It was a slight shock to discover I was descended from the man who may well be the last person in the British Empire to be (legally) hung for piracy. James Camm was hanged at Hobart in April 1832 for his part in the prisoner mutiny and piracy of the brig Cyprus from Recherche Bay in 1829. Piracy ceased to be a capital offence in the British Empire in 1837, although the new offence of Piracy with violence became a capital offence and remained so until late in the 20th century. Two of Camm’s fellow pirates hanged at Execution Dock in London in 1831 were the last people hung for piracy in Great Britain. A fellow escapee was sentenced to death for his part in the piracy of the Cyprus in Hobart six months after Camm, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was transferred to Norfolk Island.
When I have outlined the story of the Cyprus to people they have suggested that it has the makings of a ripping yarn and should be written up. And that thought has occurred to a number of people before now; Marcus Clarke For the term of his natural life and Richard Flanagan Gould’s book of fish (2001) have dealt partially with these events in their novels about the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement. A number of more factual accounts are provided in Warwick Hirst The man who stole the Cyprus (2009) and Chapter 11 of John Mulvaney The axe had never sounded: place, people and heritage of Recherché Bay, Tasmania (2007). Mulvaney is fairly dismissive about the factual accuracy of an earlier effort from Clune and Stevenson, The pirates of the brig Cyprus (1962), which he describes as undocumented ‘faction’. Further, Mulvaney tells us that David Sissons has disproved one of the assertions of the pirates that they sailed to Japan in a recent paper in the Journal of Pacific History.
All of which is of interest to fans of the 19th century ripping yarn and those tracking their family history links to James Camm and Mary Barnett, convicts of Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land. What I found most interesting in following up this family history by-way involving a minor convict celebrity was the sheer availability of information which can now be tracked on the internet.
The obvious sources of family history such as the Church of the Latter Day Saints who are concerned with retrospectively converting our ancestors to Mormonism and their Ancestry.com and Ancestry.co.uk products, including online British census material, fairly quickly become obvious to family history researchers and make the research process considerably easier than it would once have been. A friend has passed on horror stories about trying to find a beer in Salt Lake City while doing some family research 20 years ago, pre-Internet. Apparently things have moved on in Utah, in some ways.
My family research has involved checking the microfiche and online proprietary databases at the State Library of Victoria to confirm the events (Marriage, Birth, Death) and then purchasing the relevant certificate to glean further information about the preceding generation. Marriage certificates in the colony of Victoria in the 19th century gave details about the parents of the respective spouses, who could then be tracked back for another generation. The trick is to locate ancestors back in the UK once you have determined that there is no further Australian information to be gleaned from migration, electoral and convict records.
If you are lucky enough to have an unusual name you can triangulate the family location by searching family name across the UK at the various Censuses and narrowing the location to the one which has the relevant spouse and child names, checked against their age. This worked for the fairly rare name Hastie, but was less successful when trying to locate a John and James Turner.
The Tasmanian government convict archives are a wonderful resource as it is possible to confirm the presence of convicts in Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales at the various Convict Musters at the State Library. If they were sentenced to Tasmania, you are then able to look up their Convict records at home as the original books have been scanned and are readily available.
An additional resource which may be useful searching for information about notable family members are the increasingly available scanned copies of old Australian newspapers, including a complete run of the Melbourne Argus, which was a serious journal of record for over 100 years until 1957. The most interesting journal for my purposes was the Hobart Town Courier Saturday May 5, 1832 which had an article describing the execution of James Camm. R. v Cam & Denner is seen as a significant criminal case and it has been digitised by Macquarie University and the Tasmanian Supreme Court.
The upshot of all this material being available is that we may now know more than people in the intervening generations about the lives of our ancestors. My mother set me off on this search by explaining that she knew little of her mother’s side of the family. This in itself is a clue here in Australia where 20th century ‘respectability’ was at pains to deny the convict past. There are stories of records of convicts having been tampered with in the past to try and obscure the ‘convict stain’ in the family tree. Even the mention of a connection to Van Diemen’s Land was construed as code for ‘bad blood’ in that era. It may be that James Camm (junior) really did know little of his family history. He described his father as a labourer and his mother as unknown on his marriage certificate. He probably did know of his famous father, hung for piracy when he was eleven and watched by a large crowd, but his mother vanished from the records after 1827. In any case, in that era he would have been unlikely to talk about his shameful parents and so the knowledge was buried from view, hopefully forever as far as he was concerned.