St Helena’s Hungry Jacks

Last week, I mentioned the return of McDonald’s to the island, a significant and exciting time and we certainly got a response from you all! In an effort to not show bias towards any particular fast food chain, today’s story is about Hungry Jacks on St Helena Island. Hungry Jack was on the island in 1868. And he caused issues.

The stories captured by this blog give us a glimpse into the response of people unfamiliar with the land under their feet.  These people – prisoners, warders and Military Guard alike – found themselves cast away on an unforgiving place that they must either tame or escape from. Governed by rules and regulations best suited to the other side of the globe, they toil to replicate the gaols and prison management system of ‘the Mother Country’ and to produce foods that are familiar to their palate. This bountiful environment, rich in resources and beauty, was not understood or utilised and the lack of familiarity proved the undoing of many of its inhabitants.

Island tree clearing
Land clearing on St Helena Island. Beitz collection

And so this story starts with Warder James Aird, the very same warder who has left us his rich legacy of diary stories, in charge of a prisoner work gang clearing scrub on Tuesday April 7 1868. At this time, land clearing was an ongoing task as the prison and fields expanded. The dry vine forest and thick scrub vegetation was an issue in other ways too, as on this day two prisoners used it to hide themselves as they attempted to escape:

On between the hours of 3 and 4 p.m, they silently stole away from a work gang employed in clearing scrub. They had timed their escape carefully, waiting until about a half hour before the afternoon roll call which signalled the time to return to the stockade for the evening. The two dashed into the thick underbrush and quickly lost themselves in the undergrowth. (1)

Anybody seeing St Helena Island today will have a hard time imagining thick undergrowth.

The two men were Jack Bowman, known as ‘Jack the Native’, (soon to be termed ‘Hungry Jack’), who was twenty-four years of age and serving twelve months at the St. Helena Penal Establishment for illegally using a horse. John Brown, seventeen years old, was serving a two year sentence for horse stealing. In a few short minutes 

Warder James Aird, who was in charge of their work gang, immediately discovered they were missing and quickly returned the remainder of the prisoners to the stockade. He notified Superintendent John McDonald of the escape, who quickly hoisted the escape signal flag, turned out the guard and posted sentinels at intervals around the island. Almost at once the signal flag was spotted by the Water Police on the Hulk ‘Proserpine’ and by the telegraph station at Lytton. 

32 Laurie 07 Horses Sugar Mill Stockade paddock 67093
Early prisoners worked in various gangs, including field gangs (above), quarry gangs, construction gangs and boating gangs.

By 6:30 PM a boat’s crew, commanded by Sub-Inspector Wassell, arrived at the island to join the search. Part of the crew was sent off to search for the escaped prisoners, the others remaining on the boat to join prison boats stationed off the island. By 9 p.m. the Custom House boat had also arrived and was dispatched with telegrams, then returned to assist in the search. All night the Superintendent, warders and other searchers kept watch, but in the darkness were unable to find the escapees.  

At daybreak on Wednesday the search was renewed with a vigor, as the steamer Kate arrived with armed assistance in the form of Sergeant Blondin of the Brisbane Police and four constables. The search continued until 6 p.m Thursday evening, when the prisoners were captured by Corporal Clemens, in charge of the Military Guard on St. Helena Island, and Sub-Inspector Wassell, who came upon them lying in dense long grass on the edge of the scrub. Challenged by Corporal Clemens, the two prisoners gave up and allowed themselves to be returned to the prison. 

wetlands and radio towers
St Helena Island wetlands, photo Belinda Daly.

By that time, both prisoners were in a feeble condition due to the harsh exposure and not being able to acquire food or water during their flight. They later admitted to authorities that they had been in a bad way from the start, and by the time they were discovered they were weak from hunger and thirst. It had been their intention to swim to Green Island, and then on to the mainland, but the continual search of the dense scrubland by many searchers had prevented them from moving around, cutting off access to the island’s shores. Added to that was the extremely cold winter nights and wearing no more than a shirt and trousers, and with no means of acquiring any food and water, they were on the point of collapse. (1)

It’s ironic that ‘Hungry Jack’ felt that he had not food or water available to them, as the island was full of native foods and wells of water that had sustained indigenous people for many thousands of years. Foreigners in a strange land, they were unable to provide themselves with the basics for survival. So many escape attempts in the years following resulted in the same issues – men forced out by the incessant hunger of the mosquitoes in the mangrove forests, the burning sun or the cold, hard rain. Not knowing this island meant that it could not become a place of refuge.

St Helena Island sketch 1870
St Helena Island Pencil sketch, 1870, showing the vegetation still covering many parts of the island.

The men caused great inconvenience, with John McDonald stating in his April report:

 …During the last month the works at St Helena have been suspended for nearly one week owing to the attempted escape of two prisoners which necessitated the confinement of the other prisoners to Barracks whilst the warders were searching for the missing men who were ultimately recaptured on the island. (2) 

The men were made an example of, by the use of flogging, as a way of warning other prisoners not to consider the same. They received a sentence of 36 lashes each, though Burns was only administered 24. (1) The same punishment had been applied to the previous escapes, as unfortunately for the Superintendent, escape attempts were occurring with some regularity. As a newly established prison, it was still only partially secure given the incomplete fencing and stockade walls.

Perhaps Mr McDonald considered the punishment to have been effective, as he stated later that:

…the scrub gang have since worked and conducted themselves very well and it is strongly recommended that their indulgences be re-granted them. (3)


(1) The Brisbane Courier, Monday 13 April 1868
(2) COL/A105/68/1261
(3) COL/104/68/1121

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