculiar look in the face of Hobbs. It was the face of dead man, for the overseer’s neck had been broken by the fall. His brutality had cost him his life, and the System had claimed another victim. After doing what could be done for the inanimate bodies, White ordered the strictest search to be made by four of the guard for the missing convict, but after an hour’s quest they retuend unsucessful, and the whole party at once set out for the station, carrying with them on improvised biers the bodies of the dead men. When the matter was reported to Superintendent Smith he smiled a grim smile, which spoke volumes as to what was in store for the deaf mute should he fall in the next hands of the chief offical, and next morning a strong party was dispatched to search the forest for the fugitive. Smith even went so far as to promise a substantial reward if success crowned their efforts, and indeed he offered to use his influence to obtain a free pardon for any convict who might by word or act aid in the capture of the unfortunate deaf mute. For a fortnight the search was maintained with unabated vigor, but not the slightest trace of the escapee could be found. Those best acquainted with the district were certain that Corran had perished in the bauri gorge, and as time wore on other matters arose to engage the attention of the authorities, and the fate of the deaf mute ceased to interest naybody.

During 1919 Protestant Chaplain or Religious Instructor as he was called at Macquarie Station, was the Rec. john Roden. He was a man of kindly heart, and altogether unfitted through that reason for the stern and awful realities of the penal settlement. He had been eight months at the station when the tragedy described took place, and during that period he was the only friend that Corran had. The miserable deaf mute interested him, and as he slightly understood the dumb language he was able to converse with him. The convict felt grateful for the only kindness he received, and with the devotion of such persons he would gladly have his life to save that of the Religious Instructor. The catastrophe that had happened troubled Roden greatly, and though in the official report it was made to appear that hte whole occurrence was a diabolical plot of the mute the Chaplain knew better, for the convicts who were present told him the true facts. One of them had seen Corran draw the overseer’s attention to the rising breeze, and nearly all the felons had seen Hobbs beating the convict. The death of the official was more the result of accident than intention, but Roden well knew that no excuse would save the felon from the [tands] of the hangman if he were captured, and it gave him a melancholu satisfaction to think that the wretched outcast had perised in a less ignominous manner.
One day Mr Roden was taking a solitary ramle along the coast when he was startled by the sudden appearance of Corran, who was in a deplorable state from exposure and want. After a few works in the dumb lannguage the minister made up his mind to succor the unfortunate at all risks, and tooks him to his quarters at the station. He first went and brought what food he could get for the starving wrethc, and at night smuggled him into his house.
This was a very easy matter to do, and was successfully accomplished. A snug retreat was made at the back of the clergyman’s bedroom for the fugitive, and each day Roden himself attended to the wants of the convict.
It must be said that clergyman felt uneasy at the action he had taken. From the standpoint of the System he was a traitor and a cheat. He was receiving pay and acting falsely to his employer. But when he looked at the question from the broad platform of humanity he ceased to reproach himself. The man he was succouring had been persecuted, and his life was in danger. If he turned him away it owuld be a sentence of deaf, either by starvation or at the hands of so-called justice, and these reflections comforted the kind hearted minister. There was always the danger, however, of discovery, and that would mean ruin to both and death to one. That was note a pleasant outlook, and for a fortnight after the appeaerance of Corran the clergyman scarcely slept at night nor left his quartere during the day, unless compelled by duty to do so.
It will thus be readily understood that when on the 2nd of August Superintendent Smith informed Roden that he would have to proceed to Hobart Town in answer to a summons from the Bishops of Van Dieman’s Land, the reverend gentleman was considerably disturbed. He would be away a week at least, and probably his ecclerastical superior intended removing him from Macquarrie altogether. Of course he would have to go at once, as the sloop was lying in the bay ready to start that day. There was no help for it, and after a brief interview with the mute, and giving him all the provisions he could Roden went on board, and at nightfall was sailing out of the entrance of the harbor, and heading for Hobart Town. He was kept there for a fortnight on business, at the end of which time he departed for Macquarie Station, eager to get back to the concealed convict. It was nearly midnight when the little vessel entered the great bay, and as those on deck looked in the direction of the station they saw that the horizon was lightened up with the pink glow which told of a [contlagration].
For a week after Roden left Macquarie the convict Corran managed fairly well. The food left had been sufficient, and as it was cooked there was no risk attached to preparing it. The second week was different. the provisions were exhausted, and the fugitive found it necessary to ransack the place for more. He found sufficient, and also a quantity of dry tea. This was a luxury greatly prized by the transportees, and in spite of the risk he determined to make some of the beverage. For this is a fire was necessary, and for three nights in succession the convict, with a flint and tinder, actually kindled a small blaze and made tea. Emboldened by his success he essayed again on the fourth night to do the same, but whilst doing so he was started to hear footsteeps and voices outside and approaching the door. He instantly scattered the burning sticks to extinguish the light, and as he made for his hiding place he heard a voice say that it must have been a delusion when they thought smoke was coming from the chimney. Feeling that he had a narrow escape he lay quietly for nearly an hour with the fumes of smoke in his nostrils. When he looked out he found the room full of smoke, and as he opend the door the smouldering dire leapt into flames. One of the scattered brands had set the wooden building on fire. He realised his danger at once, and instantly making for the door he openedd it and passed out. The bursting flames a second alter roused the station, and threw a bright light over the yard. Corran had hoped to escape in the darkness, but that hope was futile. He had on a suit fo the clergyman’s clothes, however, and through the fact he passed the inner sentry successfully. not so the outer. He had the strictest instructions to allow no one to go through without the password, and he changed the flying man. Corran could not, of course, reply, but rushed on when the soldier raised his weapon and fired. It was a dead shot, for the bullet went through his left breast, and the troubles of the deaf mute were over forever.
When Roden landed he was horrified to find his quarters a smouldering heap of ashes, and in his alarm he almost betrayed himself about Corran. He was almost relieved to find the fate that had overtaken the mute, and though the circumstances surrounding the matter were suspicious, no breach of the regulations could be sheeted home to the kind hearted minister. It was years after when he told the part he had played in that convict incident.

Trove. THE DEAF MUTE. (1892, January 9). Queenscliff Sentinel, Drysdale, Portarlington and Sorrento Advertiser (Vic. : 1885 - 1894), p. 3. Retrieved August 18, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article73592309
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