Vol. 113 (2022) 

Escape from Botany Bay:
The True Story of Mary Bryant

By Gerald & Loretta Hausman

Santa Fe, NM, USA


“I always wondered why the unjust went unprosecuted. When I was but 19 years of age, I’d seen my share of executions. Not one, I can tell you, was a person of means. All were, without exception, poor people, like myself.”

                                                      -- Mary Broad Bryant, January 1786


The story of Mary Bryant begins with the theft of a woman’s bonnet. She is age 19 and her sentence is to be hanged in Cornwall, England. This kind of punishment was common in 1786 in England. People were hanged for the slightest of crimes. Earlier, such “criminals” would have been sent, or transported, as they called it then, to the American colonies – an easy way for authorities to dispose of those who were poor and unwanted. However, the outcome of the Revolutionary War ended this kind of easy disposal.


So as a result, Mary was imprisoned with two friends who shared the crime with her. They were Catherine Fryer and Mary Haydon. The three found themselves in Plymouth jail and they were accused of “highway robbery” and given irons on their ankles and a chain attached to an iron belt at their waist. They couldn’t walk, and most of their jail time was spent on filthy, urine-soaked straw in adjoining cells. While imprisoned, they had to contend with the rats that chewed off their shoe leather at night.


Mary would later say that her crime was caused by poverty, wet summers, bad harvests, high taxes, and land theft by the privileged that drove, as Mary said, “Many an honest man and woman to thievery.” Mary also said, “As there is no need for food on the gallows, I will throw my lot in with those who steal to stay alive.”


So, for the next three months Mary and Catherine and Mary Haydon suffer again in a jail-like situation on The Hulk, a rotten old ship in the English harbor, a place where rats that could swim found yet another home. After which, for seven months Mary and her friends were at sea heading for further imprisonment in New Holland (Sidney Cove, Australia).


From The Hulk, all three women were taken to The Dunkirk where conditions were the same, if not worse.


Later, while on a ship called The Charlotte, the women are finally given some sense of freedom – they are allowed to scrub the decks! But after sundown they were once again chained to the hull. For food the women are given old crusts of bread to eat. Most nights they throw these up and are punished for doing this. The punishment is usually a whipping.


The Charlotte was but one of five ships transporting prisoners from England to Australia. Mary and many others were on board The Charlotte for a total of eight months, docking in Botany Bay in January of 1788. Of the 600 prisoners on the First Fleet, 48 died on the voyage.

During the arduous journey, Mary sought the company of Watkin Tench, a Marine who was kind to her. But she also had set her sights on Will Bryant, another convict from Cornwall.


After eight long months and seven thousand miles at sea, The Charlotte arrived at the cove that became known as Botany Bay.


As it happened, prisoners were encouraged to wed. How else would the colony be built one couple at a time? In any event, Mary and Will were the first convicts officially married at Botany Bay.


Soon after their wedding ceremony, Will Bryant was appointed head fisherman for the colony.


Within the following two years, Mary became the mother of two children, Charlotte and Emmanuel.


Shortly thereafter, the family faced its most desperate challenge.


First, swamp fever ran through the colony. Then, scurvy, cholera, dysentery, and influenza. Four out of five prisoners were sick unto death, but Mary and her family stayed well enough and her husband Will proved that he was good at catching fish. Still, many convicts refused to eat them. In the end conditions at Botany Bay were as depraved as they were in the streets of London. Stealing and murder were not uncommon and there were also incidents of cannibalism.




Time passed (roughly four years) and one day, Mary and Will were visited by Detmer Smith, a Dutch sea captain, who brought food to the colony. He saw the depraved conditions – disease, thievery, and murder.


Right away, Captain Smith offered Mary and Will a plan to escape.

It would have worked smoothly but Will fell back on his old habit of drinking rum.

Mary watched him, night after night, but Will’s loose tongue reached a large number of convicts. “Oh, what a plan we have,” he said boastfully. “We’ll be out of here before you know it.”


As a result, four convicts begged to be part of the escape. They were James Martin, Sam Bird, Nat Lilley, and James Cox. Three others used bribery to be included as well. They were William Moreton, William Allen, and Sam Broom.


One March night, as planned, the group of escapees used the twenty-two-foot cutter that belonged to the governor to make their escape.


There were 3,000 miles between Botany Bay and Timor, which was their destination. If the escapees were to survive, they would have to follow the coast in total secrecy. But they would also have to get fresh supplies of water and wild game. This meant, of course, that they could be seen by other island people. In addition, there were the summer monsoons, not to mention the short tempers of the men who were often at each other’s throats in the small boat.


Mary, all by herself, had to captain the escape. She had no nautical equipment with which to guide the boat to the island of Timor. Yet she was also a Cornwall girl and knew the actions of the sea and she knew the dangerous moods of the men who were on the boat with her. For food they had little enough uncooked rice and dried crayfish, but Will was able to catch some fresh fish, too.


In the end making it to Timor was less of a challenge than keeping the men from killing each other. There were also her children for Mary to be watchful of, as well as to feed. The journey was a fearful one, to say the least.




Mary Bryant’s heroism is legendary, and the last part of her story unfolds with more and greater challenges than the first part. The group was plagued by more disease and illness. In addition, on the island of Timor, the “authorities” finally caught up with them.


How Mary and her family got aboard yet another ship going back to England is the continuance of the story, but let us not forget the trial in England. Nor the illnesses of her children and her husband Will, which, in the end, brought about their untimely deaths.


This is an historical adventure like no other, perhaps because the story is true and the hero is a woman who, even into the 21st century, remains largely unknown. In New Holland, however, she was, and is, a national hero.


Truthfully, Mary was the most famous survivor of her own time. Most surprisingly to us, as researchers, was that Mary’s open-boat voyage has not been bested by a woman under the prevailing circumstances of bad weather, unknown geography, and hostile native population, even to this day.


In Mary’s day, such things were done by Captain Bligh (Mutiny on the Bounty), but he was a seasoned navigator, whereas Mary was an unskilled woman who knew more about skinning pilchards than raising sails.

Gerald & Loretta Hausman

What drew us to Mary and her unbelievable odyssey was not only her great courage and uncommon human spirit, but we saw in Mary the bravery of one woman against the same ills that plague our society even today – extreme poverty, class inequity, and political divisiveness.


Mary’s trial and forgiveness by the English government, as aided by the famous lawyer, James Boswell, is yet another reason for this novel’s popularity – nineteen years and a great many printings later.


As authors, we feel that, spiritually, Mary was not meant to ever be silenced – not by time, history or any other thing. Her words still ring true. Although she was illiterate, she spoke eloquently to James Boswell, who actually defended her in court. He also commented on her ability to speak well for herself. The record of Mary’s trial—and trials—on this earth are found in journals, histories, and interviews. We studied all of them, and this book grew out of our admiration for this plucky, impassioned humanist who, for many years, remained largely unknown.


It came as a surprise to us when our book was published that a relative of hers wrote to say she had read it. “You captured Mary,” she wrote.


We think this was done by casting Mary’s spoken voice in the first person, as if she were reeling it off to James Boswell, as in fact she did. We sought to recapture the immediacy of Mary’s plight. To the extent that we may have succeed, we thank her, yes, Mary herself, for many times, we felt her presence in the writing.


Writers of biographies often swear they see the stalking figure of their obsession as a ghost lurking in the shadows. In our case, Mary Bryant was always standing bravely in the light.

(Header: Painting of Mary Broad Bryant; Painting of the Founding of Botany Bay as a penal colony.)



Gerald & Loretta Hausman


Gerald & Loretta Hausman are the authors of the award-winning book, ESCAPE FROM BOTANY BAY: The True Story of Mary Bryant. Gerald Hausman is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.



All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.