Chain Letters: Narrating Convict Lives
A Proposed Chapter Outline
The premise from which we begin is that convict narratives are key
cultural texts which have been and continue to be crucial in creating
for Australians the stories of 'who we are', the myths constituting
What is a convict narrative?
‡ sometimes, it is a narrative with a speaking voice specifically marked
'convict' but, ironically, often not belonging to the material convict
body for which the narrator has been given a name. Such narratives could
include fiction, but we are primarily interested in cases where the
'fictional' status is concealed or denied.
‡ sometimes, it is the life story of a convict body, often but not always
historically identifiable. These stories come in many forms: they may
be literally written upon the body, as in the case of convict tattoos;
they may be generated by official records or by informal communication
such as letters; they may be imagined by a novelist working with the
scant details researched as family history.
Chain Letters will explore the dynamics which have shaped these
narratives in all of their varied forms.
Part One: Captive Tales - The Problematics of the Convict Narrative
Many published convict narratives turn out to be far more complex
than they appear at first sight. Some were composed by multiple authors
while others contain strange discrepancies with the surviving archival
descriptions of the convict life they claim to relate. The results of
detailed explorations of the personalties behind these texts are revealing.
The opening section of Chain Letters will explore the problematics
of these ripping yarns.
Chapter One: In Search of Jack Bushman
Ian Duffield, Ray Evans & Bill Thorpe
In 1859 the Moreton Bay Courier serialised the 12,000-word 'Passages
from the Life of a "Lifer"' by Jack Bushman. In 1990 the narrative
was virtually unknown, but since then a debate has developed around
the text whose life was this? who wrote the narrative? a journalist?
another convict acting as ghostwriter? a pardoned 'lifer'? This chapter
will be written by key players in the present controversy concerning
the problematics of authorship, readership, readings and ideological
contradictions internal to the text. Their search for Jack Bushman has
wider implications than simply nailing down who actually wrote the published
narrative: it engages with questions about the highly problematic authorship
of narratives by or concerning the 'unfree'.
Chapter Two: Narrative of a Spanish tongue
Susan Ballyn & Lucy Frost
In 1829 Adelaide de la Thoreza, born in Spain and now aged 23, was convicted
in London of stealing four sheets and sentenced to seven years' transportation
to Botany Bay. In 1878, the year after she died, a Presbyterian clergyman
published her biography under the title, Adelaide de la Thoreza:
A Chequer'd Career. This chapter reads that morally confident biography
against a highly problematic life narrative constructed from traces
scattered across Australia, Spain, and England, and considers how the
genre of criminal biography could be transformed in Australia into narratives
of pioneer settlement.
Chapter Three: Three Tales for a Man with Seven Sides: James Porter's
Hamish Maxwell-Stewart & Ian Duffield
According to the 1811 dictionary of the vulgar tongue a 'seven sided
animal was a one eyed man or woman, each having a right side and a left
side, a fore side and a back side, an outside, an inside and a blind
side.' James Porter, blind in one eye, was among the convict crew who
stole the brig Frederick from Macquarie Harbour early in 1834
and sailed to Chile. Apprehended and returned to Van Diemen's Land,
Porter wrote two versions of his life story, one surviving in manuscript
and another published in the Hobart Town Almanac. A third narrative,
purportedly by a returned convict named James Connor, was serialised
in the Fife Herald in the mid 1840s. James Connor was the alias
used by Porter while on the run in South America, and the Fife Herald
narrative tells basically the same story as its two predecessors.
Placed together, however, it is possible to see how successive editors
have adapted Porter's original version of the tale in order to suit
their specific purposes.
Part Two: Capturing Truth: Penal Station Lives
Penal stations loom large in popular imagination as sites where
hardened recidivists were physically and psychologically tortured by
a ruthless regime. This chapter will explore the reality behind that
myth through an exploration of convict accounts of life in the bowels
of the system.
Chapter four: Norfolk Lives: Laurence Frayne and William Westwood
Under the rule of Norfolk Island's one benevolent commandant, Alexander
Maconochie, an extraordinary writing program was initiated in which
autobiographies were elicited from convicts by figures of authority
within the System itself. At least nine manuscripts in different hands
and of varying nature and length survive. Focussed on two of the narratives,
the chapter considers how the convict autobiographers negotiated textual
tensions between the single narrating voice of agency, and the violent
violating circumstances of this notorious penal station.
Chapter five: In Search of the Invisible Man: Davis' Narrative
Unique as a tale of place rather than a single life, the so-called Davis
narrative is an account of the Macquarie Harbour penal station in the
early 1820s. Like many other convict narratives it appears to have been
ghost written, in this case literally so, as the real life Davis perished
in a failed escape attempt some twenty years before the manuscript was
composed. After a detailed sifting of the records of the thousand or
so convicts who served time at Macquarie Harbour, one can posit possible
authors, but is this the way to go? Would it be more plausible to look
towards the audience in searching for the ghostly author?
Chapter six: When the Chains are Doubled: An Exploration of the Fragmented
Narratives of Penal Station Life
The vast majority of convict tales of penal station life survive, not
as lengthy manuscripts, but as fragmented narratives. In long involved
petitions penal station convicts revealed the chasm between their imagined
lives and those in which they were constrained; they smuggled out information
to the friendly Sydney press, they inspired or wrote songs of ironic
protest and contorted the language to create their own vision of the
pageantry of punishment. They told their stories in court and before
they were hanged and, perhaps most remarkably of all, by forging entries
in the official records.
Part Three: Indents, Petitions & Inquiries - Towing the Official
During their encounters with officialdom, prisoners regularly told
stories about their lives. Often these were included in the official
record as answers to direct questions or in the form of unsolicited
petitions. All of these convict stories were shaped by their intimate
relationship with bureaucracy, although this did not necessarily mean
that their authors sought to pander to official expectations of the
role of the penitent.
Chapter seven: 'singing and dancing and making a noise': voices in
the Female Factory
In 1841 an inquiry began into the conduct of convicts at the female
factories in Van Diemen's Land. Over the next two years women testified
to their own experience, testified for and against each other. Others
told their stories too, including the constable called to stop a riot
of singing and dancing women who when he appeared had suddenly, almost
miraculously he thought, become concentric circles of figures seated
in silence. The findings of the inquiry were never published, though
some 450 pages of documentation remain in the Archives Office of Tasmania,
a rare cache of voices narrating convict experience of women as individuals
and as an institutionalised group under the microscope of social judgement
on female behaviour.
Chapter eight: Stated this Offence: High Density Micro-Narratives
The Van Diemen's Land Conduct Registers, an innovation of Governor
Arthur, were designed as a unified comprehensive record of every convict's
conduct, and the state's corresponding actions and reactions. At the
head of each convict's entry are columns for recording information about
the prisoner before arrival in the colony, including one labelled 'Stated
This Offence'. Arthur's intention was that on being required to state
their offence, convicts would have an uneasy feeling that their words
were being checked against official records by an omnipotent eye, which
was indeed the case. Nevertheless, this proceeding, intended to demonstrate
state power and convict powerlessness, had the unintended consequence
of generating a large number - certainly many thousands - of convict
micro narratives. The micro-narratives selected for analysis in this
chapter are from those of African Diaspora men and women transported
to Van Diemen's Land. Some of their statements are also highly compressed
Chapter nine: "...these are but items in the sad ledger of despair"
Tina Picton Phillips
Guardsman John Sanderson, awaiting transportation in 1819 for desertion,
imagined his wife's dire future without him, and made "the horrors
of being desolate and friendless, to the mercy of the wide, unpitying
World" the grounds of a petition for mercy. His and similar written
pleas chart the emotional impact of impending transportation for some
married men. These petitions reveal how men understood their roles and
duties as husbands and fathers. Wives, petitioning for a reunion with
transported husbands, disclose similar perceptions of both a husband's
leading role and his corresponding duties within the family. The chapter
considers such petitions and associated correspondence as an extensive
'egodocument' site in which men and women expressed remarkably similar
sentiments of abandonment and loss, caused by the prospect of transportation.
Part Four: When This You See
Until recently the private world of convicts was largely hidden
from view. The discovery of a number of private letter collections,
coupled with studies of convict tattoos and love tokens, has opened
a window on the everyday hopes and fears of prisoners. While these are
the most unconventional of all narratives they are in some ways the
Chapter ten: "Where ever I go I whill right to you"
In April 1840 Richard Taylor wrote to his father from the confines of
York Castle Gaol with the news that he had been sentenced to transportation.
Later in the same year his half brother, Simon Brown, was also sentenced
to transportation to Australia. Between 1840 and 1858 the two men wrote
thirty-three letters to their father. These relate their experiences
of transportation and life in the colonies of Van Diemen's Land and
New South Wales, and the trials and tribulations of adjusting to colonial
freedom. Richard's search for his half brother is a theme which recurs
in many of the letters. Tragically his quest ended in failure when he
received the news of Simon's death before the two could be reunited.
Chapter eleven: The gift is small but love is all
Paul Donnelly, Timothy Millett & Hamish Maxwell-Stewart
While awaiting transportation some convicts manufactured tokens of their
love to give to wives, friends and lovers who they were about to be
separated from, probably for ever. Such love tokens betray personalities
and expectations from the bitter to the sanguine, but all are joined
in a consistent poignancy. Not only did they serve as commemorative
objects, they provided a practical function as memory triggers and physical
promises of eventual reunion. Recourse to convict records, and other
objects manufactured to supply 18th and 19th century working and lower
middle class markets, is of enormous benefit in making sense of love
token narratives. This chapter will use this body of material to unpack
four of these stories.
Chapter twelve: Convict Tattoos and Autobiography
James Bradley & Hamish Maxwell-Stewart
Far more convicts chose to write stories about themselves on their arms
and chests than ever committed their lives to paper. While there is
no doubt that these subcutaneous narratives are largely free from the
kind of middle class intrusions so evident in other convict tales, this
does not make them unproblematic. Some convicts attempted to impose
control on this process by adding new tattoos to mark the passage of
subsequent events. Others appear to have rationalised their body narratives
by adapting the way they thought about themselves. In this chapter we
will use four short case studies to illustrate the intriguing ways in
which these different process could work.
Part Five: Imaginary Lives - Family History and Community Heritage
As the growth in the number of family historians and visitor numbers
to sites like Port Arthur will testify, there is an ever increasing
interest in Australia's convict past. The contributors to the last section
of Chain Letters demonstrate how a good story well makes that
past both relevant and accessible to contemporary Australians.
Chapter thirteen: A Fictional Quest for Roots
This chapter is fiction which incorporates historical detail, family
history, and popular mythology of the Western Australian community.
The story belongs to Terri-Ann White's family, starting with great-grandparents
who travelled from London to Australia in the 1850s: one as a convict,
one a free settler. Both were Jewish, the convict was Polish. The writing
is textured with forgotten voices, it is self-reflexive, and tackles
the paradoxes involved in telling stories from within the family the
novelist belongs to, one that resists telling its own stories because
of shame and the lack of an authoritative, or socially given, voice.
Chapter fourteen: Telling Tales about Sarah Island
There is one simple principle for today's heritage storyteller to follow:
tell the stories about real people. Not about systems or structures,
or theories, or political and social movements. All this will become
apparent as the web of lives unfold. And without distortion, be positive
about the convict experience: not to say 'it wasn't as we have been
led to believe by propaganda and fiction-biased interpretation', but
to emphasise that the response to an oppressive situation by so many
of the men and women transported to Australia was more successful than
we have chosen to relate.
Conclusion: Imaginary Lives
Lucy Frost and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart
In the conclusion of Chain Letters we will show that, while the
search for a convict voice is unlikely to ever achieve its goal, the
quest has been far from fruitless. For while a 'genuine' convict voice
may prove to be illusive, our understanding of the forces which 'forged'
convict narratives has helped to unshackle the past by shining fresh
light on the political economy of day-to-day life in the penal colonies,
and on the ways in which this experience resonates in Australian culture