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Catalpa To The Rescue

April 2024
1min read

Among the paintings that accompanied the whaler’s diary in our August, 1977, issue was this view of a tethered sperm whale being carved up alongside the New Bedford bark Catalpa . All in a day’s work.

But a more dramatic role played by the Catalpa has been called to our attention by reader William J. Laubenstein (author of The Emerald Whaler , Bobbs-Merrill, 1960). The sight of the ship in our pages, he writes, “brought grand memories to Irish Americans of the older generation. For the Catalpa … tweaked the tail of the British lion as it had never been tweaked before.”

It seems that when the planned Fenian rising of 1865-66 was betrayed in Ireland, seven Irish members of Her Majesty’s forces who had sided with the rebels were sentenced to life in a penal colony at Fremantle on the western coast of Australia. One of the seven-a fiery poet named John Boyle O’Reilly—managed to escape in 1869 and bribe his way aboard a passing Yankee whaler that took him to America. There he eventually became editor of the influential Boston Pilot . But O’Reilly never forgot the six companions he had left behind, and in 1875 he hatched a daring plot to spring them.

With some twenty-five thousand dollars in gold—most of it secretly gathered from Irish immigrants-he hired whaling captain George Anthony to undertake the mission and bought and outfitted the old whaling vessel Catalpa . As she set out from New York for Australia in the spring of 1875, only Anthony knew of the plot; her crew assumed they were undertaking a routine whaling voyage. During the eleven months it took her to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, whaling as she went, a land party journeyed separately to Australia to arrange the escape. Its leader was John J. Breslin, an Irish patriot who specialized in derring-do; earlier, he had snatched Fenian chief James Stephens from a British prison in Dublin itself.

The six captives were alerted, and with the Catalpa waiting sixteen miles offshore, they slipped away from their guards on the morning of April 17, 1876, and rendezvoused with Breslin and his aides. “Ina daring dash through the dense bush,” writes Laubenstein, “the six escapees and their rescuers reached a cove where Captain Anthony waited with a whaleboat.” A storm kept the smaller vessel from reaching the Catalpa for two nights, but she finally made it, the men clambering over the side not long before a pursuing British ship drew alongside and fired across the whaler’s bow.

Anthony ran up the Stars and Stripes and bellowed that he was in international waters; if the British fired on the American flag, he warned, they risked war. “The British sheared off,” Laubenstein continues, “and in August, 1876, the Catalpa landed at New York where her six freed prisoners were welcomed as heroes.”

The stalwart Catalpa was less fortunate; she went out of U.S. registry in 1884 and ended her days as a coal barge in British Honduras.

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