1800-1859 | Burning people alive | Ireland

Preparations made to burn Irish convicts alive

The ruins of Norfolk Island’s jail.
Steve Daggar – CC License – via Wikimedia

9 November 1804

On 9 November 1804, panic erupted among the British garrison of the remote penal colony of Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, when they sighted a flotilla of ships, including the 64 gun warship Athenienne, and assumed they were under attack from the French.  The Commandant, Captain John Piper, immediately ordered all sixty seven Irish convicts, who had been transported for political crimes, to be herded into the island’s jail.

The doors were barred and the windows closed so that the inmates could not signal to the French. Within half an hour, huge quantities of pine brushwood, which had already been stored up for the purpose, were piled outside the exterior walls, so that all the inmates could be quickly burned alive if it was confirmed that the ships were indeed French. Piper also ordered some of his men to man two corroded six-pounder cannon, which for lack of any alternative ammunition, were loaded with the fragments of broken rum bottles.

Meanwhile several Redcoats remained outside the jail.  According to Robert Jones, the jailer, ‘the soldiers were to set fire to the prison upon the signal from me’ and if any convicts escaped the fire, they were to be shot. ‘My orders,’ he later recalled, ‘were to murder all the prisoners under my care should any foreign nation bear down upon us.’1 Fortunately for the convicts, the former French warship and eight merchant ships were part of a British East India Company convoy on its way to China, which had decided to make an unscheduled stop at the island to inquire about one of its vessels which had gone missing in heavy fog.


  1. Robert Jones cited in Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Vintage Books, London 2003, pp. 117-118.

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