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CONVICT AUSTRALIA’S GREAT ESCAPE MYTHSTour-To-Hell

  Tour To Hell (UQ Press) tells the true story of a fascinating but little-known aspect of Australia’s early convict days – the myths of escape that fired many dreams of liberty throughout the penal colony, particularly amongst convicts transported from Ireland.

Founded in 1788 as the world’s most remote penal colony, Sydney presented formidable natural barriers – thousands of miles of ocean to the east, thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness to the west. These were very effective de facto prison walls.

But within a few years, convicts had other ideas about the daunting unknown around them. Tales arose of white colonies across the nearby Blue Mountains with churches and masted ships, a nation of ‘copper-coloured people’ beyond a river just north of Sydney – places where Irish and other escapees hoped to find sanctuary, or even a way home.

The first convict 'Chinese travellers' went eastwards along the Parramatta River in 1791 (seen here from Sydney, 1797) but were soon bewildered in the extensive scrub.

The first convict ‘Chinese travellers’ went east along the Parramatta River in 1791 but were soon lost in the extensive scrub. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an2716983-v)

These ideas were often corroborated – perhaps even originated – by Aborigines, and they inspired many escapes. Governors Hunter and King, exasperated by these unexpected and destabilising myths of liberation, both mounted inland expeditions aimed at disproving the existence of the mythical ‘white colony’.

Convict escape myths appear in the historical record from 1791 until about 1830 and peaked between 1798 and 1803. Their role in colonial development has to date remained largely unexamined. But they prompted some of the most wide-ranging early explorations and had a surprisingly close relationship to the parallel ‘official’ myth of the inland sea.

Escape mythology could be said to constitute the first genuine folklore of colonial Australia.

It offers unique insight into the convict imagination, and shows how imagination helped shape the development and exploration of a continent.

Tour To Hell combines tales of escape, exploration and bushranging with a new look at Australia’s most reluctant first settlers coming to grips with the harsh and foreign landscape of their new home. It is the first book devoted solely to this chapter of Australia’s story.

For reviews, escape to HERE, or to order online run away to THIS PAGE

Tour To Hell has placed in the following literary awards:
Alex Buzo Prize 2009, awarded to shortlisted finalists of the CAL Waverley Library Award For Literature (The Nib).
Honourable Mention, Manning Clark House National Cultural Award 2008
Commended, Melbourne University Publishing Award 2008
(Fellowship of Australian Writers National Literary Awards) 

Australia Day (January 26): The day of national celebration now goes way beyond commemorating the beginnings of the penal colony that became modern Australia, but what actually happened when the First Fleet finished anchoring in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788?
From the First Fleet journals of Governor Phillip and Judge Advocate David Collins:
By John Allcot (nla.pic-an7891482)

By John Allcot (nla.pic-an7891482)

PHILLIP: In the evening of the 26th the colours were displayed on shore, and the Governor, with several of his principal officers and others, assembled round the flagstaff, drank the king’s health, and success to the settlement.

COLLINS: In the evening of this day [i.e January 26] the whole of the party that came round in the Supply [i.e the governor] were assembled at the point where they had first landed in the morning, and on which a flagstaff had been purposely erected and a union jack displayed, when the marines fired several vollies; between which the governor and the officers who accompanied him drank the healths of his Majesty and the Royal Family, and success to the new colony. The day, which had been uncommonly fine, concluded with the safe arrival of the Sirius and the convoy from Botany Bay.
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The convicts began to be landed over the next few days. Few wanted to be there, and some were so desperate to escape that they took to the bush, fleeing several miles south hoping to get aboard the French ships commanded by La Perouse, then at anchor at Botany Bay. And so began the history of escape in colonial Australia, leading to the strange myths of bush sanctuaries described in Tour To Hell. Read all about it!
tourhellbookcover
I wish to correct a false impression I mistakenly gave in Tour To Hell about the death of William Buckley, the famous convict runaway feted as the ‘Wild White Man’ after three decades in the bush with indigenous people. On p245 I wrote: ‘On 30 January 1856… Buckley died after falling under a cart at Arthur Circus, in Hobart’s Battery Point’.
Convict runaway William Buckley
Buckley did indeed die at Arthur Circus that day, but the cart accident happened about six weeks’ beforehand on Constitution Hill, between Kempton and Bagdad on the Midlands Highway north of Hobart. Arthur Circus was Buckley’s street address – he died at home.
Arthur Circus, Hobart

Arthur Circus, Hobart

Here’s the full story from a contemporary news report (Hobart’s Courier, 31 January, 1856):
Buckley was thrown out of a gig at Constitution Hill about a week before Christmas-day last.
He remained insensible about two minutes after the fall, and upon recovering his senses found he had lost the use of his limbs.
He was received into St Mary’s Hospital on the 9th January, having been under medical treatment for a fortnight without experiencing any relief.
Upon admission he was unable to move any of his limbs, complained of a cutting pain across the loins, and could not lie long in one position.
He was discharged on the 18th, after undergoing medical treatment, upon the request of himself and wife, and died last night.

A follow-up on earlier posts re the Wild White Man William Buckley, a remarkable convict of Australia’s penal colony era who has his own chapter in my Tour To Hell.

The amazing survival of this hardy escapee after three decades in the bush (1803-1835) is thought to have inspired the Australian phrase Buckley’s Chance, meaning a very slim one.

But what is the earliest published evidence of this saying?

As Trove increasingly digitises Australia’s newspapers, earlier mentions keep popping up. Here’s one from an anonymous sporting columnist in the Daily News (Perth), March 21st, 1892.

In his Sporting News From Victoria (dated March 8), one ‘Nunquam Dormio’ [i.e. ‘I Never Sleep’] writes that had a horse named The Duke been fit to compete in a certain race, ‘he might have sneaked ahead so far in the first mile and a half that they wouldn’t have had Buckley’s chance of catching him afterwards’.

As the context strongly suggests the saying is already a well-known cliché, there must be earlier examples as yet unearthed. Thanks to Trove we have more than Buckley’s of finding them!

If something has ‘Buckley’s’ or ‘Buckley’s chance’, it has almost no chance at all. This Australian colloquialism is usually said to derive from the unlikely survival of William Buckley, a convict who fled a remote penal outpost (near present-day Melbourne) in 1803 to spend 32 years living with Aborigines.

Buckley has his own chapter in my Tour To Hell, as he was a particularly interesting and well-documented example of a ‘Chinese traveller’ – a runaway convict inspired to risk the bush by the curious belief that China was accessible overland from Australia.

In Tour To Hell I also mention my belief that the alternative explanation for the term Buckley’s Chance – a pun on the long-defunct Melbourne department store Buckley & Nunn – does not necessarily exclude William Buckley.

The pun, which says an unlikely outcome has two chances – Buckley’s and none – gains an extra layer of cleverness if the first half nods to Buckley’s semi-miraculous return.

William Buckley (1780-1856), the 'Wild White Man'

Buckley & Nunn opened in 1851, around the same time that Buckley’s ghost-written autobiography (1852) popularised his story in a colony just beginning its gold-rush boom in population and prosperity. Does ‘Buckley’s Chance’ owe its origin to the coincidence of two very different Melbourne Buckleys coming to prominence in the same period?

We need to fast-forward four decades for the first known printed mention of the phrase. The earliest citing in A Dictionary Of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press, 1985) is Will Ogilvie’s poem Fair Girls And Gray Horses (1898), which has the lines:

But we hadn’t got a racehorse that was worth a dish of feed / So didn’t have a Buckley’s show to take the boasters down

However, here’s a couple of earlier mentions I’ve tracked down, inching back recorded usage a few years.

March 6, 1895: an Adelaide citizen writes to the South Australian Register, pleased that England won the latest cricket test because it showed Australians generally ‘haven’t Buckley’s chance’ against ‘the good old country and its people’. The letter, signed ‘Spade Guinea’, appeared in the paper the next day (7.3.1895). A little harsh there, Spade!

But the oldest mention (so far) is a boat, not a quote. What are the chances of that?

March 19, 1894: The Sydney Morning Herald lists a yacht named Buckley’s Chance (Neutral Bay Yacht Club) coming fourth in a Sydney Harbour race. Now that’s an odd name for a competitor to choose when you think about it…

Another excerpt from doctor/rugby international/author Herbert Moran’s surprisingly Tour-To-Hellish 1940s memoir Beyond The Hill Lies China (see previous post):

Here Moran, in London during the Blitz, tells how he found a metaphor for his life journey in the difficult flight into unknown territory undergone by convict runaways as they struggled towards an imagined freedom.

He is inspired and encouraged by how they staked everything on their belief, which he elevates to a vision of transcendence. Challis, his protagonist, is his barely fictionalised self.

Over to Moran:

‘He had come to identify himself with those convicts who, out of the enclosure of their settlement, had pushed forward, their pockets full of grain. Was he not kindred to them in a felony of the senses? The West Road was the symbol of their travail and their release. Did it not carry still the meager relics of their passing: crumbling stones with an arrow and a number, the dust over all? Yet those convicts had pushed on, exhilarated. They had seen summits and ranges with red dawns spilling over a distant peak. Beyond the Hill and across the Bay they had found a goal. God in His Mercy had given distance to their dream. What did it matter if, on the way, they shed the trivial remnant of their flesh?

Originally a gift in 1946

Challis thought on the years when he had blindly groped his way, years of precarious foothold, when the mountain peak was veiled in mists, when Faith had slumped through nights, when he had known the shame of self-pity and the yielding to it. He had been giddy on sudden heights and vain on little pinnacles. But now he, too, was pushing forward with those old shadows for company.’