“Young man, you’re case it is proven clear
We’ll give you seven years penal servitude
To be spent far away . . . 
And the very first thing that you’ll know is
You’ve landed in Van Diemens Land”

 

In 1787, Great Britain couldn’t keep up with its burgeoning criminal population and began expelling its convicts to jail compounds on a sparsely inhabited continent on the other side of the globe. England exiled over 160,000 men, women, and children to this inhospitable land of poor soil and unwelcoming habitat. In the “The Fatal Shore” we meet some of the most enterprising and notorious of the exiles.

 

Some of the first folk heroes of the island continent that would later be named Australia came from this criminal class. Food was scarce, and soon everyone was starving. Prison overseers gave guns to certain able-bodied men to hunt down sustenance in any form. The Bushrangers slaughtered kangaroos en masse. Depletion of the nearby roo population drove the men, dogs, and guns further into the bush, where they ended up competing with the Aborigines for meat. Literally unshackled, many of these insurgents stole the guns and the dogs and stayed in the bush.

There wasn’t much for them to go back to. Treatment of the criminal class steadily became harsher, approached the level of sadism under Major Joseph Foreaux. Flogging with a cat o’ none tails was the most frequent punishment inflicted, leaving lasting physical and psychological scars. The only act of defiance left was to try to avoid showing pain. “The scarred back became an emblem of rank. So did silence. Convicts called a man who blubbered and screamed at the triangles . . . a sandstone (Sandstone is a common rock around Sidney; it is soft and crumbles easily.) By contrast, the convict who stood up to it in silence was admired as a pebble or an iron man. He would show his stripes (strip for punishment) with disdain, and after the domino (last lash) he would spit at he feet of the man who gave him his red shirt.”

The hated prison Macquarie Harbor was on the isolated West Coast of Van Dieman’s Land, later renamed Tasmania. The only person to break out and live was Irishman Alexander Pearce, who accomplished the feat twice. The first time he escaped with seven other convicts in a sea craft. Upon landfall, they slogged their way through a land lacking in forage, growing ever hungrier. One of the men, Kennely, joked, “I’m so weak, that I could eat a piece of a man.” But then six of the escapees ganged up on the seventh and made short work and short ribs of him. Eventually only Pearce and Greenhill were left. Then Greenhill made the mistake of falling sleep.

 

When Pearce was recaptured he told his story, but other convicts assumed he was lying to cover for comrades still at large. Young

Thomas Cox approached him, assured Pearce of his fitness, and begged him to escape again. They had traveled only a few days when they came across King’s River. Cox confessed he could not swim, and more likely out of rage than gluttony Pearce killed him.

Pearce was recaptured, and again gave a truthful account of his escape. This time everyone believed him. He was hanged, autopsied, and his skull sent to The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where it may still be.

A non-fiction book that reads like fiction, this richly detailed history reads with a narrative flow that leaves the reader with a deep understanding of Australia’s Hobbesian birth.

Song lyrics from The Black Velvet Band

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