The Maltese connection: the unexpected origins of Elizabeth Farm’s convict workers

A sentence for stealing a watch in London, a bolt of cloth in Manchester or a horse in rural Oxfordshire may fit the standard image of a convict’s origins, yet the story of three men from Elizabeth Farm shows that theft was only one reason for transportation – and Britain was far from the only source of convicts sent to NSW.

At Elizabeth Farm the bulk of assigned convicts and ticket-of-leave holders were from Great Britain, and many of these were sentenced for theft. Others, however, present a more complex picture of those sentenced to transportation, and the reasons why. Elizabeth Farm was far from a homogenous place; walking around its buildings and fields you would have heard regional accents from all over the British Isles, as well as the local Burramattagal and Muringong languages, French, Chinese, Polish and, as this story illustrates, Greek.    

In the centre of the Mediterranean

Located between Sicily and Tunisia, Malta at first seems a most unusual place of origin for a convict transported to NSW, yet the stories of several convicts attached to Elizabeth Farm began there. Previously an independent state, ruled by the Knights of the Order of St John who had successfully resisted Ottoman conquest, the strategically important island was occupied by Napoleon in 1798 for use as a base in his ill-fated Egyptian campaigns. The Maltese population appealed to Britain for help and, after the besieged French vacated in 1800, Britain took possession of the island as a protectorate. It was declared a crown colony in 1813, an action quickly ratified by the postwar treaties of Paris (1814) and Vienna (1815). This meant that British laws – and punishments, including transportation – could be enforced. From 1821, with Britain officially supporting Greece militarily in its war of independence against Ottoman rule, the island played a crucial role as a base for British naval vessels.1

Alexander Stewart

In 1823, Alexander Stewart, a convict who had worked for the Macarthurs, made the significant career switch from prisoner of the law to its enforcer, becoming a constable. Born in Argyllshire, Scotland, and employed as a weaver before enlisting in the British army, Stewart received a life sentence and was transported to NSW not for theft, but following a military court-martial on 27 June 1811 in Valletta, the capital of Malta. Aged 33, he had been part of the island’s rapidly expanding British military presence, and possibly a private with the 14th Regiment of Foot, known as the Buckinghamshire Regiment. The harshness of British military law meant that the threshold for sentencing in court-martials was far lower than for comparable civilian crimes. What may have earned a fine or a short sentence of imprisonment in a civil court could entail a life sentence in a military court, so Stewart’s crime may have been relatively minor. After sentencing, he was conveyed to England, and then transported in November 1812 on the Fortune, arriving in Sydney on 11 June the following year. (He was not the only convict on board from Malta; another man, John Thompson, had also been court-martialled in Valletta.) Stewart arrived with his savings, £6 and 15 shillings, which was lodged with the captain during the voyage for safekeeping.

 

Though his early colonial life is unknown, by 1821 Stewart had earned his ticket of leave and been employed by the Macarthurs as a shepherd, caring for the merino flocks at Camden Park. Two years later he petitioned the governor, Lachlan Macquarie, for a full pardon. The letter was written by someone else – Stewart would later sign for his pay with an ‘X’, meaning that he was illiterate.

The Humble Petition of Alexander Stewart / Dutifully sets forth / That your Excellency’s petitioner was sentenced at Malta 1811 to be Transported for Life, came to this Colony in the ship Fortune 2nd Captain Walker nearly seven years ago. Petitioner from uniform conduct in this Country is at present allowed the Indulgence of a Ticket of Leave. And being a man of sober Habit and Industrious Deportment is encouraged most humbly to solicit some [shred?] of your Excellency’s further Clemency in behalf of the awful Sentence he yet labours under.

[‘signed’] Alexr. Stewart2

Although Stewart had only been in his employ briefly, John Macarthur added a statement as to his good behaviour:

I respectfully beg leave to certify that the Petitioner has lived in my Service four months in the Capacity of a shepherd, and that he has behaved in an honest and diligent manner in his employment.

[signed] John MacArthur

Stewart secured his pardon and then in May 1823 took up a new role – now, however, he was on the other side of the law:

THE GOVERNOR has been pleased to approve of the following Appointments: … In the Town of Parramatta – Alexander Stewart (Free), and William Goodwin (Ticket of Leave), to be Ordinary Constables. 

Sydney Gazette, 8 May 1823

(Stewart was one of many pardoned and ticket-of-leave men who were appointed to positions in the colonial constabulary, and indeed two other men who had worked for the Macarthurs had already followed this path: in 1810 Samuel Reid, a ticket-of-leave man employed by Elizabeth Macarthur, was appointed a constable in Sydney, and in 1814 Samuel Fuller, who had worked as Elizabeth Farm’s butcher, received his own ticket of leave, becoming a constable in Parramatta and then apprehending several bushrangers.)

Two years later, Stewart’s career progressed again, when he was promoted to an administrative role as ‘Messenger & in charge of the [Parramatta] Court House’.3 But his good fortune was short-lived, as in January 1827 he was ignominiously dismissed for ‘improper conduct’.

Stewart was not the only Elizabeth Farm employee transported from Malta; there were also the romantically titled ‘Greek pirates’.

  • 2. Colonial Secretary’s records, petitions, 1821. Common to documents and news reports, a number following a ship name refers to which of several voyages to the colony that ship had made. In this example, ‘Fortune 2nd’ means that Stewart had arrived on that ship’s second voyage. This was a useful device as it enabled similar names to be distinguished, and quick calculations made as to terms of sentence.
  • 3. Colonial Secretary’s records, reel 6062; 4/1783 p4.

The Archipelago is infested with numerous pirates, who inhabit the Morea [the Peloponnese peninsula]; they are the direct descendants of the ancient Spartans, and are joined to their predatory excursions by a few Albanians, They plunder indiscriminately all they meet with, and frequently land & rob the various ports of the Archipelago. The Reynard, Capt. St. Clair was cruising against them for some time. She captured three open prows, and sent them to Malta for condemnation.

Sydney Gazette, 22 March 1817, quoting the London Gazette, 25 September 1816

Pirates!

In the 1820s, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and as the Greek War of Independence gained momentum, Ottoman naval control progressively broke down in the Ionian Sea, and piracy became an increasing issue for shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, to the south-east the Barbary pirates – the infamous corsairs so beloved of 19th-century novelists – were still active along the African coast. The British navy patrolled the waters, providing escorts to their own and allied merchant ships – just as naval escorts accompany convoys through the Gulf of Aden today to protect them from Somali pirates. The colonial press in NSW reported on the numbers of Greek ships that had turned to ‘piracy’, The Australian relaying a particularly infamous incident:

Malta, April 28. — There has been a dreadful case of piracy on the coast of the Morea, committed on a Maltese brig, the Speranza, by a Greek vessel, which was stationed on the coast, in the service (it is stated) of the Greek government, to warn off any ships proceeding to the Turkish fortresses of Coronn and Modon [Koroni and Methoni on the south-west tip of the peninsula]. The whole of the crew of the Maltese brig, 14 in number, were murdered. Seven of the pirates were in custody at Zante, through the activity of Captain Pechell, of his Majesty’s ship Sybille; but as they will be tried before the Piracy Court of this island, we forbear to give further particulars.

The Australian, 25 November 1824

Illustration of men fighting on board a ship.

This engraving evokes the drama of a privateer being boarded, as an officer seizes a flag emblazoned with a very theatrical-looking skull and crossbones from a cutlass-wielding ‘Greek pirate’ whose breastplate is similarly decorated.
British sailors boarding a Greek pirate, J L Marks, c1820–25. The Mariner’s Museum Collection

In 1827, one privateer – the Herakles, out of Hydra – had raided the Alceste, a British-owned Maltese ship flying British colours en route to Alexandria. The ship was chased and seized by the Gannet,4 a British naval brig-sloop, off the Libyan coast. Taken to Malta, the crew was tried for piracy in February 1828. In their defence they claimed that they weren’t actual pirates but part of the Greek independence cause, which justified their raiding a ship bound for an Ottoman - (and hence enemy) - controlled port and seizing cargo useful for the war. In response, the prosecution pointed out to the jury that personal possessions had also been looted. Found guilty, seven of the nine tried were sentenced to death. A request to London for legal clarification, followed by a lengthy appeal, resulted in the sentences being commuted to transportation – to the colony of NSW. They were transferred to England, then in May 1829 loaded onto the transport Norfolk, and arrived in Sydney on 27 August 1829. 

Androni Tu Manolis

The natives of the island of Hydra, whose ships are built generally at Fiume, are reckoned to be the most expert and boldest of their sailors. …Their ships are usually armed with ten or twelve short canons, and musquetry for the crew. In the common Greek songs, the burthen of which is Liberty, the Hydriotes are spoken of as being no less formidable by sea than the Sulliotes are by land.5

The captain of the convicted pirates, Androni Tu Manolis6, was a native of Hydra, an island just off the north-east coast of the Peloponnese. He was described on arrival as being 22 years of age, 5 feet 4¾ inches tall, with dark brown hair and eyes, a dark ruddy complexion and a perpendicular scar on his nose, unmarried and literate; he was also identified as ‘Protestant’ instead of Greek Orthodox. With agricultural skills of particular value to the Macarthurs, who were experimenting with olives and viticulture, he was assigned to the botanically inclined William – John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s youngest son.

 
  • 5. J.C. Hobhouse, A journey through Albania and other provinces…. during the years 1809 and 1810. London, James Cawthorn, 1813. 
  • 6. As with all the transported Greeks, Manolis’s name is recorded in various forms, including Andini Tu Manolis, and Malonis.
View of single storey colonial farmhouse across lawn.

The large olive to the right of the house in this view is thought to have been that observed by Sir Thomas Mitchell on his visit to Elizabeth Farm in 1831.
Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums

With Manolis was Nicholas Papendross (also spelled Pappendrou), another native of Hydra.. Papendross was also sentenced to transportation for life, and was described in his convict indent as being 20 years of age, illiterate, 5 feet 3½ inches tall, with a ruddy complexion and dark brown hair and eyes. Both men were quickly relocated to work on the Macarthurs’ extensive vineyard at Camden Park. Manolis, who later records indicate was the more skilled, was quickly placed in a position of authority and no doubt worked closely with William Macarthur:

Mr William Macarthur, who has bestowed upon the vineyard on his fathers Estate, at Camden, much constant attention this year, made two hundred and fifty gallons of wine … He has entrusted it to the care of a native of one of the Greek Islands, who was accustomed to cultivate the vine in his own country …

James Busby, A manual of plain directions for planting and cultivating vineyards and for making wine in New South Wales, R Stewart, Sydney, 1830, p21

James Busby’s account neatly omits any reference to piracy or convict status. By the time Manolis left the Macarthurs’ employment, the wines he was instrumental in producing were being stored in the new mansion’s extensive cellars, drunk in that house’s dining room, and sold across the colony. 

  • Faintly drawn plan.

    ‘Plan of the vineyard [including orchard and olive grove], Camden, January 26th 1841’, Macarthur family memoranda and accounts relating to wine, 1838–1930.

    State Library of NSW

  • Illustration of bunches of grapes.

    Red Frontignac grapes, one of the many varieties recorded growing in 1845 at Camden Park. George Brookshaw, Pomona Britannica ..., London, 1812, plate LVI.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

The pair also worked at Elizabeth Farm where, in November 1831, they were seen by Sir Thomas Mitchell, the colony’s surveyor general, as he set off on the first of three exploratory inland journeys. Mitchell began his published account both physically and symbolically at Elizabeth Farm, in a chapter called ‘A garden’. The neoclassical imagery he uses is overt, and fitting given there were actual Greeks in the scene:

A GARDEN: My first day’s journey, terminated near Paramatta [sic], at the residence of Mr. John Macarthur. I was received by that gentleman with his usual hospitality, and although not in the enjoyment of the best health, he insisted on accompanying me over his extensive and beautiful garden, where he pointed out to my attention, the first olive-tree ever planted in Australia … I observed convict Greek pirates – ‘acti fatis’ – at work in that garden of the antipodes, training the vines to trellices [sic], made after the fashion of those in the Peloponnesus.7

Unlike at Camden, the vines that Manolis and Papendross tended at Parramatta were most likely table grapes. Mitchell gives no clues as to how the vines were trained ‘after the fashion of those in the Peloponnesus’; if it was a skill they brought with them to NSW it is unlikely that Manolis and Pappendross had learnt it on Hydra, which has an especially dry landscape.

Two more of the ‘pirates’ would later work at Camden: Jorghis Laritsos8 as a labourer; and Damianos Ninis, who in 1832 had attempted to escape by stowing away, an act reported by the Gazette with confusing details at odds with his original arrest and sentence:

Many of our readers may not be aware that a Greek Captain, named Domini Neni is at present an inmate of Hyde Park Barrack; he was the commander of a piratical vessel in the Straits, named after himself, ‘The Domini Neni’. She mounted 17 guns, and had a large crew belonging to her; they had committed several acts of piracy upon British vessels, when she was captured, after a desperate engagement by one of his Majesty’s vessels, the Captain has just completed 21 days exercise on the [tread]mill, in consequence of his attempting to escape from the Colony.

Sydney Gazette, 9 May 1831

Ninis was, it seems, one of the very few convicts associated with the Macarthurs to have actually been resident at the Hyde Park Barracks – even if only temporarily.

Pardons and repatriation

Over the following years, the ‘Greek pirates’ began to receive tickets of leave, with the exception of Manolis, Ninis and Jorghis Vasilakis, who were each serving life sentences. But in the mid-1830s their lives changed; they had not been forgotten in Greece, and the newly formed Greek government petitioned Britain for their release. Following negotiations regarding repatriation costs, this was granted, and in 1836 all seven were officially pardoned:   

  • 7. Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, Three expeditions into the interior of eastern Australia, Vol 1: Journey in search of the Kindur in 1831–32, W Boone, London, 2nd edn, 1837. The classical reference – acti fatis – can be paraphrased as ‘at the hands of the Fates’, meaning the Greeks. It likely references a line from the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘Troas…, multosque per annos errabant, acti fatis, maria omnia circum’ (‘the Trojans … having been driven by the fates, they kept wandering for many years around all the seas’).
  • 8. Laritsos is also identified in documents as ‘Jorghis Larenzos’ and ‘Georgin Loringors’.

Colonial Secretary’s Office / Sydney 19th Dec 1836

His Excellency the Governor directs it to be notified, that the Right Honorable the Secretary of State for the Colonies has signified His Majesty’s Gracious Commands, that Absolute and Conditional Pardons be granted to the under mentioned individuals, viz.:
ABSOLUTE PARDONS …
Despatch Dated 10th July, 1836. No. 174.
Andini Tu Manolis, Norfolk (2);
Damianos Ninis, Norfolk (2);
Jorghis Vassilachis, Norfolk (2);
Ghicas Bulgaris, Norfolk (2)
Jorghis Larezzos, Norfolk (2)
Nicholas Papandross, Norfolk (2)
Costandis Strombolis, Norfolk (2)

Sydney Gazette, 24 December 1836

Not all of the seven returned to Greece, however: Manolis settled in the Picton area, not far from Camden Park, where he continued to work as a vine dresser and gardener, and Ghicas Bulgaris became notable as the first naturalised Greek in Australia. Manolis died in September 1880, and his gravestone at Picton cemetery bears the poetic epitaph:

In a strange land the stranger finds a grave,
Far from his home, beyond the rolling wave.

Notes

About the author

Dr Scott Hill

Curator

As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.

Printed newspaper document.
Pardon. Sydney Gazette, 24 December 1836