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Chained to a rock on Goat Island for 2 years

Goat Island in Sydney Harbour became Charles 'Boney' Anderson's prison for two years, chained to a large sandstone rock.

Charles Anderson was the son of a sailor who drowned when he was young. His mother also died young, leaving him an orphan at nine years old and subjected to the harsh conditions of a workhouse where he grew up. He took on the apprenticeship of a collier and joined a man o' war in the navy.

During the Battle of Navarino fought in 1827, as part of the Greek War of Independence, he received a severe head wound causing a mental impairment. His mood would become dark and excitable, especially after a heavy bout of drinking. This was to become his downfall.

One night Charles drank heavily in a seaport in Devonshire. He became involved in a street fight with some other sailors and shops were broken into. He claimed he had no memory of what happened but was tried and sentenced to seven years transportation to the penal colonies at the age of 18.

Heavily tattooed with designs of a mermaid, anchor, buoy, cottage, flag, heart, crucifix, sun, moon and seven stars, Adam and Eve, serpent and tree across his body, Charles felt unjustly done by and treated everyone with contempt. He suffered many floggings due to his disobedience and punishment seemed to have no effect. He was sent to Goat Island in 1834 in the middle of Sydney's harbour; a place considered to be for the worst of the worst prisoners.

Over the next few years he escaped and swam for shore three times. Each time he was captured and received a total of 1,500 lashes while on the island, often for trivial offences such as 'looking round from his work'. He was tied for two years to a sandstone rock, blackened by the sun and naked. Wardens would place a wooden lid, pierced with air holes, over him at night, and he slept in a cavity in the rock.

The rock Charles 'Boney' Anderson was chained to for two years. The cavity was where he slept. Photo: James O'Brien

Food was passed to Charles by pushing it with a pole and other prisoners were not allowed to talk to him. The scars and open wounds on his back were infested with maggots. Colonists saw him as a source of entertainment, often rowing out to Goat Island to throw bread and offal at him, watching him eat.

Compassion was finally shown by Governor Bourke, who saw this public spectacle as one of shame. He had Charles moved to the lime kilns of Port Macquarie where he escaped and joined an Aboriginal tribe. It wasn't long before he was recaptured and flogged again. His care factor for living was zero by this stage and he killed an overseer in the hope that he would be hanged.

Instead he was sent to Norfolk Island where, ironically, his fortunes changed. He was only 24 years old when he reached this outpost, but to look at him, you would have thought he was 40.

It was at this time, penal reformer Captain Alexander Maconochie took over the reigns of Norfolk Island. Maconochie had more humanity in his little finger than many of the wardens had in their whole bodies. His first act of therapy for Charles was to give him some responsibility. Charles was put in charge of the half-wild bullocks on the island. He was nicknamed Boney, possibly because of his appearance.

This responsibility meant he was outside the barracks all day, every day, away from sadistic wardens. When he successfully tamed the bullocks, he found himself being praised and spoken kindly to. From here Maconochie gave him the job of managing the signal station on top of Mount Pitt which he did with great care. The signals were so well attended, the settlement was always advised when a sail could be seen.

While Charles' brain damage could never fully be rehabilitated, the former 'wild beast' of Goat Island was now busying himself in a sailor's uniform, his demeanor was open and frank and he appeared more human than he ever had since touching Australian shores. So much so that on a visit by Governor Gipps in 1843, it is recorded he was amazed at the transformation.

A sketch of Charles 'Boney' Anderson with Governor Gipps in the background with Captain Alexander Maconochie, commenting on his appearance. By The Bulletin

Charles would often tend his flower patch and garden, providing freshly-dug potatoes to Maconochie's household. It was considered that constant occupation strengthened and steadied Charles' tortured mind.

Not much is known of what happened to Charles, except that after Maconochie was transferred away from Norfolk Island, he fell back into mental sickness. Charles disappears from public record after being visited by a friend of Maconochie's at a lunatic asylum. The hapless convict spoke of nothing but Maconochie and his family. His death and burial is not recorded, but his story deserved to be told.


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1 Comment

What a tale of almost unbelievable cruelty, but, finally, compassion from some men.

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