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Who Was Davis?

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

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An exhaustive survey of convicts who served time at Macquarie Harbour has failed to yield a prisoner whose career matches the details provided in the narrative. It is possible, of course, that in our survey of Macquarie Harbour convicts the true life Davis slipped through the net. This seems unlikely, however, as four musters survive for the period covered in the text. If Davis spent 3 years at the settlement sometime between 1822 and 1826 we should have a record of him. So who was he? There are at least three candidates.

John Davis, per Elizabeth.

In August 1844, a year after the ‘Davis’ narrative was composed, a muster was taken of all convicts on Norfolk Island. One of the men listed in this record is John Davis per Elizabeth,a Jewish shopman who had been born in Woolwich. Sentenced in September 1815 to life transportation at the Middlesex assizes, Davis was transported to New South Wales on the Elizabeth.He was subsequently tried at the Criminal Court Sydney again sentenced to Life and transferred to Port Macquarie. Davis subsequently absconded, but was apprehended and forward to Macquarie Harbour where he arrived on 7 January 1823. Just 24 days later, in company with six other convicts, he absconded into the wilderness. All seven men were listed in the official return of absconders from Macquarie Harbour as missing presumed ‘perished in the woods’.

Davis appears, however, to have successfully escaped. He does not resurface in the official record until the 18 January 1840 when he was charged at the Campbelltown Quarter Sessions (NSW) with ‘being at large with fire arms.’ For this he was sentenced to retransportation for life (for the third time). What John Davis did in the 17 years between absconding from Macquarie Harbour and being apprehended as a bushranger on the Cumberland Plain remains a mystery. Was he indeed the same man? While we will never be sure the administration thought that he was. On the indent for the Elizabethconvict vessel(the ship that brought Davis to Sydney in 1816) a later hand has scribbled the words ‘On Norfolk Island’. Davis is in other respects, however, an unlikely author. As he only spent 24 days at Macquarie Harbour, he cannot have been an eye witness to most of the events described in such detail in the narrative.

Thomas Brain per Medway

Although several other convicts named Davis served at Macquarie Harbour none are plausible candidates Nor were any convict sentenced to transportation to Sarah Island on the 27 December 1823 as claimed in the text. But, there again, as this date is later than most of the events described in the story, this is perhaps not surprising. On the 28 December 1822, however, two prisoners assigned to Mr Wade were tried before a bench for stealing wheat the property of their master. Both were sentenced to 100 lashes and afterwards to be transported for 3 years; the same punishment the author of ‘Davis’ narrative claims to have received One of these convicts, William Yates, is referred to in the text as ‘my Companion.’ This is, to say the least, suggestive. Was the other man, Thomas Brain ( also spelt Brein or Bryan) the author of Davis’ memoranda? There is a second piece of evidence which suggests he might be. Soon after Brain was released from Macquarie Harbour he was again arrested with one James Rowles for stealing 3 jackets and 8 waistcoats in the dwelling house of John Dunn. Both men were tried before the Supreme Court in Hobart 9 May 1826, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Rowles was executed, but Brain’s sentence was commuted to life transportation. On the 15 December 1826 he was embarked for Norfolk Island thus placing him in the same location as the author of the Davis narrative, although 16 years to early. Brain appears to be a good candidate for the elusive Davis. If so the author of this account was a gentleman’s servant from Stratford upon Avon sentenced in Surrey on 3 August 1820 for stealing a gig, mare and harness. This fits the story quite well. It is not beyond the bounds of imagination that a gentleman’s servant would have sufficient literacy skills to write a narrative and servant was the occupation ‘Davis’ held on Norfolk Island.

John Anderson per Hibernia

No doubt there were other convicts who spent time at both penal stations who could have contributed to the pool of stories contained in Davis’ narrative. One of the most remarkable passages in the text is the description of the drowning of Commandant Cuthbertson in December 1823. It is surely significant that in relating this event ‘Davis’ should describe one of the key participants in the following manner:

‘anderson an overseer (a man that had been Mate of a Whale ship and Master of a Slaver and a west Indeaman he left this Island a few months ago he was here in the name of John Brown and a long time in the hospital with a swelling under his Jaw ...).

There was indeed a convict overseer at Macquarie Harbour in the early 1820s named John Anderson, and as it turns out this man was a sailor by occupation having being convicted in Lancaster but hailing originally from Swansea.

The evidence suggests that Davis’ narrative originated in a story related by Thomas Brain. It seems likely that the description of the drowning of Cuthbertson owes much to John Anderson’s recollections of the event. But that it was John Davis who wrote the story down, no doubt adding from his memories of incarceration on the Small Island in January and February 1823.

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, University of Tasmania, Australia

The Davis narrative has been broken into 3 sections: I/ II/III.

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