October 18, 2017
Convicted AustraliansOn 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:
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. . . .
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