The whaling ship Catalpa is given a tumultuous welcome as it sails into New York harbor on August 19, 1876. She has no whales on board, but a far more valuable cargo, six Fenian prisoners from the British penal colony of Western Australia.
Clan na Gael‘s John Devoy, with the help of his friend John Boyle O’Reilly, a Fenian who had once escaped from Australia himself and editor of the Boston newspaper The Pilot, plan the escape. Somehow maintaining the secrecy of the mission, the two arrange to buy and crew the whaler Catalpa, purchased in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the attempt.
The Catalpa sets out in April 1875 with most of the crew unaware of their actual mission. They reach western Australia in March 1876.
The first intended day for escape from the penal colony is April 6, but the appearance of HMS Convict and other Royal Navy ships and customs officers quickly lead to a postponement. The escape is rearranged for April 17, when most of the Convict Establishment garrison is watching the Royal Perth Yacht Club regatta.
Catalpa drops anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatches a whaleboat to shore. At 8:30 AM, six Fenians, Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson, who are working in work parties outside the prison walls abscond. They are met by Fenian agents John Breslin and Thomas Desmond and picked up in horse traps. A seventh Fenian, James Kiely, is left behind. The men race 12 miles south to Rockingham pier where Captain George Smith Anthony awaits them with the whaleboat. A local named Bell he had spoken to earlier sees the men and quickly alerts the authorities.
As they row to the Catalpa a fierce squall strikes, breaking the whaleboat’s mast. The storm lasts until dawn on April 18 and is so intense that Anthony later states that he did not expect the small boat to survive. At 7:00 AM, with the storm over, they again make for the Catalpa but an hour later spot the screw steamer SS Georgette, which has been commandeered by the colonial governor, heading for the whaler. The men lay down in the whaleboat and it is not seen by the SS Georgette. The SS Georgette finds the Catalpa, but in Captain Anthony’s absence the First Mate refuses to allow the colonial police to board as the ship is outside the colony’s three-mile limit. The steamer is forced to return to Fremantle for coal after following the Catalpa for several hours.
As the whaleboat again makes for the ship a police cutter with 30 to 40 armed men is spotted. The two boats race to reach the Catalpa first, with the whaleboat winning, and the men climbing aboard as the police cutter passes by. The cutter turns, lingers briefly beside the Catalpa, and then heads to shore.
Early on April 19 the refuelled and now heavily armed SS Georgette returns and comes alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and attempting to herd the ship back into Australian waters. They fire a warning shot with the 12-pounder cannon that had been installed the night before. Ignoring the demand to surrender, Anthony raises and then points towards the U.S. flag, informing the SS Georgette that an attack on the Catalpa will be considered an act of war against the United States, and proceeds westward.
Governor William Cleaver Robinson has ordered the police on the SS Georgette not to create an incident outside territorial waters. After steaming around threateningly for about an hour, the SS Georgette heads back to Fremantle and Catalpa slips away into the Indian Ocean.
The Catalpa does its best to avoid Royal Navy ships on its way back to the United States. O’Reilly receives the news of the escape on June 6 and releases the news to the press. The news sparks celebrations in the United States and Ireland and anger in Britain and Australia, although there is also sympathy for the cause within the Australian population. The Catalpa arrives in New York Harbor on August 19, 1876. Clan na Gael and the Fenians achieve one of their greatest victories over the British Empire.