Felon for Life (1818)

1818 - Manuscript Court Martial - Trinidad

A Prisoner and Private of a Convict Army Regiment Sent to Australia Penal Colony

Date: 1818

Port of Spain, Trinidad, 3-8 September 1818. Manuscript Court Martial proceedings which took place at the Orange Grove Barracks, for the trial and sentencing of Private Thomas Smith for deserting his regiment, and, after being apprehended, escaping imprisonment. Folio. 7 pages of text on two double leafs, laid watermarked paper made by Molineux Johnston in 1813, measuring approximately 32 x 20 cm. Signed in the original by three significant parties involved in the trial, including Governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere. A rare and fascinating primary source account of an Australian penal colony convict. Private Thomas Smith, alias John Jackson (1791-1866), was a convict assigned to Captain Thomas H. Baylis' Company of the Royal York Rangers in 1816. [The Royal York Rangers was formed in 1807 from condemned men, mostly British and Irish prisoners desperate to escape hanging, and also with drafts from the Royal African Corps. Despite this eclectic grouping, it was an extremely effective regiment.] At the risk of receiving lashes and extended sentencing, Smith dared to abandon his imposed commitment of penance and army duty, and fleed the regiment. According to this court document, dated 3 September 1818, he was captured near Arima, Trinidad, in July, having been quartered at Saint Joseph with the regiment, until his desertion. He was tried in Trinidad. The hearing addressed three charges against him, first for desertion from the regiment, also for the crime of leaving with 'Regimental Necessaries', and, after being apprehended, for subsequently escaping from prison captivity. He was found 'Guilty' on all three counts and sentenced as "Felon for Life" to be transported to an un unnamed location. The jury consisted of 14 men of various military regiments. The document further reveals that he had joined the regiment in England in on 14 December 1816. As mentioned in the introduction to the proceeding, the warrant for Smith's arrest and conviction, was issued by the Governor of Barbados himself Stapleton Cotton, 1st Viscount Combermere GCB GCH KSI PC (1773-1865), who held the post from 1817 to 1820. Governor Combermere also signed the document in his hand. The present document appears to be the earliest record of this felon. Following this hearing and conviction, he must have been successfully held until he was transported to a penal colony in Australia one year later. Docketing inscriptions to verso of the second leaf indicate that these papers were sent to the Commander In Chief on 27 January 1819. [According to historical naval records and colonial secretary's correspondence, Smith would arrive at Sydney, then a penal colony, on the ship 'Malabar' along with 169 other exiles on 30 October 1819 and from there was sent to Emu Plains. Commanded by Captain William Ascough, the ship safely delivered 170 male prisoners, 32 soldiers including the guard, 9 women and 6 children. The prisoners were landed in good health and with their rations on 5 November. They were immediately distributed to Parramatta, Windsor, Liverpool and Emu Plains. In the years to follow, Smith was charged with theft and disorderly conduct, worked as part of an iron gang from which he also escaped on several occasions, was sent to Port Macquarie to work for the government, then to Norfolk Island, was transferred to Cockatoo Island, and died in 1857 at age 66 after living an active life as a felon and convict.] Smith must have embarked on the Malabar in Trinidad, as he was already stationed on the island as early as July 1818 after deserting his convict regiment. Though detailed information is limited, and ship registers are scant, Smith evidently left England sometime between 14 December 1816 when he joined the Royal York Rangers and early 1818 when he was posted in Trinidad. Three notable individuals involved in this case have signed the last page of this document in the original: The Governor of Barbados from 1817 to 1820, Stapleton Cotton, 1st Viscount Combermere GCB GCH KSI PC (1773-1865), a British diplomat, politician, and Army officer who commanded a cavalry brigade in Sir Arthur Wellesley's Army before being given overall command of the cavalry in the latter stages of the Peninsular War. Lieutenant Colonel William Smelt, from the 103d Foot, who was the President for this trial. [Possible descendant of Leonard Smelt of Kirkby Fleetham, Yorkshire, who was the Receiver General of casual revenue, Barbados, from 1745 until his death in 1755.] Lieutenant and Adjutant William Firebrace, whose role was Deputy Judge Advocate in this trial. [He obtained the rank of Major in 1836, retired in 1841, and died on the Isle of Wight in 1856] Following are som excerpts from the document: "Proceedings of a General Court Martial held by Virtue of a Warrant bearing date Head Quarters Barbados 30th July 1818, from his Excellency the Right Honorable Lord Combermere G.C.B. [Governor General Barbados], Commander of His Majesty's Forces in the Windward and Leeward Islands - " "Trinidad, Orange Grove Barracks, 3rd September 1818." "Prisoner Private Thomas Smith alias John Jackson... was called into Court... was then asked if he had any objection to the President or any Members... he had not... the charges preferred against him as follows..." "For deserting from his Regiment on or about the 12th July last, and not returning until apprehended and brought back a Prisoner by a Party of Indians or Spaniards on or about the 14th July following." "For having when he Deserted taken with him all his Regimental Necessaries." "For making his Escape when a Prisoner, and again Deserting on or about the 15th July following, and not returning until apprehended by a Party of the Regiment on or about the 28th August following." "To which the Prisoner pleaded Not Guilty..." "The Court... proceeded to examine the Evidences...." "... on the Morning of 12th July [1818], two of the Prisoner's Messmates informed him [Captain Thomas Bayliss] that the Prisoner had deserted..." "Manuel Pena an Indian resident in the Island being solemnly sworn thro' an Interpreter... answers the following questions... Where did you apprehend him? In the Cocoa Market of Mr. Strickland's Plantation near Arima" How far is this from Port of Spain? About six hours walk. "Serjeant Andrew Honan... deposes as follows... Do you know if he had any Necessaries? I know he had, as I have seen them Inspected." "George Lemon a Discharged Soldier from the Royal York Rangers being called into court... Was the Prisoner under your charge as a Prisoner? He was.... At 1/2 past 7 Oclock in the evening I locked up the Prisoner as well as the rest... but at 5 Oclock next morning when I went to the place where the Prisoners were confined, I found that the Prisoner had effected his escape by digging under the door of his cell and had by that means got out." "Private Michael Dunn... Were you on the Gaol Guard on the 15th July last? I was." "Private Anthony Jones... Were you one of a Party who apprehended the Prisoner on or about the 28th August last? I was... I found him in a Liquor store in the Town..." "Serjeant William Godman... Did you ever see the Prisoner previous to this... from England with the last Draft of Recruits? I did... He [Thomas Smith] joined the Regiment with me on 14th December 1816..." "The Prisoner declines making any defences and throws himself on the mercy of the Court." "The Court having thus found the Prisoner Guilty of the whole of the Charges exhibited against him... Prisoner Private Thomas Smith alias John Jackson... Royal York Rangers, to be Transported as a Felon for Life" Signed "Wm Smelt, Lt. Colonel R. York Rangers, President" Signed "Approved. Combermere SC., Commr. of the Forces." Signed "Will. Firebrace,... 8 September 1818" End Excerpts.

Some splitting at folds, otherwise in very good condition.


Offered by Voyager Press Rare Books & Manuscripts