The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce: Australia's cannibal convict

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It's an historical episode that Australians don’t talk about much – after all, cannibalism by one’s ancestors is not the stuff of dinner party conversation. But now the story of Alexander Pearce, an Irish convict who ate his comrades while on the run, is being retold in a new film that has stirred debate in both Australia and Ireland.

The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, made in Australia and starring two Northern Irish actors, opened in Tasmania recently and was shown on Ireland’s RTE Television on Monday. The film’s rather chilling tagline is: “No man knows what hunger will make him do.”

Pearce, a farm labourer, was transported to Australia in 1819 for stealing six pairs of shoes, and ended up on Sarah Island, a notoriously harsh penal colony off the west coast of Tasmania. Flogged repeatedly for the slightest misdemeanour, tortured and brutalised, he decided to escape, along with seven fellow prisoners.

Hacking through dense wilderness previously unpenetrated by white men, pursued by their jailors, and with little food to sustain them, the fugitives quickly grew desperate. They made their awful decision, targeting first Alexander Dalton. Robert Greenhill, a former sailor, cut Dalton’s throat, then Matthew Travers, a former butcher, decapitated him. All but two of the men consumed his flesh.

And so it went on, for seven weeks, until only Pearce and Greenhill were left alive. With Greenhill exhausted, Pearce killed and ate him. Finally recaptured, he confessed all to the British authorities, who refused to believe him. Surely no European would commit such horrific crimes?

Pearce was sent back to Sarah Island, but soon escaped again, together with an English convict, Thomas Cox. When caught, Pearce was lying beside the remains of Cox. This time, the evidence was irrefutable.

Pearce, who is played by Ciaran McMenamin, was convicted of murder and hanged in 1824. Before he died, though, he made a detailed confession to an Irish Catholic priest. Father Philip Conolly (played by Adrian Dunbar), who had been sent out to minister to the Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) penal colony, visited Pearce, chained to a wall in Hobart Jail.

The film, which will also be shown on British television, presents a surprisingly sympathetic picture of Pearce. Its Irish-Australian writer, Nial Fulton, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that, while he did not condone cannibalism, “I can empathise with the men that were on Sarah Island, I can empathise with the notion of doing anything to escape that kind of horror.”..

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