Bryant was born Mary Broad (referred to as Mary Braund at the Exeter Assizes) in Fowey, Cornwall, United Kingdom, to William Broad and Grace Symons Broad, a fishing family. At the age of 19, she left home to seek work in Plymouth, England, where she became involved in crime. She, along with Catherine Fryer and Mary Hayden alias Shepherd, robbed and violently assaulted Agnes Lakeman on a road in Plymouth, stealing a silk bonnet valued at 12 pence, and other goods valued at £1 and 11 shillings. All three were sentenced to hang on 20 March 1786, which was commuted to seven years' transportation during the following month.
In May 1787, Bryant was sent as a prisoner with the First Fleet aboard the ship Charlotte. Bryant gave birth on the journey to a baby, whom she called Charlotte. When she arrived in Australia, she married William Bryant on 10 February 1788. Bryant, a convicted smuggler, was also on the Charlotte with Mary and they later had a son, Emanuel, born on 6 May 1790.
William Bryant was also from Cornwall, where he had worked as a fisherman. In early New South Wales, William was considered useful, and was put in charge of looking after the fishing ships. When he was caught selling fish on the side, he was given 100 lashes. He made a plan to escape with Mary, persuading a Dutch captain to give him some sailing equipment, and waited until all boats that could chase after them had left.
Escape from the colony and recapture
On 28 March 1791, William and Mary Bryant, the children, and fellow prisoners William Allen, James Martin, Samuel Bird alias John Simms, Samuel Broom alias John Butcher, James Cox alias Rolt, Nathaniel Lillie, and William Morton (an experienced navigator), stole Governor Arthur Phillip's six-oared cutter. After a voyage of sixty-six days, the group reached Kupang, in West Timor on the island of Timor, a journey of 5,000 kilometres. This voyage has often been compared with William Bligh's similar journey in an open boat only two years earlier, after the mutiny on the Bounty. Bligh's voyage had also ended in Timor. The trip involved navigating the then uncharted Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Straits.
Timor was then under the control of the Dutch. The Bryants and their crew claimed to be shipwreck survivors. They were later discovered to be British convicts, apparently after William became drunk and confessed in the process of bragging. To avoid an international incident they were sent back to Britain to stand trial, travelling first on a Dutch ship to Batavia in the company of survivors of HMS Pandora, a British ship sent to capture the Bounty mutineers, and then later from Cape Town in the company of Royal Marines returning from Sydney on HMS Gorgon. During the voyage back William and both of Mary's children perished of fever; Emanuel and William dying at Batavia on respectively 1 and 22 December 1791, whilst Charlotte died on the last leg of the voyage on 6 May 1792.
Bryant and the other survivors - Allen, Broom alias John Butcher, Lillie, and Martin - arrived back in England on 18 June 1792. The punishment for escaping from transportation was generally death, but when they were brought before the Old Bailey on 7 July, they were all ordered to 'remain on their former sentence, until they should be discharged by course of law'. Their case was taken up by the biographer and lawyer, James Boswell. On 2 May 1793, Bryant was released from Newgate prison with a free pardon, her sentence having expired, while Allen, Broom alias Butcher, Lillie, and Martin had to wait until 2 November 1793 to be released by proclamation. Bryant is believed to have returned to her family in Cornwall, and Boswell provided her with a pension of £10 until his death in 1795.
Boswell had a reputation for amorous dalliances with lower class women and his friends took to imagining or joking that Botany Bay had provided him a new mistress. His friend William Parsons wrote a scurrilous poem in which they're imagined hanged together on the gallows at Tyburn in a final union. Yet despite this "elegantly turned prurience" (as Robert Hughes put it), it seems Boswell was motivated only by sympathy and that all he received from the convicts was a packet of "Botany Bay tea leaves". The tea was found with papers at Boswell's Malahide Estate in Ireland in 1930. It and the papers are today at Yale University. In 1956 two of the leaves were presented to the Mitchell Library in New South Wales by Yale University Library, in honour of the Hon. Douglas M. Moffat, United States Ambassador and Yale Alumnus. The leaves were identified as coming from the plant Smilax glyciphylla, commonly known as "wild sarsaparilla", a small vine found mainly on the east coast of Australia.
In popular culture
Bryant was the subject of a British/Australian television movie The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant, with Romola Garai playing the eponymous role, Jack Davenport and Sam Neill. It was first screened in Australia on 30 October 2005 on Network Ten as a two 2-hour part series. It was screened in the UK over Easter weekend 2006 on ITV. It was not completely historically accurate.
She also featured heavily in Timberlake Wertenbaker's play Our Country's Good, which itself was based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker. Both centre on the first Australian settlers' decision to stage a performance of The Recruiting Officer, and the action ends just at the point of Bryant's escape. In the play, she is referred to by a nickname, Dabby Bryant.
The Mary Bryant story also featured in Patrick Edgeworth's play Boswell for the Defence. A huge success in London in 1989, it starred Leo McKern.
Books about Bryant
- Causer, Tim (2017) Memorandoms by James Martin: An Astonishing Escape from Early New South Wales . London: UCL Press ISBN 978-1-911576-82-2
- Cook, Judith (1993) To Brave Every Danger: the epic life of Mary Bryant of Fowey, highwaywoman and convicted felon, her transportation and amazing escape from Botany Bay. London: Macmillan ISBN 0-333-57438-9
- Currey, C. H. (1963) The Transportation, Escape and Pardoning of Mary Bryant (née Broad). Sydney: Angus and Robertson
- Durand, John (2005) "The Odyssey of Mary B" Elkhorn WI ISBN 0-9743783-1-3
- Erickson, Carolly (2005) The Girl From Botany Bay. Hoboken, NJ.: John Wiley ISBN 0-471-27140-3
- Hausman, Gerald & Loretta (2003) Escape from Botany Bay: the true story of Mary Bryant. New York: Orchard Books ISBN 0-439-40327-8
- Hughes, Robert The Fatal Shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787–1868. New York: Knopf ISBN 1-86046-150-6
- Kampen, Anthony van (1968) Het leven van Mary Bryant. 3 vols. Bussum: Unieboek NV (in Dutch)
- King, Jonathan (2004) Mary Bryant: her life and escape from Botany Bay. Pymble, N.S.W.: Simon & Schuster Australia
- Pearse, Lesley (2003) Remember Me. London: Michael Joseph (London: Penguin Books, 2004 ISBN 0-14-100649-8) (historical novel)
- Pottle, Frederick A. (1938) Boswell and the Girl from Botany Bay. London: Heinemann
- Scutt, Craig (2007) Mary Bryant: The Impossible Escape. Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia; Black Dog Books ISBN 978-1-921167-61-4
- Veitch, Anthony Scott (1980) Spindrift, The Mary Bryant Story: a colonial saga. Australia: Angus & Robertson Publishers ISBN 0-207-14409-5
- Walker, Mike (2005) A Long Way Home. Chichester; Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley
- "Bryant, Mary (1765–1794)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
- James Martin (2014). Causer, Tim (ed.). Memorandoms. Rampant Lions Press. Retrieved 15 January 2014.
- Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 1987 London: Collins Harvill, page 205
- London Chronicle, 7–10 July 1792
- Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 1987, paperback 1996 ISBN 1-86046-150-6
- Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 1987 London: Collins Harvill, page 209
- Tim., Causer, Dr. Memorandoms by James Martin : An Astonishing Escape from Early New South Wales. [Place of publication not identified]. ISBN 9781911576846. OCLC 1013782408.
- "Leaves from Botany Bay used as tea". Manuscripts, Oral History and Pictures catalogue. State Library of NSW. Retrieved 20 February 2013.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 21 February 2015. Retrieved 9 October 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Lesley Pearse". www.lesleypearse.com. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
- Keneally, Meg (2019). Fled : a novel (1st North American ed.). New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 9781948924269. OCLC 1084631431.
- Hughes, Sarah (13 April 2019). "Mary Bryant's great escape from Australian prison comes to life in novel". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 13 August 2019.
- "Bec Applebee - Darke Women Tour Information". becapplebee.com. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
- Parish registers for Fowey, 1803–1970. Microfilm of original records in the Cornwall Record Office, Truro, Cornwall. Cornwall Record Office call nos.: DDP/66/1/9, 18, 21–23.
- Cornwall parish registers, marriages. Vol. 8, p. 1–54 Phillimore, 1905
- Devon Quarter Sessions. Epiphany 1786, DRO-QS32/73, Christmas Session 1786. Gaol Calendar.
- Mary Bryant movie at The Internet Movie Database
- First Fleet Online at University of Wollongong
- Mary Broad Christening and Family information from IGI