Sunday, August 7, 2011

explaining why the First fleet is so important to me

As soon as I moved to Sydney from Melbourne in the 1970's I began to absorb myself in our nation's convict history. I was particularly interested in the folly of sending a fleet of ships loaded with criminals to a place few Europeans had any knowledge of, and even fewer had seen. For much of the journey the ships' captains were sailing blind with only some coordinates on a map drawn by Captain Cook eighteen years earlier.

The journey of the First Fleet became the topic for my Masters thesis. I wanted to know how well we had told this story to our children. The answer, in the 1990's, was badly. Besides the brief accounts in  school history books and magazines, there were only  a handful of novels published which dealt with the journey and it's aftermath until the approach of the bicentenary spurred new interest in the subject. Apart from John Nicholson's excellent picture book which detailed the ships, their cargo, and the hazards the fleet faced, the results were disappointing. More recently there have been some well researched additions to the collection of first fleet books for children, notably from Jackie French whose Tom Appleby was a joy to read. But at the time I was studying the topic I felt compelled to contribute a story of my own.

I wanted to explore the folly of the project. Sending convicts to New South Wales was as bizarre as sending modern day prisoners to colonize the moon. In fact, it was more bizarre. Today's prisoners know more about moon than the convicts of 1788 knew about New South Wales. I chose a narrator, who I called Jack Dorrington, and allowed him to tell his story about his journey into the unknown.  Another extract follows:

“A bath!” Elsie said pulling her old shawl tight around her chest. “Don’t like the sound of that.” Higgins ignored her as he ordered us all to line up down the end of the passage where some of the sailors were filling big tubs with water. The geezer was standing beside them with a tall thin man in a fancy braided jacket and white breeches. His long pointy nose   stuck up in the air as if he was trying to keep it above our stink.
             “Get those filthy rags off!” the geezer bellowed at the first woman in the queue. When she tried to back away he shouted at Higgins. “You have my permission to tear the clothes off her.”
Before she could finish protesting that it wasn’t decent for a lady to take her clothes off in public, Higgins had stripped her down to nothing but skin and bones.
“Now get in there and scrub yourself from head to foot,” the geezer roared. “Or the marines will do it for you.”
The woman grabbed up the scrubbing brush the sailors had dropped in the tub and started gently rubbing herself with it.
“Soap! They need soap.” This time the geezer was bawling at the pointy nose.
“There is none, Sir”
“And why is that?”
“None was ordered, Sir.”
The geezer was getting very red in the face again. “Do your marines have soap, Lieutenant?”
“They do, Sir. The Royal Marines are expected to be clean and presentable at all times,” the pointy nose said in his pointy voice.
            “Then you will hand over their supplies of soap. I’ll see it replaced before we sail.”
            The pointy nose didn’t look pleased but he sent two of the redcoats to fetch all the soap they could find. Four more women were made to undress and were sitting in the tubs by the time they returned.
“Scrub hard,” the geezer ordered. “Soap every part of you especially your heads. Once you’re clean the lieutenant will give you new clothes.”
One of the women bent down to grab her old coat from the pile of rags on the floor but she got such a smack on the rump from the silver topped cane that it left a big red mark.
“Those rags are infected with every manner of vermin. They’ll all be burnt,” the geezer told her.
Soon it was our turn. Elsie tried to hide but Higgins spotted her. He dragged her to a tub and with his knife slit her shawl and dress from neck to toe. Madge flattened the two redcoats who thought they could tear her old dress off. It took half a dozen of them, and a lot of pushing and shoving, to get her into a tub head first. They all had to jump back quickly to avoid being swamped with the water that splashed up all around her. She managed to get herself the right way up spitting water and curses all over the geezer as she did so.
“Quiet woman or I’ll have the marine wash your mouth out. There’ll be no foul language on this ship,” he bellowed.
Me mum and Mary got Mad Sarah into a tub and scrubbed before doing themselves but when it was Dolly’s turn to take her clothes off she started to cry. Higgins grabbed at the blanket and pulled sending baby Anna flying through the air.
“S’truth,” he yelled as he caught her.
“Put the infant in the tub with its mother. It’s got to be washed too,” the geezer told him. Then he spotted us. “Those boys! See to them.”
            Higgins had me by the collar. Another redcoat called Nicholson grabbed Joe. They ripped our clothes off and had us in tubs as quick as a flash and then they took to scrubbing us. And did those brushes hurt especially on our heads. When they’d finished with us I staggered over to the pointy nose expecting to get a bundle of clothes and a blanket like the women were getting.
            “Get away, child. I’ve nothing for you,” he snarled at me.
            The geezer heard him and swung around. “Give the child a blanket. He’ll have to wrap himself up in that.” He flicked his cane at me, “Go! Get back to your berth.”