W.H. Fernyhough (1809-1849)
J.G. Austin, Sydney
Indigenos de nouvelle hollande, 1824
[Natives of New Holland]
Jules Lejeune
Pen and ink
Service Central Hydrographique de la Marine, Paris

Told by James F. O’Connell (The Tattooed Man)
Extract from
A residence of eleven years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands: Being the adventures of James F. O’Connell. Edited from his verbal narration.
B.B. Mussey, Boston, 1836, pages 29-31

The tale of the ‘Rum Cove’ of Sydney is told by a seafaring character every bit as colourful as Bungaree himself. When James F. O’Connell (1808-1854) appeared at the Lion Circus in New York in 1835 he was the first tattooed man to be exhibited in a public show in the United States of America.

A former cabin boy and sailor of Irish origin, O’Connell claimed that the blue, black and red patterns on his arms were acquired during four years spent as a captive after being shipwrecked at Ponape (now Pohnpei in Micronesia), one of the Caroline Islands north east of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean. 

The Tattooed Man
The life and adventures of James F. O’Connell, the tattooed man
W. Applegate, New York, 1845

Keith Vincent Smith

Billed as the ‘Celebrated Tattooed Man’, James O’Connell appeared on stage all over the United States in showman P. T. Barnum’s American Museum. He danced the Irish jig and the Sailor’s hornpipe and brought clog dancing to North America.

O’Connell had many imaginative stories to tell in the book he dictated, A residence of eleven years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands, which was first published in Boston in August 1836.

It seems, however, that the person known as James F. O’Connell sprang into being at the same time as the Tattooed Man. It was not his real name. There is no verifiable record of anyone of that name either being born in Thomas Street, Dublin in 1808, as he claims, or in the crews of the various ships he mentions.

It is likely that O’Connell was either a runaway convict from New South Wales or a sailor who deserted his ship and changed his name to evade recapture and return to Australia.

By his own account, James O’Connell sailed from Ireland to Liverpool as a boy to join his parents in a travelling circus in which his mother was a horseback rider and his father a costumer for a male horse rider. After learning a few tumbling tricks, O’Connell says he shipped as a cabin boy at the age of eleven aboard the convict transport Phoenix to Port Jackson, arriving in 1820.

This is just the first problem in what historian Saul H. Riesenberg in a reprint of the book (ANU Press, Canberra, 1972) characterises as ‘a maze of exaggerations, anachronisms, improbabilities, and outright fabrications, commingled with thoroughly accurate and original observations’. 

There is no record of the ship Phoenix in Sydney in 1820. However, the convict transport Phoenix left London in November 1821 and arrived in Sydney on 7 June 1822 after landing 182 prisoners at Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land.

After running aground on the Sow and Pigs reef just inside Sydney Heads this ship was moored in Lavender Bay for many years as a prison hulk. The Sydney Gazette of Wednesday 31 December 1826 reported that a vessel called the Phoenix left Dublin on 29 August 1826 with 189 male convicts. To cloud matters, O’Connell says ‘his’ Phoenix carried 200 female convicts who were disembarked at Sydney.

O’Connell’s catalogue of adventures records that he spent six years in New South Wales and accompanied Surveyor General John Oxley on an exploration of the Wellington Valley. In 1822 he was on a whaler, the Cape Packet, wrecked in northern Australia, and then took nine months to return to Sydney overland. In 1826, he claims, he was shipwrecked on the John Bull and held captive for four years at ‘Ponape’ in the Caroline Islands. Once ashore, he says, circus tricks and lively performances of Irish jigs saved his skin from the hostile islanders.

I struck into Garry Owen and figured away in that famous jig to the best of my ability and agility; and my new acquaintances were amazingly delighted thereat.

He was tattooed in the fashion of the inhabitants by a chief’s daughter, whom he married. He escaped and was thrown into gaol in the Phillipines, from which he again escaped, this time to China. He took ship to North America, arriving in New York in 1835.

This all throws some doubt on O’Connell’s story, the name of the ship on which he sailed and its date of arrival, which must have been after 1824 and possibly as late as 1826. However, the bare facts of his description of Bungaree are accurate enough when compared with contemporary accounts.

On the other hand, the story might be a complete fabrication, as all this material could have been cobbled together, using Peter Cunningham’s Two Years in New South Wales (1827), from which the author has borrowed material on Aboriginal beliefs, and a work such as Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, compiled by the rotund Francis Grose, father of Major Francis Grose, commander of the New South Wales (Rum) Corps and acting governor 1792-1794. Published in 1785, Grose senior’s book explained the ‘cant’ or ‘flash’ criminal language of low-life London.

The two officials mentioned in the final sentence quoted above confirm the physical presence of The Tattooed Man in Sydney at this period. Dr. James Bowman, who had been a Navy surgeon, was principal surgeon at Sydney Hospital from 1819 to 1827 and afterwards inspector of colonial hospitals until 1836. Frederick Augustus Hely (or Healey) was appointed superintendent of convicts in January 1823.

More persuasive to me is O’Connell’s claim that he was employed for one year by Charles Smith (1800-1845), an emancipated convict and racehorse owner, who kept a butcher’s shop in George Street, Sydney and raised livestock at Bungarribee station at Eastern Creek, near the present Doonside. Charles Smith was well-known for his kindness to Indigenous People. See my Dictionary of Sydney entry ‘Aboriginal life around Port Jackson after 1822.’

O’Connell ‘jigs’ in America, from the 1845 edition.

O’Connell’s account was ‘edited from his verbal narration’ by ‘H.H.W.’, identified by Riesenberg as Horatio Hastings Weld, a Boston writer, printer and newspaper editor who wrote on maritime subjects. The copy of his book in Sydney’s Mitchell Library belonged to its founder James Mitchell. It is a tiny book of 256 pages, bound in the original green cloth covers embossed with leaves and flowers, with O’Connell’s Adventures printed in gilt letters, surrounding a globe on the spine.

James O’Connell, the Tattooed Man, died in New Orleans on 29 January 1854 from the effects of chemicals used to produce electricity for stage lighting.

[Adapted and updated from Appendix 111 ‘The Rum Cove’, pages 174-176 in Keith Vincent Smith, King Bungaree, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst NSW, 1992]


[Addition at 16 January 2019]

The story told by an ex-convict named Sheppard, who came to Sydney on the brig Governor Macquarie from Tahiti in 1826 is startlingly similar to that of the Tattooed Man James O’Connell.

According to the Sydney Gazette (11 November 1826, page 3) Sheppard had been transported to Australia on the ship  Ocean ‘some years ago’. He had gained his freedom two years before and joined a ship that was seized in New Zealand by Maori.

The chartered trading ship Ocean brought convicts to the settlement in Sullivan Cove in Van Diemens Land, now Hobart, Tasmania, in 1803.

The Sydney Gazette continued:

Sheppard, however, contrived to escape from the savages, and made his way to Otaheite [Tahiti], where he was kindly received by the chief of a tribe, whose daughter he subsequently married, according to the custom of the country.

He settled on the island and had established a sugar plantation for 18 months when he was threatened by a person who had known him in New South Wales who said he was a runaway convict. Sheppard was put in irons and taken to Sydney, where he was freed. The Gazette added this intriguing snippet:

He is tatooed [sic] after the manner of the natives of that island, to which operation, he states, he was compelled to submit, or lose his head.

Sheppard enjoyed one month of freedom in Sydney before he was set on and robbed by four men who forced him towards the Prisoner’s Barracks in Macquarie Street. They stripped off his jacket, ‘his pockets ransacked, and the fruits of a six months hard earning taken from him’, reported The Australian newspaper (13 December 1826, page 3).

Nothing is afterwards heard of Sheppard.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2018/ 2020