1st January 1849
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Throughout the years of the Great Famine, several convict ships left Irish shores for the colonies. This is the story of one ship that was bound for South Africa but would only ever get within sight of its destination.

In September 1849, a ship called The Neptune anchored within sight of Cape Town, South Africa. The Neptune was a convict ship carrying some 282 prisoners and 55 crew. The intention was for the prisoners to be set to work in Cape Town on a number of building projects. However the people of Cape Town had other ideas. Prejudices against the prisoners meant that the local people were against allowing convicts into their town. So strong was the opposition that a vast number of them signed a petition against the establishment of a penal colony and shunned those who refused to sign it. As a result The Neptune could not come in to dock and the crew and prisoners were stuck in the bay for 5 months. One man who took pity on the occupants of the ship was an Irish man from Ballinastanford near Claremorris Co. Mayo. His name was Robert Stanford (1806-1877). He was a prominent land owner in the area, having made his fortune as a soldier. As tensions escalated in Cape Town, Stanford sent relief to the people onboard The Neptune, an action which saw his entire family shunned in the community. After 5 long months of a stand-off it was realised that the people of South Africa would not relent and The Neptune departed for Tasmania. Stanford was lauded by Queen Victoria for his actions and received a knighthood in 1850. He would later pen a memoir entitled Loyalty and its Reward recounting the shameful treatment of him and his family during the blockade of The Neptune. 


  • Bermuda had long been established as British convict station from the 18th Century. Many Irish convicts were sent there in the 1840s after N.S.W. had firmly refused to accept any more British felons. The small Bermuda convict station accommodated hundreds of convicts in prison hulks by night, and by day worked them brutally to consolidate the British stronghold. With prison hulks overflowing, the Bermudan governor asked the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, to relocate about 300 well-behaved men to ease the overcrowding. Earl Grey came up with a solution and promptly signed an Order-in-Council to establish a convict settlement at Capetown, South Africa to rreduce the numbers at Bermuda. One of the men  given passage on the "Neptune" for Capetown was the Young Irelander political prisoner, John Mitchel, whose health was failing in the Bermudan conditions. Strained relations with Ireland demanded that he be moved to a healthier clime and so he was taken on the Neptune.

    On 22 April 1849, the Neptune sailed for Capetown carrying 288 men each of whom was given a ticket-of-leave. Among those men were my g-g-grandfather, Dominick Rohan, and his brother-in-law, Henry Riordan - both from Aghabulogue, County Cork, and convicted in 1847 of the crime of stealing two heifers. Details of the Neptune's erratic voyage can be found in John Mitchel's Jail Journal (1854).

    The Neptune got lost mid-Atlantic. It was so long delayed that for a time it was assumed to have sunk with all hands. But no - it was just suffering from what John Mitchel described as "stupid navigation". When the Neptune eventually approached Capetown, the word spread quickly and fierce opposition gathered. Five months after leaving Bermuda, on 19 Sep 1849, the Neptune anchored in Simon's Bay. The burgers of Capetown steadfastly refused to permit anyone from the ship to set foot on land. For five long months, the standoff continued. Those on board were desperate for food and other essential supplies. Earl Grey eventually admitted defeat; there would be no convict settlement at Capetown. The captain was ordered to leave Capetown and take the ticket-of-leave men to Hobart Town instead. Much to the relief of everyone on both sides of the impasse, on 21 Feb 1850 the Neptune sailed from Simon's Bay.

    There was a hostile reaction to that decision in Hobart Town! These convicts had been rejected by Capetown, but were now to be dumped on Hobart Town. Concerns were dismissed, and on 5 Apr 1850 the surviving 262 passengers disembarked at Hobart wharf. They were ex-convicts, and most had their tickets-of-leave upgraded to conditional pardons in recognition of the extreme hardship they had endured over 12 long months at sea. They must have been overjoyed to set foot on land again. John Mitchel in his delight even compared the Derwent river and its surrounds to the Cove of Cork. 

    Despite the dire predictions, the passengers who arrived on the Neptune were absorbed without fuss into the fabric of Hobart Town, and soon scattered to make the most of their new situation.

    Together with many other Van Demonians, Dominick Rohan and Henry Riordan made their way across Bass Strait and settled in Victoria, probably drawn to the opportunities on offer with the discovery of gold in 1851. Dominick's wife and only surving child joined him in Melbourne in 1852. They established their Australian family with four more children before Dominick died in 1859.

    Gerry R

    Monday 13th December 2021 10:40AM
  • The Neptune that is written about is actually the Neptune 2. and not only did the good folk of the Cape send them packing by the Anti Convict Assosiation the Anti Transportation League of Australia also gave them a hard time when they arrived at Hobart in fact the League was formed purely and simply to rid Australia of the convicts from the Neptune 2. The convicts where told not to mention that they where from the Neptune when asked as it would dredge up bad feelings from the good folk. Many ex convicts themselves. They where as a way of thanking them for the way they handled the bad situation were given a Conditional Pardon instead of the promised Ticket of Leave. 

    This was the begining of the end for Transporting convicts to Australia the only state to keep accepting these convicts on a semi regula basis was Western Australia. There are 2 good ways of finding out the truth about what happened. John Mitchels Jail Journal and Trove Newspapers and enter Neptune Convicts in search and the date section put 1850 1859 and articles. You will be surprised. I was reseaching my great great great grandfather Michael Morton. Who was realiy Michael Letsome Moton from Cullahill Roscrea Ireland as he came to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope and was surprised when I read the articles in Trove and now Johns Journal. I somehow understand why he never mentioned his passed life or name. Even when he died his parents where down on his death certificate as not known and where he came from not known. He wondered Tasmania for 2 years before eventually making his way to Victoria. His brother John Transported some 2 years earlier was alao called John MORTON but eventuall came clean to his wife and family after his first born child as to who he really was but he never went through the problems Michael had. I do believe Michael did love his father and mother in the end as he named his first born son Thomas and his first born daughter Catherine after his mother and father. Sorry about any spelling mistakes as the spell checker froze "on" and I had to start again.

    John Ralston

    Aussie John

    Saturday 5th March 2022 05:21AM

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