The extraordinary life of William Buchanan: slave, convict, bushranger

Original research by Sienna Brown. Article adapted by Jacqui Newling from ‘William Buchanan, slave, rebel, convict, bushranger’ by Sienna Brown in Insites, Historic Houses Trust, 2013 (pp10–11). 

The story of a Jamaican rebel who escaped from the Hyde Park Barracks.

Most convicts transported to NSW were from Britain and Ireland, but some came from other countries within the British Empire. Arriving in Sydney in 1836 with a life sentence, Jamaican-born William Buchanan was one of at least 34 convicts from the West Indies who passed through the Hyde Park Barracks. Jamaica was then part of the British West Indies, and a number of people from the various ‘Commonwealth Caribbean’ islands found themselves transported to NSW, having been caught up in the British imperial court system.

Illustration of man in white open-necked shirt.
Field worker, from 'Sketches of character, in illustration of the habits, occupation, and costume of the Negro population, in the island of Jamaica, drawn after nature, and in lithography', Isaac Mendes Belisario, 1837–38, Kingston, Jamaica. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library

Born into slavery 

William Buchanan was born into slavery in the early 1800s. With his mother, Stella, and younger siblings, Samuel, James and Eliza, he is listed on an 1817 ‘Return of Slaves’ register belonging to plantation owner Cargill Mowatt.1 When Mowatt was killed in 1823, Buchanan and his mother stood trial ‘for compassing and imagining the death of a white person, and for being accessories to the murder’.2 The jury found Buchanan not guilty, but the sentence of death was passed upon Stella, and she was hanged in the public square.

In December 1831, a slave rebellion erupted in Jamaica. Samuel Sharpe, a slave and inspirational Baptist preacher, had called a general strike, to be held after the slaves’ three-day Christmas rest period. It was meant to be conducted peacefully, but years of pent-up anger and frustration exploded, and with the blowing of conch shells, a call to arms reverberated from estate to estate, mobilising more than 40,000 slaves across the island over several days. Buildings were destroyed, livestock slaughtered, and crops ripe for harvest burnt to the ground. When control was reinstated, the authorities wanted retribution. Sharpe was captured and tried, and was hanged on 23 May 1832. Many other rebels stood trial, and many were sentenced to death.

Among them was William Buchanan, found guilty of mutiny in May 1833. The transcript from Buchanan’s trial reveals that, armed with a musket, he had led several rebels, with torches ablaze, to a large estate where he demanded the slaves’ freedom before setting the property alight.3 He was found guilty, but instead of being hanged immediately he languished in a workhouse until 1835, when his sentence was commuted to transportation for life. The abolition of slavery had become law the previous year, but as a convicted criminal, Buchanan was not entitled to freedom, and was sent to England.

  • 3. Colonial Office and predecessors, Jamaica, Original Correspondence, 1689–1951, 137/205, pp137–42, National Archives, United Kingdom.
Illustration of convict hulk.

‘Interior scene of the prison hulk Justitia’, from Pictorial Times, 1845. National Library of Australia

From the Thames to Sydney Cove

For three months Buchanan was confined in the hulk Justitia on the River Thames at Woolwich, before being transferred to the Moffatt, which set sail for NSW on 5 May 1836. The four-month voyage almost ended in disaster. At 2pm on 30 August as the Moffatt entered through the Heads of Sydney Harbour, the ship was caught in a storm that ‘split the main topsail to ribbons … [and] the anchors were lost’.4 But the vessel was spared, and Buchanan was one of 396 male prisoners to disembark the Moffatt at Sydney on 2 September 1836.

  • 4. Sydney Gazette, 6 September 1836, p3.
Handwritten list of physical characteristics.
Convict indent for William Buchanan: Convicts Index [4/10586] William Buchanan, CP 51/40 p80. NSW State Archives

He is described in convict indents as a ‘man of colour’5 with a missing front upper tooth, a scar on the left side of his upper lip, and a long scar on the back of his left thumb. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall (167cm), his complexion was ‘copper’, his hair ‘black woolly’, eyes ‘dark chestnut’, and his trade given as ‘In-door servant & mason’.6

Absconders from the Barracks

Buchanan was housed at the Hyde Park Barracks, but within weeks he escaped with a fellow Jamaican convict, James Smith, and a French convict, Lazarus Bara, who was also reported to be dark-skinned.7 On 1 December 1836 they stayed overnight at ‘the dwelling-house of William Chadwick, at North Harbour’ and absconded the next morning with a quantity of flour and an axe.8 They then ‘found their way to Pitt Water [north of Broken Bay], the neighbour-hood of which they have been keeping in a state of alarm’ for several weeks, hiding out in a cave in ‘country … of an excessively impassable character’.9 In a dawn raid by police on 8 January 1837, Bara was captured after being wounded with a bullet through the thigh, but the two ‘revolted Jamaican negroes’ escaped unscathed.10 Despite its rugged location, the absconders’ hideout was quite well equipped:

Upon searching the cave a loaded musket was found, and half a canister of powder, some cartridges and pieces of files and nail rod iron, cut up to serve as shot. There were also potatoes, onions and beef, the latter of which to preserve had been roasted in the hide. There was a fire, and pots upon it as though they had been breakfasting.11

The intrepid pair remained on the loose for several months, committing ‘a variety of depredations’ and ‘acts of outrage’ on the NSW Central Coast.12 The two men, described as ‘Maroon negroes’, were eventually caught and court proceedings commenced on 2 May 1837.13 For a third time Buchanan escaped a death penalty, which had been ‘formerly attached to the offence of which they had been convicted [but] lately abolished by an Act of Parliament’.14 At the sentencing in August, it was determined that:

As the prisoners had committed no marked violence, but had been merely wandering about the country perpetrating several petty depredations, the Court was anxious to give them an opportunity to redeem their past error, by passing upon them a lenient sentence. The prisoners were then sentenced to be worked in irons on the public roads of the Colony for three years each.15

Finding freedom

Information about the next phase of Buchanan’s colonial life is elusive, but by 1845 he was in the district of Goulburn, where he received a ticket of leave, and in February 1851 he was granted a conditional pardon.16 Aged 49, the man born into slavery in Jamaica finally found his freedom in colonial Australia.

  • 5. NSW State Archives, 4/4527-28; Reel 806 pK.22.
  • 6. NSW State Archives, 4/10586; Reel 3037, pp079–080.
  • 7. Also described as a Spaniard. Sydney Gazette, 18 February, 1837, p2.
  • 8. ‘Law intelligence’, Sydney Gazette, 27 August 1837, p3; see also Sydney Gazette, 21 August 1837, p3.
  • 9. Sydney Gazette, 10 January 1837, p3.
  • 10. Sydney Monitor, 21 August 1837, p3.
  • 11. Sydney Gazette, 10 January 1837, p3.
  • 12. Sydney Monitor, 21 August 1837, p3.
  • 13. New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818–1930, NSW State Archives, Roll: 175 pK21; see also Sydney Monitor, 21 August 1837, p3. The term ‘Maroon’ was sometimes used to describe a community of African people who had escaped slavery in Jamaica.
  • 14. Supreme Court report, The Australian, 25 August 1837, p2
  • 15. Supreme Court report, The Australian, 25 August 1837, p2.
  • 16. Conditional pardon, 1 February 1851. NSW State Archives Convicts Index, 4/10586; Reel 3037 pp079–080.
  • Printed document.

    Ticket-of-leave butt for William Buchanan, February 1845, NRS 12202; Item: [4/4200].

    NSW State Archives

  • Printed document.

    Conditional pardon for William Buchanan: Convicts Index [4/10586] William Buchanan, CP 51/40 p79.

    NSW State Archives


William Buchanan’s story has been brought to life by Sienna Brown in the award-winning novel Master of my fate (Vintage Australia, 2019). Sienna describes her personal connection to the Barracks through William Buchanan in ‘Legacy: Hyde Park Barracks today’ on the ground floor of the Hyde Park Barracks museum.



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