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Alternate History

The Catalpa Disaster

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In our own timeline, several Irishmen serving in the British army were convicted of treason for organizing a uprising against the British government in 1866 and after being tried and convicted, were transported to Fremantle in Western Australia. Ten years later, these Irishmen escaped Fremantle Prison aboard the American sailing vessel, "Catalpa". They were almost stopped by the steamship "Georgette", which aimed to nudge the vessel back into British waters when the Catalpa was becalmed. But just as the Georgette reached the Catalpa, the wind picked up and the prisoners made good their escape. Afterwards, the Catalpa was eventually sold and turned into a coal barge.

This event proved a major embarrassment to the British Empire and consequently this event in Australian history was never taught in Britain's, nor Australia's education system. But it is taught in Irish and American schools because it boosted the morale of the Irish people and contributed to the success of the Easter Uprising. Now, what if the Georgette reached the Catalpa ten seconds earlier? What effects would it have? Here is the alternate timeline I have:

Escape, pursuit and recapture.

Fenians escape by rowboat to the Catalpa

The first intended day for escape was 6 April, but the appearance of HMS Convict and other Royal Navy ships and customs officers quickly led to a postponement. The escape was rearranged for 17 April, when most of the Convict Establishment garrison was watching the Royal Perth Yacht Club regatta.

Catalpa dropped anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatched a whaleboat to the shore.

At 8.30 am, six Fenians who were working in work parties outside the prison walls, absconded - Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson – were met by Breslin and Desmond and picked up in carriages. A seventh Fenian, James Kiely, had been exposed as an informer by his fellow prisoners and left behind.

The men raced 50 km south to Rockingham where Anthony awaited them on the beach with a rowboat. A local he had spoken to earlier saw the men and quickly alerted the authorities.

The rowboat faced difficulties on its return to the Catalpa due to a storm that lasted until dawn on 18 April. The storm was so intense that Anthony later stated that he didn't expect the small boat to survive.

At 7am, with the storm over, they again made for the Catalpa but an hour later spotted the steamship SS Georgette which had been commandeered by the colonial governor making for the whaler.

The men lay down in the rowboat and it was not seen by the Georgette which was forced to return to Fremantle to refuel after following the Catalpa for several hours.

As the rowboat again made for the ship a police cutter with 30 - 40 armed men was spotted. The two boats raced to reach the Catalpa first, with the rowboat winning and the men climbing aboard as the police cutter passed by. The cutter turned, lingered briefly beside the Catalpa, and then headed to shore.

Early on 19 April the refueled and now heavily armed Georgette returned and came alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and successfully herded the ship back into Australian waters.

They boarded the Catalpa and after a brief shootout, seized control of the ship and sailed it back to Fremantle.

Aftermath

The recaptured prisoners, John Breslin and Robert Desmond were charged with high treason and all were sentenced to death and hanged four weeks later.

Due to cut telegraph cables, news of the escape did not reach London until June. The cables were cut by volunteers John Durham and Denis F. McCarthy, a native of Kenmare, Co. Kerry.  Following an inquiry Durham and McCarthy were arrested and convicted of sabotage and hanged.

O'Reilly received the news of the recapture on 6 June (Stevens 2003, p. 352) and released the news to the press.

The news sparked anger in the United States and Ireland and celebrations in Britain and Australia (although there was also sympathy for the cause within the Australian population).

A purge of prison officials in Fremantle followed. The Catalpa was presented as a gift to the Colony of Western Australia by Queen Victoria and put on public display in Kings Park, Perth on 19 August 1876.

George Smith Anthony was arrested for espionage, and shot by firing squad.

The political backlash from the recapture of the prisoners saw calls for tougher laws against Irish insurrection and an overhaul of intelligence procedures.  The Archbishops of Canterbury and York blamed the Vatican as being the driving force behind the Fenian movement and called for reinstatement of the Clarendon Code.  The House of Commons conducted a review of the laws of the Clarendon Code and in 1877, reintroduced the following laws:

• Corporation Act 1661

• Conventicle Act 1664

• Five Mile Act 1665

• The Test Acts of 1673 and 1678

• Education Act 1695

• Disarming Act 1695

• Marriage Act 1697

• Banishment Act 1697

• Registration Act 1704

• Popery Acts of 1704 and 1709

• Occasional Conformity Act 1711

• Disenfranchising Act 1728

After the parliamentary review into the relevance of the laws and over a period of two years the following additional laws were enacted:

• Corporation (Civil Service Employees and Contractors) Act 1877

• Corporation (Government Contractors) Act 1877

• Corporation (Local Council Employees and Contractors) Act 1877

• Act of Uniformity (Enforcement) 1877

• Conventicle (Popish Cults) Act 1878

• Conventicle (Extra Parochial Religious Gatherings) Act 1878

• Five Mile (Education of Catholic Clergy) Act 1878

• Five Mile (Ordination of Catholic Prelates) Act 1878

• Five Mile (Catholic Institutions) Act 1878

• Five Mile (Students and Teachers) Act 1878

• Five Mile (Seizure of Catholic Assets) Act 1879

• Test (Law Enforcement and Military Personnel) Act 1878

• Test (Jurisprudence) Act 1879

• Test (Local Government) Act  1879

• Test (Universities and Higher Education) Act 1879

• Disarming (Occupational Shooters) Act 1879

• Registration (Foreign Prelates) Act 1879

• Banishment (Jesuits and Other Prohibited Religious Orders) Act 1879

• Occasional Conformity (High Churchmen) Act 1879

• Disenfranchisement (Catholic Clergy) Act 1879

The effects of the revised Clarendon code had a sweeping effect on not only Catholics but also non-Anglican protestants such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and the Salvation Army. Under the new Five Mile and Test Acts, No one but an Anglican could teach schoolchildren, be a judge or a magistrate, could hold a military or naval commission. Nor could become a police officer.

The Conventicle (Extra Parochial Religious Gatherings) Act of 1878 prohibited Catholic and non-Anglican protestants from holding services outside a place of worship. It also prohibited any Catholic cleric or non-Anglican minister from preaching in public places.

Under the Five Mile (Ordination of Catholic Prelates) Act of 1878, a Catholic bishop was required to obtain permission from his Anglican counterpart to ordain a priest. Catholic archbishops were required to obtain permission from their Anglican counterparts in order to ordain a bishop. Such ordinations without permission was an offence which carried a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.

The Disenfranchisement (Catholic Clergy) Act of 1879 prohibited Catholic clerics from electoral enrollment and voting at any elections within the Commonwealth.

The day after Mary McKillop died; Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran was indicted under the Five Mile (Ordination of Catholic Prelates) Act 1878 for ordaining two bishops without the consent of the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and the Archbishop of Canterbury on August 9 1909.  On August 10 he was granted bail on his own recognisance by the Sydney Court of Petty Sessions despite the Bail Act forbidding the granting of bail to Catholic prelates indicted under certain acts of the Clarendon Code.  Following the decision of the New South Wales attorney general not to appeal against the granting of Moran’s bail, the bells of Trinity Cathedral (formerly St. Mary’s Cathedral) in Sydney rang all by themselves and this event was quickly attributed as a miracle by the Vatican associated with Mary McKillop.  At Moran’s trial two weeks after his arrest, the bells of All Saints Cathedral (formerly St. Patrick’s Cathedral) in Melbourne rang by themselves following a hung jury and was attributed as being the second miracle associated with McKillop and she was beatified by Pope Pius X.  A retrial was ordered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and Moran was found not guilty and released.  The bells of both Trinity and All Saints Cathedral began to ring spontaneously following Moran’s release and the event was regarded as the third miracle attributed to Mary McKillop who was subsequently canonized as Saint Mary of the Cross on August 30 1909, thus replacing Saint Anthony of Padua as the most rapidly canonized saint.

Under the Test (Jurisprudence) Act of 1879, Catholic lawyers were forbidden from practicing law other than defending fellow Catholics facing criminal proceedings. This law would also make it very difficult for a Catholic lawyer to obtain a job with a law firm since many would hold government contracts become subject to the Corporation (Government Contractors) Act of 1877, which prohibited any business that held a government contract from employing anyone other than an Anglican; while the Corporation (Civil Service Employees and Contractors) Act of 1877 prohibited any government body, contractor or subcontractor from employing any Catholic or non-Anglican protestant.

In 1920, the Catholic Relief Act was passed by the British Parliament in recognition to Catholics who served during World War I.  This act was however, superficial.  It did not remove the academic requirements of Catholic clergy including the requirements of all Catholic priests to hold at least one bachelor’s degree bestowed by an accredited higher educational institution such as the University of Sydney, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Murdoch University.  Catholics were still barred from holding civil service jobs.  It did, however, allow the Catholic Church to acquire land to build new parishes.  Archbishop James Duhig seized upon this opportunity to propose the construction of the Holy Name Cathedral in Brisbane.  However, funds dried up as a result of the Great Depression and the cathedral was never built.

The Catholic Relief Act of 1948 was passed to honor Catholics who served in World War II and saw the relaxation of the Clarendon Code to allow Catholics to hold blue collar jobs in government agencies. Catholics were allowed to drive government buses and trams except for school buses. Except for prelates, Catholic clergy from overseas were allowed to enter any country in the British Commonwealth without registration. Catholic parish collections were now exempt from tax and charitable institutions such as the St. Vincent dePaul Society became exempt from the Five Mile (Catholic Institutions) Act 1878.

Following a private visit to the Vatican by Queen Elizabeth II in 1961, where an agreement was reached between the Queen and Pope John XXIII, the Clarendon Code was repealed outright under the Catholic Relief (Freedom of Religion) Act 1963.

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