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December 15, 2017

Convicted Australians

On this day in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip brought the first British convict ships to anchor in Botany Bay, Australia. Over the next eighty years 825 such ships would bring 160,000 men and women to serve their "transportation" sentence -- seven years for most, fourteen or life for some, no time at all for the significant number unable to survive the eight-month voyage. Captain Phillip went on to become the first Governor of Australia, and today became Australia Day -- the nation so proud of being bad-to-the-bone that web sites such as convictcentral.com offer a full listing of all those transported and an adopt-a-service for those disappointed to find no founding criminals in the family tree.

The most famous of these convicts, fictively speaking, is Magwitch from Great Expectations; his rise from "warmint" to wealth was not typical, but possible, and most earned a trade or land. More recent books in this line include Thomas Keneally's The Playmaker, adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker into the award-winning play, Our Country's Good. Keneally's story is based upon a real one: a group of convicts at the Sydney prison colony are recruited by one of the local officers to perform George Farquhar's 1706 comedy, The Recruiting Officer in honor of the King's birthday -- the myriad of obstacles including only two copies of the text and a leading lady who might be hanged before opening night. The life of such women is told in Sian Rees's, The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and its Cargo of Female Convicts. Keneally has also written a novelized history book on his nation's origins; the opening paragraphs of A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia (2007) emphasize the improbability of those first convicts surviving, let alone becoming a nation:

    The merchant ships of the fleet were to return to Britain after discharging their felons, picking up cargoes of cotton and tea in China and India on the return journey. But because this outward cargo was debased, some in Britain expected never to hear again from the fleet's passengers. It was believed they would become a cannibal kingdom on the coast they were bound for, and -- one way or another -- devour each other.
The 2001 Booker winner is True History of the Kelly Gang, a novel of second-generation shipped convicts by Peter Carey (photo above). This is written in the voice and ungrammatical style of an 8000-word letter dictated by Kelly in 1879, a year before his death, and now in the State Library of Victoria. Kelly's letter is part personal history and part manifesto, an account of his crimes and convictions made for mass circulation. He delivered it for printing "when the Bank at Jerilderie was stuck-up in Feby 1879," but those pledged to do so turned the letter over to the police instead. This event comes near the end of Carey's book; his Kelly has "the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS . . . deep in his bone and marrow," and is no longer surprised at betrayal. When he catches up to the printer responsible, he does not even kill him:
    I imagined myself v. calm but Joe later told me the pupils of my eyes had turned an unholy red. Goodnight said I or so I'm told then turned and walked out of the window.
    That night the Kelly Gang made camp by light of rain & lightning strikes and while the boys lay quiet as dogs wrapped up in their coats I sat with my backside in a puddle my oilskin above my candle & my paper.
    I begun again they could not prevent it. I were the terror of the government being brung to life in the cauldron of the night. . . .
Kelly tries "by flooded creek by light of moon" all that winter to recreate his letter; when he cannot, he turns instead to making armor from ploughshares. His bucket-shaped helmet and breastplate are also in the Victoria Library.

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