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The Catalpa Rescue - a review

by Trevor Moore The Catalpa Rescue

Peter Fitzsimmons, Hachette, 2019, ISBN 978-0-7336-4124-4, 405pp

I picked this book up at Moruya Books. I am not usually taken in by the overenthusiastic comments that often adorn the front covers of books. In this case the publisher promised “the gripping story of the most dramatic and successful prison break in Australian history.” My reading of Australian history has been light, and I thought that this might help add some heft to my inadequate knowledge. Peter Fitzsimmons is a wonderful writer, and that was an attraction. I had read his Kokoda (2010) and Tobruk (2006) and found them thoroughly absorbing and engaging reads.

Fitzsimmons says in his introduction that he aims to write in a way that ensures his reader maintains his attention and that the reader gets what is going on. In both these aims, in this book, he succeeds. Though I found the narrative dropped off a little in the middle of the book, I could always follow what was a tricky story to tell, with many threads that were not always immediately intertwined. This is a history book; it may not pass muster with a professional historian, I do not know, but it is an account of events that happened and that discomfited the nineteenth century British colonial administration. And any story that does that has to have something going for it.

The book starts by reminding us that the Brits (of whom I am, or perhaps was) one, have a less than satisfactory colonial legacy. British, or perhaps more accurately English, designs on Ireland go back almost a thousand years, certainly to the late 12th century. The Tudors under Henry VIII reawakened English interest in Ireland to the detriment of the Irish, following a failed rebellion there led by the gloriously named Silken Thomas. It was downhill for the Irish after that until we arrive at the period covered by Fitzsimmons’ book. He leads us briefly through a pitiful and pitiable history from the 17th to the 18th centuries before arriving in the mid-18th century, about 1850. The story of the Catalpa rescue starts in Dublin and finishes in Boston in 1876.

The Fenians were a federation of organisations that held that Ireland had a natural right to independence, and that this right could be won only by an armed revolution, or a Rising. They were well-organised and, according to Fitzsimmons’ story, always almost ready to start their revolution. They had some significant support from America (many Irish had emigrated to America in the wake of the famine following the potato blight). They infiltrated the English military, but they were plagued by bad luck and informers. Eventually some 62 Fenians were sentenced to transportation to Fremantle. In 1867 they set sail on the Hougoumont and four months later they are in Fremantle Prison. Over the years some of them are pardoned, but not those who had been in the English army. And all other things being equal, that would have been that.

But Irish supporters in the US have other ideas and almost as soon as the Hougoumont has set sail, the Clan na Gael, an American Irish liberation movement, begins to develop a plan to spring some of the prisoners from under the noses of the British in Fremantle. A ship, the Catalpa, is procured and fitted out as a whaler. Its captain, George Anthony, is one of the heroes of the story. His task is to look like he is running a whaling expedition so that his crew do not know what he is really up to. The Irish convicts manage to leave the prison, mainly because of the laxity of their guards. They are rowed out to the Catalpa which is anchored outside Australian territorial waters. They are caught by a British gunboat, the Georgette, which is impotent to fire on the Catalpa, or board it, while it is outside Australian territorial waters. The rescue is a success.

Fitzsimmons confirms his place as a first-class storyteller. There is everything here: politics, morality, colonialism and, of course, the best thing is that the good guys win. The Catalpa Rescue is a great way to learn some history and to get a sense of the lives, terribly hard, that people lived in the 19th century. Fitzsimmons does not leave us hanging on: in an epilogue he tells us what happened to the leading characters and what became of Ireland’s fight for independence.

Read this book if you enjoy thrillers. This is a thriller and it’s true.

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