The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce

By Lisa Marie Griffith

This weekend I watched Australian/Irish production The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008) about the infamous Irish convict turned cannibal.  Last year I had a complaint from an Australian tourist on my walking tour that I did not deal in enough detail with the Irish transported to Australia but I doubt this was what they had in mind! Alexander Pearce (played by Ciaran McMenanin in the film) is probably Australia/Ireland’s most famous cannibal and his execution in 1824 was reported on around the world. Pearce was born in Clones, Co Monaghan in 1790, and seems to have worked as a farm labourer in Co. Fermanagh. In 1819 he was convicted for stealing 6 pairs of shoes and was transported to Van Diemen’s land to serve seven years for theft.  The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, a made-for-tv-film, looks at how this petty criminal turned into a cannibal. Pearce and seven other convicts escape from the prison and try to strike for the nearest urban settlement. Lost in the vast countryside, their provisions soon run out and the will to survive  takes over.

After 50 days crossing Van Diemen’s land Pearce was the only survivor. He made his way to the villate of Jericho but was captured soon after. He confessed his crime but was not believed! Local authorities thought he had invented the story about cannibalism to account for the whereabouts of the other seven escapees and that they were still at large. He was returned to his prison, escaped again and once more turned to cannibalism but this time he had not yet run out of provisions. Pearce was executed for murder 19 July 1824 and the sketch attached is a picture of him by Thomas Brook.

The tale of Alexander Pearce is recounted in the film by his confessor an Irish priest, Father Connolly (played by Adrian Dunbar). The film touches nicely on the relationship between the Irish church and the British government in Van Diemen’s land. By 1824 the Catholic Church was being brought into the confidence of the government in the hope of better governing and pacifying Catholic Ireland. This led to tensions on the ground which the film draws out. Fr Connolly seems happy to dine with representatives of the British government in Van Diemen’s land who view Pearce as a savage and appear to link his behaviour in come way with his Catholic faith and his nationality. Connolly sympathises with his fellow-country man and the suffering he has faced at the hands of the authorities yet struggles to recognise Pearce’s crimes as the actions of a fellow-countryman.

The film is an extreme, yet interesting, look at the effects that transportation and hard labour can have on the mind. I am pretty squeamish and did feel a little nauseous at points. Although little is known about Pearce, considering his notoriety, and how far across the British Empire his story spread, it could easily be argued that he merits an entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. Surely some contemporary news paper accounts could shed some more light on his life? I found a variety of different accounts with slight variances of detail about Pearce’s life but the article on the Independent website seems reliable enough. If anyone knows any more details or sources about the story please leave us a message below. The film can be downloaded here.

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9 Responses to “The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce”

  1. bjg Says:

    Oddly enough, I found myself reading about cannibalism in an Irish context recently, when I was directed to “Cannibalism and the common law: a Victorian yachting tragedy” by Alfred William Brian Simpson, much if not all of which appears to be available in http://books.google.com [http://books.google.com/books?id=vIZ7bFBjV0YC&lpg=PP1&dq=%22victorian%20yachting%20tragedy%22&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false].

    My interest was in the case of the crew of the /Francis Spaight/ from Limerick whose captain decided, after the vessel was disabled in 1835, that it was best to kill and eat the four boys in the crew “as they had no families, and could not be considered so great a loss to their friends, as those who had wives and children depending upon them.” Of the original crew of 18, 11 survived. “No attempt whatsover was made to conceal what had occurred [...] no legal proceedings against captain or crew were apparently even contemplated.”

    The case of Pearce is discussed briefly in the book, but the main reason I mention it is that Simpson suggests that, under the “custom of the sea” (Ch 5), cannibalism was acceptable and perhaps even to be expected when the food had run out.

    bjg

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for that- I will have a read through! The person I watched this with asked me about cannibalism during the famine- I am not a nineteenth century historian but do teach a survey course on modern Irish history and have not across references to. Perhaps it is something that happened but has gone uncommented about and has fallen out of popular memory?

    It is interesting that this was something that happened at sea and seems to have been thought of as understandable in certain circumstances. The date of the case you mention is also quite close to Pearce. I think that Pearce was seen as such a horrendous figure because he was already a criminal and as such adhered to most nineteenth century concepts of an evile criminal. It didn’t help of course that he did this twice- the second time he had quite clearly lost his mind either through the torture he had endured in the prison or through the guilt of having first committed the crime.

    Your story, and the failure to prosecute these men reminds me of having heard a paper on Infanticide by Cliona Rattigan at the IHS seminars a few years back. There seems to have been high rates of infanticide in Ireland the first half of the twentieth century and there was a definite reluctance to prosecute or impose lengthy sentences on these women many of whom were considered to have been trapped in their situation.

    Lisa

  3. bjg Says:

    Cormac Ó Gráda says “There were even rumours of cannibalism, at least in the more restricted sense of the flesh of victims being eaten by survivors [...]” in a paper available here: http://www.ucd.ie/economics/research/papers/2004/WP04.25.pdf

    bjg

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for that- it is something I must remember to mention during my famine lecture in a few months time… wake up the people who are asleep at the back. I have been meaning to read Cormac Ó Gráda’s book, Famine, for ages!

    Thanks,
    Lisa

  5. bjg Says:

    I’m currently reading James S Donnelly’s *The Great Irish Potato Famine*, which is highly readable but entirely scholarly. It’s my bedside book of the week!

    bjg

  6. puesoccurrences Says:

    I have too many books beside my bed at the moment… I am actually afraid of adding any more… I try and read one fiction, one history book and I am trying to read some material relevant for my courses at the moment. I have Lucy Worsley’s Courtiers and Tom Garvin’s News From a New Republic close to the top of the pile… maybe I can slip in O’Grada then.

    Too many books… not enough time. Maybe a mandatory reading week (not admin, not correcting- just reading) can be introduced for the teaching and research staff of third level institutions? I think everyone would be in a better mood after spending a week of uninterrupted reading in the library… Maybe that’s just me?

    Lisa

  7. · Ruth’s Recommendations Says:

    [...] Occurrences The Irish History Blog had an interesting post called “The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce”. Lisa Marie Griffith writes about a television program that she watched this weekend called [...]

  8. Outlawed Films (@OutlawedFilms) Says:

    Hi Lisa

    I thought I might be able to add a little background to the historical sources used in our film. Unfortunately all records of Alexander Pearce’s life in Ireland pre-transportation were lost when Armagh Court House was destroyed during the 1920′s. What we do know is that he was a rural farm labourer from the parish of Clones and may have resided in either Monaghan or Fermanagh.

    Following his transportation to Australia, like all convicts, Alexander Pearce was incredibly well documented within the penal system.

    When researching the film, we looked at all records concerning Pearce that still exist today. Many are found only in the NSW State Library and in Tasmania but there are a few wonderful books that expand on the story;

    1) Dan Sprod’s ‘Alexander Pearce of Macquarie Harbour : convict – bushranger – cannibal’
    2) Paul Collins ‘Hell’s Gates – The Terrible Journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Diemen’s Land Cannibal.’

    In addition, Alexander Pearce made four confessions, which incredibly have all survived. The first was to the commandant of Sarah Island, John Cuthbertson, the second was to the magistrate Robert Knopwood during his trial, the third to the gaoler in Hobart, John Bisdee and his last confession was to the priest Philip Connolly, his fellow country man, hours before his execution.

    It was from this final confession that we based the The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, as we considered this to be the most engaging and confronting narrative.

    Nial Fulton
    Producer – The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce

    nb* I should also point out that Alexander Pearce was not the only cannibal in Van Diemen’s Land. A Scottish convict by the name of Mark Jefferies was a notorious convict escapee who murdered and ate some of his comrades.

  9. puesoccurrences Says:

    Nial- Many thanks for all of that- really interesting!
    Lisa

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