200 year old story – Russian convict in Australia

Most family historians in Australia are proud to have a convict in their family ancestry since modern history of Australia started from convict transportation in 1787.

But not many Australians know that amongst nearly 160,000 convicts who arrived to Australia over the years there were some with Russian origin.  There were also people of non-Russian background among convicts who called Russia as their birthplace.

  • Constantine Milcow, native of Moscow, 33 years of age, breaker by trade, sentenced in London on 10 May 1815, sent to Australia for seven years.
  • John Potocki (1762-1824) – a native of Belorussia who could speak Russian and, as he said, was an ex-servicemen of the Russian Army -was arrested in England, deported to the colonies and arrived to Tasmania with the first Tasmanian fleet in 1804.
  • John Johnson, a sawyer, was born in Archangel about 1783, in 1816 was sentenced to a 7 year term in Australia for a stolen hat, arrived in Sydney on 7 November 1818 on the “Morley” ship.
  • Joseph Aurora said he was from Russia, but his ethnic origin is not clear.

This story is about Abraham Van Brienen, who was born in Archangel about 1789, Protestant by religion and merchant by trade.  Convicts records website notes the following about Abraham:

‘He was a well-educated gentleman with an excellent knowledge of English, German and French languages. …….On the day of arrival he sent the Governor Macquarie a letter, probably, with a request to ease his fate and an attachment of a recommendation reference written in French by ‘le compte de Lieven’ – the Russian Ambassador in London, who had written that the Van Brienen’s family in Russia belongs to the ‘une Famille de la premiere respectabeleté dimi celeé en Russie’ and Brienen himself enjoyed ‘une reputation sans pache et admis dans la premiere societe’.”

In Russia

And indeed, Brienen family was a respectable one in Russia.  The first known member of the family- Rutger van Brienen (Рутгер ван Бринен) or otherwise known as Rodion Fanbrin -was born in Hamburg in 1680 and had Netherlands roots.  He came to Russia at the beginning of 18th century and founded a trading office in Archangel. His commercial operations expanded over the years and Rutger became one of the leading foreign merchants in Archangel.  He specialized in the delivery of wine from overseas, exported grain, fur, bacon and fat of marine mammals and fish.

After Rutger’s death his sons successfully continued the family business trading under the name “Rutger van Brienen’s sons”, in particular his son Abraham 1st (1702 -1792).  In 1788 the company ranked the first among other trading companies operating in the Russian North.  It had the office in St Petersburg and connections at the Imperial Court and in the government.

Abraham 1st (son) took Russian citizenship and joined St. Petersburg merchant society, even though the foreign trade operations of the company were mainly through Arkhangelsk. He married Elizabeth Vernizobr.

Out of 7 sons only three continued the family business – Abraham 2nd (1760- 1813), Solomon (? – 1827) and Zahariy.  The brothers were well known and respected people in Russian society. Some members of the family were appointed as Austrian, Portugal and Prussian consuls in Archangel.

At the beginning of 19th century the company purchased its own mill to benefit from export of Archangel lumber and also became engaged in the construction of ships.  By 1809 the family had 32 ships, second only to the company “Brandt Rodde and K”.

After the death of Rutger’s grandchildren the firm was headed by his great-grandson Abraham Van Brienen (Abraham 3rd, the son of Abraham 2nd).  Historical records describe him as person with unbalanced nature.  During his life the matters of the company deteriorated.  He downgraded to status of merchant of 3rd guild and a stockbroker in Archangel.

Russian records indicate that he was born around 1795.  The Australian convict Abraham van Brienen (by Australian records) was born in Archangelsk about 1789. That , subject to proof, leaves little room for imagination.  It appears that Abraham 3rd became an Australian convict.

It is known that convict Abraham van Brienen was arrested when living in London and exiled to Australia for 7 years.  He arrived in Sydney on 22 September 1820, aged about 25-31.

In Australia

Originally Brienen was sent to work to Emu Plains, then to Port Dalrymple in the North of Tasmania.  At last in 1822 he managed to find a clerk position (his handwriting was really perfect) in the Paramatta Commissariat Office. Soon after that he wrote a petition of mitigation of sentence (in excellent French) to the new Governor.

During these years Brienen attracted attention of the authorities by unsubstantiated revelation about his management or by escape from the place of work, but somehow he managed to have got away with all that for educated people were a value for the colony.

In 1823 Brienen was enjoying a comfortable life in Sydney working as a clerk and hanging around in the local high society, something he was accustomed to back in Russia.

But in the end of 1823 he was arrested for operation with a forged check and put into the Sydney Gaol, and then sent to Port Macquarie – a convict camp for repeat offenders till the end of his term. Having done his time, he managed to return to England in 1828. But there he was arrested again for document forgery and sent to Australia again where he arrived on the “Surrey” in 1834 with life sentence. Now he had a new name of Alexander Brannon. He was only 45, a worn-out old man – nearly bald with grey hair, lacking half of his teeth.

During 1830s he was known to work on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour at quarrying stone.  He died on 10 December 1844, aged 55.  The location of grave unknown.


Russian sources

In preparation of the article on Brienen the following funds have been used by various researchers : Russian State archive of Ancient Acts ( archive ) -fund 273 Commerce chambers papers which include the files of provincial offices on income and expenditure of money related to supply of wine, the construction of bridges, collection of fees for the period from 1700 to 1824, State archive of Archangel region and the Archive of the Institute of Russian History (St. Petersburg branch) .


Other resources





The book- Die van Brienen und ihre Sippe in Archangel. Aus dem Leben einer Kolonie, Berlin, 1936; Veluwenkamp J. W., The Purchase and Export of Russian Commodities in 1741 by Dutch Merchants Established at Archangel, Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship in early Modern Times. Merchant and Industrialists within the Orbit of the Dutch Staple Market, Den Haag, 1995.

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