August 1st is the horses’ birthday, but it also belongs to the whales, because Herman Melville was born this day in 1819.

437_Herman_Melville_photographIn January 1841, aged 21, Melville left America on the whaler Acushnet to spend four wild years roving about the Pacific, soaking up many an experience that led to his best writing. As he said, ‘A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’. In July 1842 he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and took up with a Polynesian tribe, the Typee. Although much feared as warlike cannibals, they treated him kindly.

Melville stayed a month with the Typee before setting off on another whaler, the chaotic Lucy Ann from Sydney, a ship so badly run the sailors mutinied and were jailed in Tahiti. This actually turned out well; soon freed, Melville enjoyed a stint of beachcombing and island hopping until joining a third whale ship, the Charles & Henry from Nantucket, on which he worked as a harpooner.

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This six-month cruise ended in Hawaii, where he worked three months ashore, carefully avoiding the Acushnet when it showed up (the captain still wanted his head on a stick for deserting). Eventually he got himself home by joining the U.S. Navy. In October 1844 Melville was discharged in Boston after a year or so with the frigate United States, and soon began writing, his muse aflame with all those maritime adventures.

His first novel, the best-selling Typee (1846), fictionalises his Marquesas sojourn. Its sequel Omoo (1847) covers the Lucy Ann mutiny and his beachcombing (Omoo is a Typee word for wanderer). His third, the highly strange Mardi (1848), is a first tilt at something deeper, a rambling oceanic odyssey awash with allegory and symbolism.

Mardi sold poorly, alas, prompting his return to semi-autobiography. Redburn (1849) was inspired by his first voyage, as a cabin boy in 1839, to Liverpool; this one is Melville at his most Dickensian. White-Jacket (1850) follows his naval career and was highly influential in ending flogging in the U.S. Navy.

Next came his second, and artistically triumphant, dive into mystical rhapsody – his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851), a book broiled in ‘hell-fire’, he once said. Of his subsequent works, all are worth exploring but I particularly recommend Bartleby (1853), one of the greatest, most subtly shattering short stories ever written and, unusually for Melville, set firmly on very dry land indeed – a lawyer’s office.

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Inspired by the Books Are Essential movement, I shall sporadically post Interesting & Inspirational Books Of Any Era.

Here’s an excellent novel set in Australia’s early convict past:

THE PLAYMAKER by Thomas Keneally

The first play staged in Australia was a sitcom, The Recruiting Officer, in 1789, with an all-convict cast and a First Fleet marine, Ralph Clark, directing. Keneally brings this bizarre colonial footnote to life in a bewitching blend of fact and plausible imaginings. Clark is sensitively handled, and his relationship with convict-actress Mary Brenham proves quite touching. IMG_E3067

Satisfying splashes of myth and magic often involve the kidnapped Eora man Arabanoo and Cornish ‘witch’ Mary Bryant (later a famous runaway).

Keneally is naturally fond of the colony’s writers such as David Collins and Watkin Tench, to whom we owe much of what we know about those times.

But his synthesis of the play’s content and progress with contemporary colonial doings – such as Arabanoo’s bond with Governor Phillip, marines hanged for theft and a London underworld transplanted intact – is The Playmaker‘s greatest triumph.

 

 

They’re still flogging copies (not convicts!) at the University of Queensland Press website. TOUR TO HELL tells the true tale of colonial Australia’s convict ‘escape mythology’.

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Escape mythology is my umbrella term for the bizarre beliefs that had runaway convicts convinced they could walk to China, find sanctuary with a mystery white society in the outback, or find the west coast of Australia (together with a port and a ship back home) just a short distance through the bush from Sydney.

Resurrected from contemporary sources (court records, colonial diaries and newspapers, etc) this strange corner of Australian history has never before been told in full. As well as documenting the most significant outbreak of the convict imagination in early colonial New South Wales, Tour To Hell casts valuable light on a fascinating but little-known aspect of first contact between European and Aboriginal people.

 

While researching for Tour To Hell, I came across an obscure but interesting convict, Colin Hunter, who was charged with ‘bush ranging’ on 6 February 1802. This is the earliest reference to the term bushranging I’ve located, three years older than the most commonly cited first-known mention (‘bush-rangers’ in the Sydney Gazette, 17.2.1805). There is an earlier one claimed (an 1801 manuscript by James Elder which calls a gang of convict runaways ‘Bushrangers’), but I’ve yet to see the original and the source citing it didn’t check out.

Even so, Hunter’s court appearance may be the earliest usage of ‘bushranging’ as a criminal offence, although the sense was no more than being illegally at large. His punishment was 100 lashes.

The term ‘bushranger’ obviously originated in the colony’s early years to define white people who left the settlements to wander the bush. As most doing this were runaway convicts, the term had criminal associations from the outset, even though early on it was also sometimes used for anyone skilled in bushcraft.

Over time the definition narrowed to denote outback banditry, as runaways tended to support themselves by theft. The title ‘bushranger’ has since been retrospectively applied to outlaws such as the First Fleet runaway John ‘Black’ Caesar, whose career predates the word. Caesar is usually called our first bushranger, probably because he was the first runaway to carry a gun, but Colin Hunter may have a pedantic technical claim to the title thanks to the wording of his charge in 1802.

Sydney in 1802. By W.S. Blake. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an6016088-v)

So who was Colin Hunter? Unusually, he came to Australia from Africa, as a soldier stationed at the Cape of Good Hope. The convict transport Royal Admiral, which arrived (via Cape Town) in November 1800, lists him in an addition to its indent as one of nine Cape soldiers ‘to be sent to New South Wales as convicts’.  His crime was noted simply as ‘felony’, his sentence unrecorded.

However, a later amendment to this list reveals that three of these soldiers (John Smith, Thomas Rice and William Conway) ‘did duty on board HM Ship Porpoise’, which reached Sydney a couple of weeks before the Royal Admiral. In other words, instead of joining the Royal Admiral at Cape Town as convicts they were put to work as soldiers on the HMS Porpoise. Hunter was probably recalled to this military duty too – the 1806 Colonial Muster has him as ‘Coll Hunter, Cape soldier’ who ‘came free’ on the Porpoise, employed by John Bishop.

Hunter’s status in the colony – flogged as a bushranging runaway in 1802 yet listed as a free arrival in 1806 – is rather enigmatic. Then, in July 1808, the Sydney Gazette describes him as a ‘servant of the Crown’ (that is, a convict) who has absconded from the Hawkesbury farm of Thomas Rickerby. The notice cautions against ‘harbouring or employing him on pain of prosecution’.

Curiouser and curiouser: just over a year later he’s back in the Gazette, now one of 14 men due to depart the colony in the vessel Endeavour. However, it appears he didn’t go. While we can’t rule out journalistic error (i.e. the listing was wrong) or identity theft (more than one man used the name), it seems Hunter was either denied permission to leave, or changed his mind. Had his Cape sentence expired by 1809? Did his unconventional secondment to the Porpoise give him an opportunity to pass himself off as a free man?

However, there’s no doubt that Hunter got into serious trouble over the next three years. By 1812-13 he was up at Newcastle, a penal outpost for colonial re-offenders. Paperwork for this transfer also notes him as a Porpoise arrival. He had escaped Newcastle by March 1813, and three years later was known to be bushranging with a man named George Fuller.

Newcastle penal outpost in 1812, when Colin Hunter was sent there

In September 1816 this pair recruited two convict farm servants to raid the property of John Miller at Canterbury (now a suburb in Sydney’s inner-west). On the evening of September 30th, Miller was relaxing by his fireside with his wife and four children. Four strangers – two armed – suddenly burst through the farmhouse door. Miller rose to his feet in alarm and was immediately shot dead by one of the intruders. Ignoring the terrified screams of Mrs Miller, the bushrangers threatened her life and proceeded to pillage the house.

At first Hunter blamed his accomplice Thomas Dooley for the shooting, but the others soon found that Hunter’s fowling piece had been fired. Later in court Hunter claimed his gun went off by accident. This may have been true, but it didn’t stop the plundering – even the children’s clothes were stolen.

With a free pardon and fifty pounds offered for the bushrangers, it wasn’t long before they were rounded up. Colin Hunter, Thomas Dooley and Michael Ryan were hanged in Sydney for murder and robbery on November 4th, 1816. Fuller saved himself by turning informer. The hanged men were suspended for an hour before their bodies went to the surgeon for dissection, standard legal procedure if the judge did not order gibbeting after execution.

So ended a colourful, unusual and distinctly inglorious colonial career. First bushranger or not, he was possibly the only one ever named Colin, a very rare name in colonial times.

Hello and welcome to my new website.

For this first post I wanted to say a little bit about my book Tour To Hell, and how I came to write it.

Tour To Hell is a true account from Australia’s penal colony days, about convicts who were inspired to abscond by beliefs in nearby societies that might offer them sanctuary. It began with an article I wrote for a British magazine which regularly investigates historical anomalies and oddities. Seeking an Australian angle, I settled on peculiarities of the convict era, recalling the old story about convicts attempting to escape by walking to China.

After researching and writing the 2000-word article I felt the topic was far bigger and more interesting than I had anticipated. I was astonished that no-one had ever written a book about it. I realised I was in a position to do so. So I did! (after seven years’ hard labour)

Toongabbie penal settlement near Sydney. Irish convicts sent here planned a mass walkout to the mythical inland 'white colony' in the 1790s. Image courtesy National Library of Australia.

Toongabbie penal farm near Sydney. In 1798 Irish convicts here planned a mass walkout to the mythical inland ‘white colony’. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Many fascinating stories from the early days had never been retold. But I wanted to do more than compile interesting events and adventures. Describing and examining the ideas behind the myth-driven escapes, I believe, throws new light on our early colonial days. I resolved to pursue the topic as thoroughly as possible and perhaps make a useful and original contribution to convict studies.

For this reason I wanted to ensure my investigations withstood academic scrutiny, especially by professional historians who might dispute some of my conclusions. And so I took care to present a fully footnoted and referenced work. But I had no intention of producing a textbook; I wrote Tour To Hell principally for the general reader with an interest in Australian history. I imagined it as appealing to the same reader who enjoyed Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore or Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing With Strangers.

The basic topic of Tour To Hell is neither new nor controversial. The existence of convict escape myths is well known, even if not much else is generally remembered about them. However, the full story of these myths has never before been gathered together or had an entire book devoted to it.

The usual approach until now has been to dismiss the beliefs, after a cursory glance, as an irrational product of ignorance and desperation. While these were certainly factors, I also hope my critical evaluation of primary source evidence shows that convicts had perfectly rational reasons to jump to mistaken conclusions about bush-Chinas and inland white colonies.

Few historians, for example, have commented on the irony that colonial officials, while sneering at convicts who believed in white bush societies, were simultaneously feeding the myth by hypothesising about equally non-existent inland seas and straits – and even drawing on similar Aboriginal evidence to support such ideas.

I believe the old escape myths give us a rare insight into an almost-lost convict mindset, the earliest folklore to arise in the colony. I welcome any discussion or correspondence on the topic.

I also hope to use this site to blog about pretty much anything that crosses my mind.