Authors: Paul Dowswell
Tags: #General Fiction
But I didn't really believe what I was saying. As I watched them go, I thought I would never see them again.
I wrote to Rosie that afternoon. I told her how pleased I had been to see her, and how, over the last year, the thought of her had made me smile on the dreariest of days. I told her I would always remember her as a dear friend, but that she should not wait for me to return to England. I cried when I wrote that letter, but I didn't tell her. I wanted her to forget about me. It was only right she should not waste the rest of her youth waiting for me to return.
One early morning a few days later, the
's Bosun came round the lower deck calling out names. âRichard Buckley,' I heard quite clearly. We all knew what this meant. Those selected for transportation were to be ferried to the ship that would take them to New South Wales. I was gripped with anxiety. What if they took Richard and left me here? What if they took Vincent and left me here? I strained hard to hear. Soon enough my name was called, and I breathed easier. Johnny Onions was coming, and Joseph Swales. Shortly
after, the Bosun stopped calling out names. Mr Updike was staying. Perhaps his friends in high places had helped him out. Vincent was staying too. I said a little prayer, asking God to forgive them and send them off the hulk soon.
We gathered our few belongings and said our goodbyes. Vincent gave me a bear hug. âThank you for looking after us, Mr Thomas,' I said. âWe'll miss you.'
Those of us who had been called were lined up on the upper deck. A blacksmith was present and we were ordered forward to be double-ironed with heavier chains.
âWhen will these come off?' I asked, only to be struck around the head with a switch.
The chains weighed heavy on my ankles, and put paid to any idea of jumping overboard and swimming to freedom. After a few hours they began to chafe and rub my skin raw. We were about to take the first steps on a journey to the other side of the world. If Joseph Swales' stories were still true, we'd be lucky to get halfway there.
A small boat ferried us towards a three-mast cargo ship. Above the gilded windows of the stern we saw her name,
. Her quarterdeck ran level with the upper deck, like a frigate, although she was not so sleek. I thought she looked a small vessel for so great a journey, but Joseph Swales assured me Captain Bligh had sailed to the South Seas on such a ship, the
had been well prepared for our arrival. The hold had recently been fumigated. As soon as I came aboard, the smell of tar, brimstone and vinegar caught in my throat.
Under the watchful eye of a squad of marines we were lined up and told to strip naked. This order was made comical by the fact that our leg irons prevented the removal of our trousers. A marine came down the line with a bayonet, and cut the garments from our legs. The clothes were gathered up and bundled overboard, considered too louse-ridden or diseased to be worth washing and re-issuing.
As we stood shivering in the sharp wind blowing down the Solent, they called us forward one by one to be doused in several buckets of seawater. A swift examination followed, conducted by a piggy-eyed man I took to be the ship's surgeon. In his manner he might well have been examining a sheep at market.
We were given new clothes â two pairs of trousers and two shirts. Each was marked with a large A or B. The trousers were buttoned on either side of the leg, to allow them to be removed over leg irons. I said a silent prayer, entreating God to spare us from being double-ironed for the whole voyage.
âYou will wear items A on the first week, and items B on the second week,' barked the Bosun, âand wash these clothes with care and regularity.'
Then came the bedding. I was disappointed to discover we would be sleeping in bunks. I had got used to a hammock and the way it rolled with the waves. Bunks wouldn't be as comfortable. Each bed roll had a large
black number painted on it, as did the three threadbare blankets we were given. Finally, each of us was issued with a worn, wooden pillow, also marked with a black number.
âThey're spoiling us,' whispered Richard. âThese clothes look too thin to keep anyone warm. We'll need to wear both shirts at once when the North Wind blows.'
We tramped downstairs. Despite Swales' warnings I didn't feel the same trepidation as when I had entered the hulk. There was something about the look and feel of this ship that told me it was going to be well run. Besides, I was glad to be away from the
. It was such a threatening, dangerous place, I knew our luck would not have held for ever.
On the lower deck a corridor with cells either side stretched almost the whole length of the ship. Richard, Johnny and I were pointed to a small cell with four bunks, next to the stairway. There was already one occupant in it, a tall young man with spectacles and a bright, inquiring face. âDr Daniel Sadler,' he said with a pleasant smile, and stood up to shake our hands. What was a man like this doing in here?
When I saw some of the other prisoners file past, I was glad not to be sharing with them. There was another small cell on the deck, but the rest held ten or more men. I guessed there must have been a hundred or so
convicts on board, men and boys of all shapes and sizes. We certainly had some villains among us.
sailed later that morning. As we were confined to our cells for the first week of that voyage, I couldn't see Portsmouth and the coast of England slowly slip away from us. Perhaps it was a good thing. It would have been too distressing. I tried not to reflect on everything I was leaving behind, but I couldn't help myself.
It was not just the thought of leaving loved ones I would never see again, it was everything I had ever seen and done and known. One late August day, at the end of my last summer at Wroxham, I stood on the pebbly banks of the River Bure just where a small tributary flows into it. There I watched the water babble through the shallows and the cross currents push against each other. Three cows came to see me, staring in their benevolent way and the river bank was still full of flowers. Now I would never stand there again.
My mood lifted when our shackles were removed. As the ship passed the last of England we were allowed to walk in the fresh air on the deck. I saw at once we were sailing in convoy. There were three convict ships, of which we were the smallest, with two Navy sloops for escort. I longed to be on one of the warships as part of the crew. It felt wrong being on a ship and doing nothing useful.
* * *
The Captain of the
was a stern Liverpudlian named Casewell. He paced the quarterdeck with a quiet authority. Looking at his weather-beaten face and wiry frame, I guessed he had been at sea from a very young age. Although he was courteous to everyone, crew and convicts alike, there was something in his manner that suggested it would be very unwise to disregard what he was saying. The First Lieutenant, in contrast, was a haughty toff called Holkham. I could see at once it was an uneasy partnership.
Casewell's crew were a scruffy bunch. I thought they could do with our help. Also aboard were a platoon of marines, some of whom had brought their wives and children. It was pleasant to see women on board, and to hear young children playing and reciting skipping rhymes. It made our ship seem less sinister and more part of an everyday, ordinary world.
Among the passengers I noticed a beautiful young woman. Doctor Dan told me her name was Lizzie Borrow. She was the daughter of one of the Governor's officials, and was travelling out to be reunited with her father. Casewell must have felt confident in the security of his ship to carry such a passenger. Clearly, Joseph Swales' dire predictions for the voyage were proving to be wrong.
Most of the time Lizzie remained in her quarters close
to the Captain's cabin, but occasionally she would take the air on deck. Richard noticed her too and was smitten. She was sixteen, only slightly older than him. He often tried to catch her eye, in the hope of winning a smile.
We could not have hoped for a better cell mate in Doctor Daniel and I swiftly began to think of him as a friend. He told us he had been a ship's surgeon aboard the frigate HMS
. There had been a rebellion among the crew, occasioned by the behaviour of a brutal officer. The Doctor had mediated between crew and captain. He had argued so fiercely in favour of the crew, the captain had him court-martialled. Doctor Daniel was duly sentenced to transportation for seven years. He seemed to take his fate remarkably lightly. âProbably short of medical men down in New South Wales,' he said with a bitter laugh. Captain Casewell had taken a shine to him as soon as he came on board, which was why he had been given a small cabin with us boys for company. He was asked to assist the bumbling ship's surgeon Nicholas Privett. In return he was provided with extra food.
Dan and Privett would often clash over what to do with a patient, and he enjoyed telling us about it. âPrivett just believes in bleeding,' he said. âAnything wrong that can't be remedied by opening a vein and extracting a
pint of blood, and he's stuck for an answer. George Randall has an ulcer on his leg from an ill-fitting iron that was left on too long. When I suggested powdered Peruvian bark and citric acid, Privett looked at me as if I were reciting a spell. “Do we need some bat's blood and snake skin too, Doctor Sadler?” he said. He can't bear the fact that one of the convicts knows more about medicine than him.
âBloody fool even wanted to bleed an eight-month-old baby. Sergeant Tomlins' little girl has awful colic. Been with her since she cut her first tooth. She needs mercury and chalk with a little powdered rhubarb root. Privett has got all this stuff in his medicine cabinet, I think he's just forgotten how to use it. He let that poor little girl suffer for another week with his thrice-weekly bleeding, until she was at death's door. Then he asked me to make up the medicine I'd suggested. The child is getting better, but she still looks sickly.'
As soon as we had won his trust, Doctor Dan told Captain Casewell that he had two skilled seamen among his cargo of villains. We were put to work caulking the deck and repairing sails and rigging. We were given extra rations as our reward, and we shared our good fortune with Johnny Onions.
Despite our kindness, Johnny proved to be a surly, difficult cell mate. He would mimic our accents and manners, and even steal food from our plates. He often
just stared at us with baleful hostility. He couldn't help himself. âHe wasn't like this on the
,' I said to Daniel. âVincent was such a terrifying-looking fellow, I suppose he was too frightened to misbehave. I think he thinks we're soft.'
We tried to show him how to read and write, but he had no patience with us. I didn't know if he was dull or just not interested, but he never remembered a thing we taught him.
Doctor Daniel saw him as a project â a boy to be reformed. âI've never met a more abandoned wretch in my life. When I was younger I just accepted that corporal punishment was the only way to impart a sense of common decency in such people. But now I know from first-hand experience this merely makes them worse. Punishing a man or boy with a thumbscrew or clapping him in iron fetters for a month isn't going to make him want to sip tea with a dainty little finger, or talk to the vicar about the flower arrangement in the nave. He'll still swear worse than a Billingsgate fishmonger and his soul will be even more corrupted.'
Being at sea was second nature to Richard and me, but for most of our fellow convicts it was a bewildering experience. Many of them had never been away from their town or village before they fell foul of the law. They were astonished by the sights they saw. The vast,
circling albatross that sometimes shadowed our ship frightened them. I heard several say that these were birds who attacked a drowning man, pecking at his head with their vicious beaks as he struggled to stay above the surface.
The men would gather in the forecastle, when our routine permitted, to gawp at the porpoises that darted to and fro in the turbulence of our bow. Flying fish leaping from the waves amazed them, and dolphins they often took for mermaids or mermen.
The weather got warmer as we headed south. Having spent some of December the previous year around Gibraltar this was no great surprise. The further south we sailed, the more muggy and sticky it became.
There was only one stop on our journey, the island of Tenerife, where we picked up fresh water. We were all shackled again and confined below deck for the two days we spent moored at harbourside. Casewell was determined no one was going to escape.
As we journeyed south, we got to know the other convicts. Men separated from wives and children were especially devastated by their fate. They had as much chance of seeing their loved ones again as if they were dead and buried. But many of the younger men, especially those with no families of their own, were excited. Stories had filtered back to England making New South Wales
sound just the place to make a fresh start. True, there were unsettling elements to these stories: the strange, savage inhabitants; the unforgiving nature of the land, which was covered in thick bush; the fiery heat of the day; the brutal iron gangs for the second offenders, chained together for years at a time. But if a man kept himself out of trouble, it seemed life promised to be quite bearable.