QNews talks to Tasmanian activist and keen historian of the state’s colonial past Rodney Croome about the notorious cannibal convicts of Van Diemen’s Land.
In 1822, eight convicts escaped from a penal settlement on an island in Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. It was not the first escape for ringleaders Robert Greenhill and Matthew Travers. They ended up in that particularly cruel prison for a previous escape attempt. And they knew each other even before then. They first met when they worked together as shepherds on the wild frontier of Van Diemen’s Land.
Greenhill managed to bring an axe when the men escaped and, as the only armed man, appointed himself a leader with Travers as his deputy.
During those first hard, hungry days on the run through the Tasmanian wilderness, the men were divided into two groups. Tasmanian activist Rodney Croome has eight convict ancestors, including Irish political prisoners. He explained that the Gaelic-speaking Irishmen among the escapees formed a group of their own. The ability to speak in a language that others could not understand bound them together.
However, as Rodney explains, “When the food ran out, and the convicts began to conspire against each other, Travers and Greenhill’s bond outlasted every other form of the Confederacy.”
Travers and Greenhill’s romantic relationship
And historians surmise the reason was the romantic nature of Travers and Greenhill’s relationship. The men remained inseparable from their days herding sheep, through incarceration in first one penal settlement and then another, and during their weeks as escapees.
Alexander Pearce, who, for a while, teamed up with Greenhill and Travers, spoke of their closeness.
“They had a respect for each other which they often showed to each other in many ways.”
After 15 days on the run and unsuccessfully trying to live off the land, the escapees were starving. They drew lots to see who would die. When Thomas Bodenham drew the short straw, Greenhill smashed his skull with the axe. Three of the surviving men took fright at this, realising eventually, it would become their turn to die. They fled.
After eating Bodenham, the four remaining men grew hungry again. Greenhill, Travers, and Pearce conspired to kill and eat John Mather.
And then there were three…
Pearce thought himself done for. The strength of the bond between Greenhill and Travers meant neither would ever side with him against the other.
But then a snake bit Travers.
Greenhill insisted they not abandon his dying soulmate and they carried Travers for five days. Finally, the pain became too much for Travers and he begged Greenhill to kill him. Despite his previous self-appointed role as executioner, Greenhill could not bring himself to kill Travers and left Pearce to do it.
One or the other had to die
After that, Greenhill and Pearce, starving and exhausted, knew one or the other had to die.
Eventually, Greenhill fell asleep. Pearce took the axe and sent him to his eternal rest.
Rodney Croome points out, “These longer-term, romantic same-sex relationships between male or female convicts infuriated colonial authorities.
“Flogging or solitary confinement could not snuff out those relationships. Worse, they were the basis for a kind of solidarity between convicts that could not be undermined by informers.
The biggest bugbear of Australian colonists
“From the Ring on Norfolk Island to the Flash Mob at Hobart’s Female Factory, authorities blamed persistent insubordination among the prisoners on the leadership of a handful of unbreakable same-sex couples.
“Same-sex relationships were also the biggest bugbear of Australian colonists who sought to forge a free, stable and respectable nation out of a prison camp.
“The chief rhetorical weapon used by the movement to end convict transportation was the fear that Australia would be forever stained by the sin of Sodom.
“The uniquely threatening challenge homosexuality was thought to pose to authority, respectability and modernity in colonial Australia helps me understand Australian homophobia today.
“It explains why the battle to decriminalise homosexuality was most bitterly fought in New South Wales and Tasmania. Those two states have the least in common of all the states apart from their convict past.
“It explains why the path to that reform was smoothest in the two states — South Australia and Victoria — that pride themselves on not starting life as prisons.
“It explains Australia’s uniquely torturous path to marriage equality, the particular anxieties no campaigners sought to tap, and the strange perception among many no advocates that they stood for the future, not the past.
“Most of all, it explains the deep threat homosexuality is thought to pose in some sections of Australian society and the apocalyptic language they use to express this sense of threat.”
Convict Cannibals: Alexander Pearce
After Greenhill’s death, Alexander Pearce made his way to a settled district where he took up with a pair of bushrangers. The authorities captured the three, hung Pearce’s new companions and sent him back to the penal settlement.
He made a full confession of his time on the run, including the cannibalism, but no one believed him. Later, however, he escaped again, this time with a young convict named Thomas Cox. Again, Pearce reverted to cannibalism, or as the Hobart Town Gazette put it, “banqueted on human flesh.”
But this time, Pearce did not eat human flesh out of need. They still had food left when he killed the young man. He killed Cox not because he was hungry but because they needed to cross a river, and his fellow escapee could not swim.
His captors found parts of Cox in Pearce’s pockets.
Pearce’s last words before he died at the end of a noose in Hobart Town Gaol provided fodder for headline writers.
“Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork.”
Queer True Crime
Haters inevitably seize on the crimes of queer criminals to justify bigotry. They do the same with People of Colour or of different religions, political persuasions, nationalities, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
But people are just people. They share a wide range of characteristics — some good, some bad — in varying proportions. Humans range from the virtuous through moderately decent to intrinsically evil. Saints and sinners.
LGBTIQA+ people are people, so some are bound to be arseholes, just like other people. Humans, despite the wishful thinking of religious mumbo-jumbo, are not perfect creations. We evolved… and continue to do so. Thus, mistakes happen. Mistakes like the gay convict cannibals of Van Diemen’s Land.
Read also: Queer True Crime. The gay Kray Twins.
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