Chain Letters

Chain Letters: Narrating Convict Lives - a book to be published Melbourne University Press edited by Lucy Frost and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart.

Chain Letters will contain of a series of essays which will explore a range of accounts of convict lives. The book will be available in 2001 and will be followed by a sequel which will explore the lives of the Patriot Exiles transported from Canada in 1839. Many of the narratives discussed in Chain Letters will be made available to researchers through this website.

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 cultural identity.

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 Convict Narratives
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
Lisa Jenkins
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
Hamish Maxwell-Stewart
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
Tamsin O'Connor
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 Line?

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
Lucy Frost
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
Ian Duffield
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 slave narratives.

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 most personal.

Chapter ten: "Where ever I go I whill right to you"
Bruce Hindmarsh
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
Terri-Ann White
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
Richard Davey
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 today.


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