AUSTRALIA - A CONVICT'S JOURNEY
Washed, shaved, close-cropped, supplied with two new suits each, and newly double-ironed, the convicts selected for the draft were paraded aboard the Leviathan for examination by the surgeon-superintendent of the Magnet. The few sickly men were rejected and their places filled by robuster transportees, and the approved men were marched aboard a large lighter and transferred to that vessel, swinging at anchor in Spithead. Despite the harshness of the conditions to which he knew that he was going, Rashleigh carried his heavy irons with a light heart, and watched the distance between the hulk and the lighter increase with a feeling of vast relief. The prisoners were immediately taken between-decks to their sleeping-quarters, where each was given a numbered bed and a blanket, and left for the night.
The good ship Magnet was of about five hundred tons burthen. the greater part of the main deck was relegated to the use of the convicts, who numbered one hundred and fifty; and the deck was divided into two sections by a strong bulkhead, the smaller section being for the confinement of the thirty boy convicts who were aboard. The hatchways were secured with elm stanchions, in a stout framing of which all the exposed woodwork was covered closely with broad-headed nails, so that the structure was practically proof against being cut. In one of these hatchways, between the men's and the boys' prisons, were communicating doors, so small that only one man at a time could pass through them. A military sentry was posted, day and night, in the hatchway, to deal with any attempt at mutiny or other dangerous conduct. The military guard consisted of two commissioned officers, six N.C.O.'S, and forty private soldiers, some of whom were accompanied by their wives and families. The routine of the ship was arranged so that, during the voyage, the convicts were allowed the liberty of the deck from sunrise until sunset, under an armed guard of three soldiers posted at points of vantage which gave them full surveillance of the tough bunch of derelicts in their charge. A boatswain and six mates were selected by the surgeon-superintendent from among the convicts, and they were made responsible for the cleanliness and orderliness of their fellows. The convicts' food-ration was what was known in the transport service as 'Six upon Four,' six convicts sharing between them the rations normally allowed for four royal Navy sailors. The food was mainly salt tack, and on alternate days a small portion of wine or lime-juice was issued. Water was the only item of diet which had to be carefully apportioned: the food, such as it was, was plentiful.
In addition to the surgeon's sanitary party selected from the prisoners, there were also chosen another boatswain, two cooks, and other servants, who formed monitors or leaders of the squads of eight into which for purposes of food supplies the convicts were divided. During the few days when the ship lay to in Spithead before sailing, Rashleigh was tempted, by the sense of irrevocableness of his departure from England, to do as his comrades were mostly doing, and write to let his connections know of his fate. His better instincts overcame this sentimental urging, and he determined to fade out of their knowledge, lost to them for ever in his degradation, under his assumed name. Bumboats, carrying all manner of supplies, hovered daily round the Magnet, and Rashleigh's slender store of money was soon expended on modest supplies of tea, sugar, and other trifling comforts for the long voyage. Although he was, in a sense, glad to be leaving England, he was affected strongly by the good fortune of some of the men whose mothers, wives, sweethearts and children came on board to take farewell of their men folk. His own friendlessness, contrasted with this affection, sorrow-ridden as it was, made him feel more than ever a pariah, one who had been driven out of the herd, absolutely, for ever. He was glad when the period of waiting was over, to see the anchor weighed, the sails unfurled and bellying to the breeze, and to feel the slight motion of the ship as she slipped jauntily between the mainland and the Isle of Wight.
As night fell on the English Channel, the convicts were ordered below to the sleeping-berths, between decks. These were framed of deal boards, supported by stanchions and quarterings, and subdivided in compartments, each sleeping six men in very close proximity. These sleeping-berths were framed in rows along each side of the ship, with a double row between them separated by narrow passages. Rashleigh, being a good sailor, enjoyed what amusement could be got from the conduct of those who were unused to the motion of the ship. Many of them had never been to sea, and the vertiginous motion of the vessel caused by the broken sea of the Channel, filled them not only with nausea but with terror. Soon after being shut below, the sea freshened, and at first there was much confusion among the closely-packed prisoners. those who were not too terrified to do other than lie in the immobility of fear, filled the night with a contrasting chorus of oaths and prayers. Gradually, however, a semblance of quietude came, and Rashleigh went to sleep, but as he was lying athwart the ship and she started rolling, his rest was continually broken by the violent motion. The increasing seas at last made sleep impossible, and he sat up for greater comfort, listening with awe to the crash of the waves against the bows, and feeling the shiver that ran through the ship at each thudding impact.
Suddenly the Magnet hit a really big sea with a crash that made Rashleigh instinctively shrink back. There was a scattered noise of timbers falling overhead, as a great wave broke over the ship and poured a volume of water down the main hatchway, carrying the sentry violently against the bulkhead, and filling the prisoners' berths feet deep. Over a hundred sleepers awakened in the unfamiliar surroundings, to find their beds awash with sea water, let loose a pandemonium of terrified cries. The water, as the ship rolled, half drowned first one row of men and then the other. The cry went up that the ship was sinking, and panic took possession of the convicts. Rashleigh looked on in a state of terror, knowing there was nothing to be done; even when a few of the bolder spirits rushed at the small doorway in the hope of breaking through and gaining the deck, he made no move to join them. Their efforts to break through the wicket were in any case unavailing. An officer came with the assurance that there was no danger, leaving the prisoners to pass the remainder of the night comforted by the news that the big crash had been caused by one of the yards giving way. As most of the convicts knew of no yard except a measure, they were none the wiser for this explanation. Next morning the pumps were got to work and everything made ship-shape.
Fair weather favoured the Magnet thereafter, and the Equator was reached without any incident occurring to interrupt the strict routine on shipboard. There was a good deal of fun in the ceremony of 'Crossing the Line,' about fifty of the prisoners being ducked and shaved in tribute to Father Neptune. Rashleigh, because of his clerkly education and capacity, had been selected by the surgeon-superintendent to act as his clerk, a position which provided him with many comforts, and happened also to prevent him being implicated in a daring scheme which was set afoot for the seizing of the vessel. The boys' prison was separated from the sleeping-quarters of the military only by a bulkhead, as it was from the senior convicts' quarters on the opposite side. Some of the irrepressible young thieves had succeeded in loosening a board in the bulkhead, giving them access to the soldiers' quarters. It became known to the men that one of the smallest-built lads made a practice of slipping through the narrow space and stealing tea, sugar, tobacco, biscuits, and anything else he could lay hands on; and some of the wilder spirits saw in this a chance to carry out a plot for successful mutiny. They persuaded the boy that he should, on a chosen night, steal three muskets which, he said, stood in a rack in the soldiers' berth, and which were supposed to be kept continually loaded. The plot was that, the muskets thus secured, they should be passed through into the men's prison, and in the morning when the convicts were let up to wash the deck, some of those who were up first should go to the forehatch and receive the stolen muskets from those in the prison below. During he proceedings the other men on deck were to be very active in throwing water and generally bustling to and fro to attract the attention of the three sentries - one at the forecastle, one at the waist, and the third on the poop - of whom only the last would be armed. The two sentries forward were to be surprised, seized and thrown overboard, while at the same signal, the one of the poop was to be shot dead. A party would then cut loose the breeching of a loaded cannon on the deck, and run it to the companion ladder leading to the soldiers' quarters. Simultaneously another party was to rush aft and secure the officers.
The day came, and to the point of seizing the forward sentries and the covering of the sentry on the poop, everything went according to plan, after which everything went to pieces. The stolen muskets proved to be unprimed; the sentry on the poop gave the call to arms, fired his piece at random, and was immediately thrown o9verboard. The fastenings of the cannon were too tough for the crude implements which the convicts possessed, and they were unable to cut it loose, no one having a knife. By this time the soldiers were pouring up the companion ladder, only to be knocked backwards by the clubbed muskets in the hands of the now desperate prisoners. Two commissioned officers clambered through the cabin skylight, gained the poop, and shot out-of-hand two of the boldest among the convicts. This sudden turn in affairs cowed the others, who fell back, giving the soldiers the opportunity to gain the deck. Instantly a volley of musketry poured into the ranks of the prisoners, of whom five fell dead, three jumped overboard, and the rest were driven below by the pricking bayonets of the infuriated guard. The whole of that day they spent without food below, and on the following morning they were mustered early on deck.
All ranks of the military were under arms, one line being formed across the poop and another across the forecastle, while a gun had been lashed in front of each, beside which stood a seaman with lighted match. both muzzles were trained upon the main hatchway where the convicts huddled in a cowering group, thoroughly abashed by the formidable precautions against any renewed attempt at mutiny. The ship's boatswain called each convict by name, and as each answered, he was ordered up to the quarter-deck on which the ship's and military officers were assembled in all the impressiveness of full uniform. The only one of the three sentries who had escaped death on the previous day, was called upon to scrutinize each man as he came forward, with a view to identifying those who had been on deck during the attempted seizure; and each prisoner was stripped. If no wound showed, and the sentry failed to identify the man as a participant in the mutiny, he was interrogated as to his knowledge of the details of the plot and to the identity of the ringleaders responsible for the outbreak, the promised reward for accurate information being immediate benefits for the rest of the voyage, and a strong recommendation from the senior officer and the ship's master for his liberty on landing at Port Jackson.
Rashleigh, being an inveterate and well-known lie-abed who was never on deck in the morning until driven there by compulsion, combined with the fact that his position of clerk to the surgeon made it unlikely that the leaders of the mutiny would have confided their plans to him, was dismissed as innocent of complicity. In the end about twenty prisoners were specifically identified and, after a severe public flogging, were heavily ironed and confined in a den under the forecastle for the remainder of the voyage. No amount of questioning produced any reliable information as to who the leaders had been, and the inquiry closed on the assumption that they were the men who had been shot dead, and those who had jumped overboard at the failure of the attempted seizure. The normal routine, varied only by the posting of five sentries on deck instead of three, was resumed, and no untoward incident occurred until a few days after the Magnet had passed the island of St. Peter and St. Paul. One day a sail was reported standing on a course which would bring her close across the Magnet's course. She was a long, low schooner with raking masts, and in the captain's phrase, 'she loomed very suspicious altogether'; but as she veered on to another course when almost within hail and made away, no further interest was taken in her that day. In the dense haze of the following morning, however, she suddenly appeared close to the Magnet, and almost at the moment she was seven by the lookout-man, the sullen roar of a heavy gun boomed across the morning quiet. Before the reverberations of the report had ceased, someone hailed the convict ship in a foreign tongue. Captain Boltrope replied at once:
'An English convict ship bound from Portsmouth to New South Wales.'
The excitement promised by the gun's fire had roused even Rashleigh from his bed, and he came up on deck at a run. There he saw the schooner lying with flapping sails, head to wind, and the officers of the Magnet, including the military, gather3ed on the poop. From the answering hail from the schooner, it was patent that she was a foreigner whose officers knew no English, and immediate confirmation of the conjecture came with the running up of the gaudy flag of Portugal on the stranger's gaff, simultaneously with the firing of another gun.
Amid the excited bustle which ensured, Dr. Dullmure, a Scottish Presbyterian chaplain who was on board, approached Captain Boltrope.
'Do you mean to fight, then, Captain?' he asked in a terrified voice.
'Do I mean to fight?' cried the seasoned sea-dog. 'Do I mean ...? Well, that's a good 'un. Aye, and fight like hell. do you suppose I'm going to stand by and see my ship plundered, and that glorious bit of bunting overhead insulted by a damned Portugee? No, no; Jimmy Boltrope, with forty soldiers and that moth of touch 'uns - English, and fighters, every one of them - to back him, is ready to fight your devil himself, though he rise from the ocean with seven heads and seventy horns, like your beast in the Revelations. Now, stand back out of the way.'
The person retreated below before this torrent of bellicose oratory, and the poop was cleared for action. The captain was in great glee and roared with laughter at the spectacle of the clumsy soldiers struggling u p to the fighting tops of which they had been detailed. Meanwhile a boat had been lowered from the schooner, apparently full of armed men, and made towards the Magnet. As it approached, however, the sight of the military guard at their various posts put consternation into the voice of the boat's commander.
'Prisonniers! prisonniers!' he shouted back to his ship, and immediately ordered the boat to be put about. He and his crew clambered quickly aboard, the boat was raised, and the schooner stood away without any further warlike action, and made its escape, much to the secret disappointment of every one, except the chaplain, on board the convict ship. After the excitement of the mutiny and the encounter with the Portuguese, the eventlessness of the remainder of the voyage gave a new dreariness to life aboard, and there was not a man who did not thrill with anticipation, when one evening the hail of 'Land ho!' from the masthead heralded the end of the sea journey.
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In the early hours of the morning he lights of Port Jackson were seen pricking the darkness, and as day dawned the Magnet entered the Heads - the two bold precipitous rocks which guard the entrance of one of the finest harbour in the world. A pilot had come aboard and took charge during the last lap of seven miles from the entrance to the site of the embryo town of Sydney. Rashleigh stood on deck watching the land in which he was to live for the rest of his life appear on the horizon; and at this first gaze he found it forbidding, without charm or beauty. Sandy bays fringed by stunted trees, opened far inland between harsh, rocky headlands, with dense forests of gloomy green covering the background. It appeared as a primeval, uncultivated region, bare of any evidences of the softer, tamer results of the work of man for which he and his comrades longed. Even the Golden Island, to which someone called his attention, added to his sense of disillusion, for it appeared in the grey dawnlight as a sterile tract of rugged grey rocks, covered at the top with trees of dull green in which was no beauty. The Magnet rounded the last promontory, and came into view of the embattled fort at the entrance to Sydney Cove, and the struggling row of cottages which stretched along the high ground. This was a part of the town of Sydney known as the Rocks. Shortly afterwards the vessel came to anchor at a point, opposite a neck of land, from which the whole town was visible. It was an unpretentious specimen of civilization in the raw. Narrow, straggling streets lined with one-story houses scarcely more than large huts, with half a dozen decent residences, and a few miserable cottages appearing through the trees of the north shore of the harbour. Such was the town of Sydney then. There was not a patch of cultivated land to be seen from the ship, even thus close inshore.
The day following their arrival, the Colonial Secretary, the Chief Superintendent of Convicts, and other officials came on board to deal with the newly-arrived contingent of prisoners. Each man was called into the cabin and full particulars taken of their names, age, religious, birthplaces, trades, and so on, all of which were entered in a regimen, with a minute description of each man. When this ceremony was concluded, the officials departed, and a more general class of visitors were allowed on board, some just curious for news of the old country, some to greet expected relatives and some to inquire whether there were men who practised trades in which labour was required. Among the last was an elderly gentleman who was seeking a suitable assistant for his teaching academy, to whom Rqashleigh was recommended by the surgeon-superintendent, in whose cabin he was then actually work. He was called out and presented to the schoolmaster, who, satisfying himself as to Rashleigh's capacity, departed without decision being come to.
For two weeks the prisoners kicked their heels in the confinement of the Magnet before they were paraded preparatory to going ashore. A new suit of clothing was handed out to each man, and they were broken up into divisions and rowed ashore to a spot near Fort Macquarie, whence they were marched through the Domain to the Prisoners' Barracks, and, after a formal parade, were dismissed. Numbers of the older prisoners now joined the new chums, bargaining for clothes, trinkets, and other small property, and many of the new-comers found themselves dexterously robbed before bed-time, by men whose criminal agility had not been lessened by punishment. Four days after his arrival at barracks, only Rashleigh and to others remained of the one hundred and forty who had reached the colony with him. Those who were masters of trades had been 'assigned' to various masters in need of workmen, and such as had no special training or aptitude were sent to the interior, to be employed upon timber-felling and agriculture. Rashleigh was eventually assigned to the schoolmaster, and in a few days discovered that his billet was in the nature of a sinecure. His employer made no real demands for industry upon either his assistant or the scholars of his so-called classical and commercial academy, and was apt on any excuse to leave Rashleigh in sole charge, whilst he indulged himself in whatever amusement was to be had in the town.
The improvement in his environment and the conditions of his life had the effect upon Rashleigh of making his consciousness of being a life-convict dwindle. He was now respectably clad, and had all the liberty he wanted out of school hours, and quickly drifted back into the kind of leisured existence he had pursued when Hartop had helped him on to the criminal road. He made the acquaintance of other educated convicts, mostly employed in government offices, who had formed the habit of meeting in the evenings in a kind of convivial political club. They debated affairs of State with easy condemnation of the powers that were, and the view that the welfare of the colony was shamefully neglected by Government was universally held, and inspired most of the speeches. The extremeness of the view expressed resulted eventually in their meetings becoming of interest to the Sydney police. Rashleigh was one evening riding the full flood of his impassioned eloquence upon the delinquencies of the Government, and roundly condemning the harshness of Governor Darling's rule, when half a dozen constables in charge of a police officer joined his audience.
The officer took the names, addresses and other particulars of every one present, paying special attention to the man whose indiscreet speech had been cut short in the middle by the police intervention. No steps beyond this examination were taken that night, but the implicit warning was not lost upon Rashleigh, who abandoned forgathering with the embryonic political agitators forthwith. This meant cutting himself away from the only congenial society that was available for the lower class of the population of the town were of so degraded a type that the solitude of his own companionship was preferable to their company. The small class to which Rashleigh temporarily belonged was sandwiched between two main sections of the community, one comprising high Government officials and the few large merchants - the then aristocracy of Australia - and the lower social dregs of the convicts, or, as they were officially known, prisoners of the Crown. Many of these had served their sentences, and had established themselves successfully in business of various descriptions, amassing wealth which they mostly used for the indulgence of the weaker appetites of the criminal type. Many of these men had made their fortunes by trading in rum and tobacco with the convict population, and their business morality was as loose as could be, stopping only at practices which would put them back to their former convict status. So Rashleigh was lonely, being denied the company of any women of decent rank by his position as a convict; and he was too fastidious to purchase the use and company of such frailer members of the sex as were open to sell themselves and their companionship for a consideration. The pretty ladies of Sydney in those days were the very dregs of their outlawed class, wallowing in indescribable sloughs of debasement and debauchery, preying upon the desires of debased and despairing men.
Rashleigh's period as a respectably living being, to all intents and purposes in the enjoyment of hiss freedom, came to a drastic close about a month after the police had interrupted his speech to the political malcontents. One day a constable came to the school with an order signed by the Chief Superintendent of Convicts, that one Ralph Rashleigh should accompany the bearer to Hyde Park Barracks. On reaching the barracks, he was placed in strict and solitary confinement, and before sunrise next day he was handcuffed and dispatched with a messenger-guard to a government agricultural establishment at Emu Plains, about thirty-five miles inland. He was not permitted to visit the school to obtain his belongs, the messenger proving impervious to entreaties and bribes. He was compelled to take the long tramp as he was, in a thin suit, and a light pair of shoes, which were in tatters long before he reached Parramatta, the end of his first day's stage. Next day he was obliged to walk the remaining twenty miles barefooted over the roughest roads, so that his feet were cut and bleeding before he reached his destination.
At Penrith they crossed the noble sweep of the Nepean River in a punt, and came in view of the far-flung expanses of Emu Plains. Rashleigh was by this time is too extreme a condition of physical wretchedness to be conscious of anything but fatigue and pain, scarcely raising his head to look whither his lacerated feet were carrying him. If he could only find rest in any sort of shelter he would be content to let the scenery be as bleak as a desert, and to forget that there need ever be a morrow to this day of anguish. Half bemused by his sufferings, he roused himself a little when the messenger announced that they were approaching the camp to which he was being sent. Looking up, he saw about thirty huts of various sizes, built of timber framing and bark walls, erected on both sides of the road. They gave an impression of utter comfortlessness and desolation, and as he stood waiting to be received, he noticed that the huts had been built with green timber, which had shrunk with time, leaving great chinks between the slabs. The shutters over the unglazed windows had also shrunk so that wind and rain had easy and numerous inlets.
The camp constable, a tall, stout, limping countryman, took over Rashleigh from the messenger, removed his handcuffs, and led him to the residence of the Superintendent of Emu Plains - Government House as it was then called. He was halted in the doorway, while the camp constable went to inform the official of the arrival. In a few minutes he was before the Superintendent, and an attendant constable was motioning him to remove his hat. Rashleigh had heard this official described as one of the terrors of the whole convict colony, and he studied his appearance while waiting for the man to look up from the letter which he was reading. He was above middle height, and of a very dark complexion, with brown drawn together in a gloomy frown; and when he spoke his tone was as harsh as his features.
'So, my fine fellow,' he growled, 'you are inclined to politics, are you! ell, we'll see whether we can find you something more profitable to think of here. You are sent to this establishment to learn field labour, and on no account to be employed in any other way for two years. When that time has expired you will be assigned to a settler. Take him away, Row, and send the principal overseer to me when the gangs come in.' On getting back to the camp buildings, the constable turned to Rashleigh with a sneer. 'As you be one of them dommed quill-drivers, I do suppose you'd best be put along of the rest, so you'll rest in the Playhouse yonder.'
He indicated a straggling mass of buildings, similar to those already described, and into this Rashleigh limped, rejoicing that at last a chance to rest had come. The great hut was empty, so he flung himself down upon a rude bench, made of a split log set upon two stumps in the earthen floor. Wind whistled through the gaps between the shrunken timbers, and puddles filled the hollows in the dirt floor. Except for a table of the same rough design and workmanship as that on which he lay, two large iron pots and several tin utensils, there was no furniture to give a semblance of comfort to the place. Rashleigh was roused from the deep sleep into which he had immediately fallen, by being roughly shaken by a man who warned him that he must rise quickly to answer the muster. Half asleep he staggered out of the hut to where the prisoners were assembled in the darkness. The camp constable with a lantern, accompanied by a train of watchmen, appeared, and the names of the prisoners belonging to the hut were called and answered to, Rashleigh being the last called upon to respond. He, in his raw simplicity, asked the constable where he was to sleep.
'I'll tell 'ee what,' roared the other angrily, 'on'y I thinks 'ee be a fool by what 'ee've been up to at Sydney. I'd knock 'ee down for axing me such a dommed daft question, but I'll compute it to yer ignorance and tell 'ee. There bain't no blankets for nobody in the stores; there's scores of men here a'ready wi'out any, an' many on 'em has been so for more nor these two years, so doan't'ee be bothering me any more, or I'll be dommed if I doan't find a shop for 'ee.'
As Rashleigh followed the party of convicts into the hut he heard one man observe; 'Old tom Row must be getting softish, not putting the chatty new chum into chokey,' and the man addressed say: 'Aye, I've knowed a dozen men put in for less than half that provocation.' Rashleigh asked them what he and said that could be regarded as a crime. 'Lord bless you,' answered the first speaker, 'you're naught but a motherless cub with all your sorrows to come. You'll soon find out that the jacks-in-office here don't need no provocation to get a man flogged. They just spend their time thinking out ways to do so without a cause.' Rashleigh digested this cheerful bit of knowledge of his new home, and asked what the rhttp://www.janesoceania.com/australia_convicts/index.htmest of the blanketless ones did about bedding. He was told that some managed to steal a few sheepskins from passing drays, and made shift to sew them together, while others had found a way of preparing tea-tree bark to make some sort of substitute; and the man offered to show him how this was done as soon as he could find time. Rashleigh thanked his informant and made the best of the worst by settling down to sleep, hungry as he was, in the ashes of the fire, where he slumbered until noisy bustle in the hut awakened him. He saw that it was morning and that most of the inmates had left the hut, and that the remainder were running out as if in great haste. He leapt up and followed the throng of men hurrying through the camp gate, when just as he was about to pass through the tolling of the camp bell ceases. Instantly a red-faced man, mounted on a black mare, rode into the gateway so that no more men could pass, roaring:
'Stop there, you sons of butchers! I'll learn you fellows to come smarter to muster. Here, Sam, take down their names.' Sam was a clerk of most unclerky appearance, and began to take down the names of all men inside the gate, when the principal overseer walked up. 'Oho! my fine quill-driver, he called, singling out Rashleigh, 'you are beginning well, at any rate. Here, Joe, take that chap into your mob, and try if you can't waken him u a bit.' The man styled Joe, a bandy, chocolate-complexioned little Jew, obeyed with alacrity. 'Come you here, sir,' he said. 'S'help mine Gott, I'll stir you up before night!' The names of all the men were read over, and the gangs with their tools began to move off. Joe, the overseer, ordered Rashleigh to take u a coil of rope that lay near and bring it along. The convict looked at the rope, which appeared to him heavy enough to load a mule, and bending down attempted to lift it, but found it beyond his strength.
'Curse and blast you, for a skinny-gut!' shouted the Jew. He called two men and made them lift the rope and place it on Rashleigh's back. He managed to stagger along a few paces, but finding steady walking impossible, he began to run, but tripped and came down heavily, butting his chin upon a jagged root, and rose bleeding profusely. Joe, however, was merciless, and had the rope replcaced on his back, and repeated the operation every time he fell under the weight of his burden. At last, trembling in every limb from over-exertion, Rashleigh with the rest of the gang reached the spot where they were to work.
Overseer Joe's gang were occupied in burning off the trees which had been felled in course of the vast task of clearing the land for arable culture. Some were detailed to cut u the boughs and trunks; others carried the pieces and piled them round the stumps and set the great stacks alight, tending them until they were entirely reduced to ashes. Rashleigh with about a dozen others were ordered under the direct surveillance of the overseer to the task of rolling out the trunks and getting them to the fires. A favourite trick of this petty tyrant was to select a heavy log, have it rolled on to six handspikes, each manned by two men, and once it was lifted on to the handspikes, order six of the men away on the pretext that the six remaining men could easily carry the log. Thus the six men had to strain every nerve, as, if one gave way, the log would fall to the earth, and the defaulter would be sure of condign punishment from Joe, who would not hesitate to have every man flogged for neglect of work, or, at the least, confined in the 'Belly Bot' for that night.
This and kindred brutal practices were indulged in by the overseers as a regular part of the routine by which they got the work done and held their jobs. It was connived at by the Superintendent, whose personal interest was to see that as much work was done as possible. As the overseers had to answer to him, so had he to answer to his superiors. For his own reassurance that there should be no slackness, his practice was to select from the convicts the worst behaved and most indolent as overseers and other subordinates, his theory being that such men, being most afraid of hardship and work themselves, would not be squeamish as to the methods by which they carried out his wishes, and maintained their own positions. There was almost competition among the overseers in severity of treatment, and if one, working a gang of fifty men, had ten of them flogged every week, it was arithmetically certain that another, with only twenty-five men under him, would see to it that not less than five of his gang were taken to court. It was from a similar motive that the Superintendent would put two equal gangs of men at the same kind of work alongside each other, so that the overseers would overwork their separate gangs in order to accomplish more work each by his own men. The rough treatment of the convicts which resulted from this and other methods of brutal oppression is something which is known to at least a few living people from the talk of their elders, and doubtless there are grandchildren now in the colony who have heard traditional tales of what their forbears suffered.
Rashleigh and his fellow-gangsmen were soon grimed from head to foot and half blinded with smoke from the fires, while his naked feet felt as if they were continuously burning. He had not recovered from the terrible exertion of humping the heavy coil of rope and, being unused to heavy muscular labour, he was in a state of semi-collapse, when with some others he was put to the handspikes to help turn a great butt of a tree which was partly embedded in the earth. Scarcely able to see, and awkward from unfamiliarity with his task, he placed the handspike's end between the trunk of the tree and a broken limb, forming a sharp angle to the trunk. When, with much swearing and sweating, the log was moved, it went over with a sudden jerk, wrenching the handspike out of his grasp, so that it whizzed like a twirling arrow through the air, tearing a portion of the brim from Overseer Joe's hat as it flew close past him. Joe was transported with rage at his near brush with a nasty death, and came rushing towards Rashleigh, noisy with curses and threats. He was pulled up short, however, by an enormous Jew lizard, a species of reptile deriving its name from the membraneous bags around its jaws, which distend when it is enraged, forming a resemblance to a human beard. Joe lifted the lizard on his toe and kicked with all his force at Rashleigh, who, acting instinctively, struck at the hurtling reptile with his right hand, so that it was flung back into the face of the oncoming overseer: it dropped, but caught at the clothing on his chest and attacked him viciously. One of the convicts sprang forward, knocked it off and beat it to death.
Joe ordered Rashleigh to be seized by the deputy-overseer and the gang's water-carrier, who bustled him to a tree-trunk, to which they secured him by a chain, having first handcuffed his hands behind his back. Then Joe came up. 'You blasted varmint,' he snarled, 'I'll teach you to mutiny and try to take mine life!' He then struck his defenceless prisoner over the head and returned to the gang. The Superintendent, on his daily round, came up to Rashleigh chained to the tree and heard from Joe that the prisoner had hurled his handspike at him, and attempted his life, showing his torn shirt and hat as proof of the truth of his fabrication.
'Let him be confined in camp until next Tuesday, and then brought to court,' ordered the Superintendent, and at dinner-time Rashleigh was marched back and handed over to old Tom Row.
'Oho! thee be'est a dangerous beast!' he said, with a grin. 'Oi'll take care thee does no more dommange for a while.' He thereupon dragged Rashleigh to an unroofed triangular space, enclosed by the walls of two huts and a high palisade, through a strong wicket in which he thrust his prisoner with a force that sent him headlong, losing his hat as he went through. 'There,' jeeree Tom Row, 'thee bees safe enough now! Thee'll knock nobody's brains out now, I'll warrant thee, unless it's thee's own.'
The sun was at its zenith, and Rashleigh, being bareheaded, was soon giddy and sick from the heat upon his throbbing head, but it was not until middle afternoon that he was able to sit in the shadow of one of the walls of his open-air prison. His dinner, a morsel of salt meat and a dumpling of boiled maize meal, had been brought to him soon after he was thrown in, but his heart sickness made him unable to eat anything for some time. When, after the shade had relieved his agony somewhat, he wished to eat, he had to drop to his knees and lie on his belly and gnaw his food on the dish like an animal, owing to his hands being fettered behind his back. In this state he was left from Thursday until the following Tuesday, without the handcuffs being removed. The autumn nights were as piercingly cold as the days were hot, and the dews were heavy, so that he spent the nights shivering in wet clothes. Aching and fatigued as he was, sleep was almost an impossibility, as he could not lie down with any ease, and the pain in his wrists and arms was increasingly excruciating. Long before Tuesday came he longed for death, and once in his torment ran his head violently against an angle of one of the sheds in the hope of accomplishing unconsciousness, if not death itself. His strength was too far spent to enable him to inflict more than numbing bruises on his skull.
At last Tuesday morning came and Tom Row came to release him. Fouled with his own excrement, his whole body loathsome with dirt, it was decided that he must wash before being taken to court. His handcuffs were taken off for this purpose, but the anguish of bringing his arms round into their natural position was so intense that he collapsed in a swoon. He came to in a puddle of water, which a sneering constable had flung over him from a bucket. His wrists were swollen to twice their natural size, and when he tried to wash, he found that he could not bend his elbows. The constable therefore assisted him, with rough and obscene comments, and presently he was ready to start for the dreaded court. When it came to re-handcuffing him, there could not be found a single pair of darbies to fit his swollen wrists, and the officials were therefore grudgingly compelled to have him taken to Penrith without any. He was put in charge of a constable, who was given strict orders to crack his head if he made the slightest attempt to escape. They reached the court-house without any incident, Rashleigh being too weak and spent even to want to escape. There were a great many men from Emu Plains brought up to answer various charges, mostly fabricated by the tyrannical overseers, and the majority of them had been summarily tried and sentenced to seventy-five or a hundred lashes, before Rashleigh's turn came to appear before the court. While he was waiting, a man came out from judgement, his face alight with smiles, who, on being asked why he looked so pleased, answered; 'Oh, I'm in luck to0-day. I've only got life to Newcastle!' The poor devil was so sick of Emu Plains that the prospect of spending the rest of his life in the coal mines was pleasing.
Ralph was placed in the dock before the bench of magistrates, consisting of an old parson, an old settler, and a young military officer who had only recently been appointed. Overseer Joe was sworn, and recounted his lying story of a murderous attack by the prisoner, producing his shirt and hat in evidence to the Superintendent, winding up by asserting that 'he had never knowed a more desperate and dangerous ruffian.' The military magistrate called upon Rashleigh to state his defence, though the old settler was impatient, muttering something about 'as clear a case as ever I heard in court.' The third magistrate was sleeping soundly on the Bench. Rashleigh gave a clear and intelligible account of what actually had happened, and at the end of his recital, the military man asked him how his wrists came to be so swollen, to which he replied with an account of his recent confinement. Being new to the country, and the treatment of the convicts, the new magistrate was shocked at such treatment, and asked the old settler whether it was possible that such brutality was tolerated. The settler replied unemotionally that it was normal and necessary, as only the most stringent measures sufficed to control the turbulent spirits of the convicts, and that doubtless the prisoner was much better known to the authorities of Emu Plains than to them, and that, in brief, it was the Bench's duty to support the Government establishment. Rashleigh caught what was being said, and at once declared that his alleged offence has taken place on his first working day on Emu Plains, and that this was the first charge that had been brought against him since his arrival in Australia. The captain asked him if he had witnesses to prove his case, and on the prisoner naming two or three men who were working in his party, and despite the objections of the settler, the captain carried a proposal for a remand.
'Let the prisoner be closely confined over here till next court day so that he cannot see or speak to say of the witnesses he has named. We will examine them ourselves, and if it is proved that he has tried to impose upon us, we will give him one hundred lashes in addition to the punishment for his alleged crime.' On next court day Rashleigh was brought before the same Bench of magistrates, with the parson in the chair for the day. The clerk read over the overseer's deposition and the prisoner's defence, but before the reading was finished the chairman was sound asleep, and the settler, oblivious to what was proceeding, hidden behind a newspaper. The military gentleman then examined the four witnesses who had been named by he prisoner, and it was no easy task to force answers from them, their evidence being given with reluctance born of the fear of Overseer Joe's vengeance when they should be back on the Plains. there stories were, however, explicit corroborations of Rashleigh's account, and the captain was satisfied.
The captain shook the slumbering chairman of the Bench, asking him for his decision on the case.
While this was being done the reverend chairman settled himself to enjoy another nap, but was again aroused by the insistent captain, and gave summary judgment.
'Well, give him a hundred lashes: it will smarten him up a bit.'
'pardon me,' insisted the captain, 'I can't see that he has deserved any punishment, or, even if he has, what he has already suffered must be taken into consideration.' Rashleigh listened wearily, wondering when this farce of a trial would end. 'Oh, you don't know yet the artfulness of these scoundrels,' answered the unabashed chairman. 'You had better give him seventy-five, at any rate.' The military magistrate was not to be persuaded from justice. 'No, I think we may let him go this time,' he said. 'But if ever he comes up again we will double his punishment.' 'Well, well, let it be as you please, Captain,' agreed the parson, with an air of smug resignation. 'I think the overseers should be supported in their duty.'
'I agree. but this man has been in strict confinement for twelve days, and we'll let that go for his present punishment. Prisoner,' he continued, addressing Rashleigh, 'you are discharged.' Rashleigh was removed and was about to leave for camp in charge of a constable at the rising of the court, when Overseer Joe came up to him, his browny-yellow cheeks livid with rage, and shook his fist in the prisoner's face. 'Gott strike me dead, you bastard, if you ain't the very first man that ever beat me at court! I'll take blasted goot care you don't come off free next Tuesday.'
As Rashleigh shrank away from the threatening bully, a commanding voice called through the venetian blinds of an adjacent window. 'Come here , you, sir.'
At the summons Joe's jaw dropped, and he made to slink quickly away, when the blinds were thrust sharply aside, and the head of the military magistrate appeared. 'Here, you, sir - you overseer, I mean - come back instantly.' There was a note in his voice that brought the reluctant overseer round, hat in hand. 'Now, sir,' said the magistrate angrily, 'I overhead your language just now, and I've a mind to give you the soundest flogging for the blasphemous impiety of your oath, but as the court has risen, I will overlook that. But I warn you to have a care, for if I catch you again tripping in an oath, I'll prosecute you for perjury; and, by Heaven, I'll make you wish you had never been born. Now, off to your duty, and beware.'
The warning gesture with which he dismissed Joe was more eloquent of his meaning than all his words. Joe, thoroughly cowed, sneaked away, and put as great a distance between himself and Penrith court-house as haste could accomplish. Back in camp Rashleigh was received by his fellow-convicts with a kind of awe. They regarded him much as children do a conjurer who had startled them by the magic of an incredible illusion. He had, to them, accomplished the impossible, for never in the memory of any of them had a working prisoner on Emu Plains obtained a decision against an overseer, or even got so much as the benefit of a doubt. To have ridden over Joe added to the marvel, for he was, as one man put it, 'Able to swear that a white horse was a chandler's shop, and every hair upon its back a pound of tallow candles,' rather than be beaten.
Rashleigh slept comfortably that night, as a man had run away, leaving behind a nook formed of a sheet of bark like a boxed shelf, which was filled with the inner husks of Indian corn. He was roused from his first snug sleep since he had come to the camp by a tremendous hullabaloo of sound dominated by the noise of beaten tins, which reminded him of the practice of folk in the homeland when swarming their bees. In answer to his startled inquiry he was told that the row was made by a bunch of men who had decided to runaway, and were using this means of beating up recruits for the bush. It appeared that scarcely a week passed without some men bolting, preferring the dangerous risks of the bushy to enduring any longer the raw tyranny of overseers, constables, watchmen, and other petty bullies. Often, he learnt, these petty officers paid their fellow-convicts to make a show of escaping, so that they might gain, for recapturing them, either a monetary reward or a remission of sentence. It was the rule that anyone who recaptured a runaway convict could choose between a sum of ten shillings or a remission of six months' penal servitude. The practice had consequently become rife for the overseers so to terrify and torment some poor fellow, breaking his spirit with continuous hardship and hunger, that he was only too ready to fall in with their plot if only to gain a few says' respite from the intolerable conditions which they imposed upon him.
The overseer, having reduced his victim on this state, would tempt him with bribes of food. 'Why the devil don't you bolt for it?' he would ask. 'I'll give you some grub to get rid of you.'
This formula was understood, and as the flogging which would follow his capture was well worth suffering for the bliss of three or four days' freedom, the man would gladly take the few pounds of flour and the small quantities of tea and sugar, and, with these, the promise of favoured treatment on his return, and make his quasi-escape. Before going he arranged with the overseer a rendezvous at which he would be waiting to be recaptured three or four days later,. The overseer would hale the victim before the magistrates, and put up an epic yarn of the difficulties he had surmounted and the fierce struggle he had had with his prisoner before he had finally dragged him back to camp. the magistrates accepted the story, of which corroboration was in any case impossible, and, if it were a first offence, the man was sentenced to a hundred lashes. On returning to work the overseer would seize the first opportunity of turning the crawler (as such men were called) out of his gang into that of a colleague, who would renew the treatment with the same results, except that the spirit-broken fellow was, on the second attempt, sentenced to a penal settlement.
By this inhuman method many convict-officers managed to shorten their sentences, while the men they crushed in the process were treated as incorrigibles and lost any hope of freedom before death. The day after returning from Penrith court, Rashleigh was removed from Joe's gang into another engaged on timber-felling, under the discipline of a Welshman, known as David Muffin, the quality of whose brutality was revealed that day. The gang were employed in pairs, one air to each tree, and it chanced that two men were cutting down a giant tree which was decayed at the heart. Just as they had cut through the living timber, the tree snapped across instantaneously, toppled and crashed the two convicts beneath its great weight. Four of the men, working nearest to the scene, ran immediately to the help of their comrades, only to find them shapeless masses of pulped flesh and shattered bones. Appalled by the suddenness of the tragedy, they stood gaping, when Davy Muffin, his foul lips streaming with oaths, ordered his satellites to handcuff the four of them for daring to leave their work without permission. On the next Tuesday, they all received fifty lashes as punishment for this crime.
Under such a man Rashleigh, awkward at his work through ignorance of method and physical weakness, gave the bully plenty of scope for harsh treatment, and learnt before the first day was done that there was s rough espris de corps among the overseers on the Plains; and realized, too, that it would have been better for him had he lost his case and taken a hundred lashes. The overseer, at the sound of the bell which ended work for the day, ordered his deputy to collect the men and tools, and set off towards camp. Rashleigh was again loaded with the heavy rope - the usual burden, he was told, of the last man to join a gang - and was in consequence among the last to arrive back in camp, at the tool-house. Davy, Joe and other overseers were standing there by a number of men, handcuffed to a chain in pairs, and guarded by camp constables. He was ordered to be handcuffed with the rest, wondering what new species of tyranny he was to endure. In a few minutes the miserable file of men, to the clank of fetters, were marched towards an auxiliary prison, known strangely as the Belly Bot, situated under the first range of the Blue Mountains, about a mile from camp.
This place of confinement was subdivided into cells, measuring about seven feet by four, and eight feet high, into each of which the men were literally crammed until the cell was packed tight with standing men, upon whom the doors were crushed shut, so that the men could scarcely move so much as an arm or a leg. In this condition they were left for the night. Imagination refuses to face the full loathsomeness of this sleepless, foodless, latrine-less state, of men herded in bitterness. The doors of these fouled cells were thrown open and the men ordered to get off to muster. The fear of being late, and so receiving more and worse punishment, made them hurry to camp, and frequently - so late were they released - they scarcely had time to seize a morsel of food to eat on their way to work. Five nights at least out of each week, to teach him the unwisdom of winning a case against authority at court, for nearly three months Rashleigh was condemned to the infernal Belly Bot; and also for the six months following his trial was 'lumbrered' - that is, compelled to work for Government on Saturdays.
The rule was that the men of good conduct were free from ten o'clock in the morning on Saturdays to mend and wash their clothing. thus did Davy Muffin avenge the insult to the dignity of overseership inflicted upon it by Rashleigh. During his long spell of the Belly Bot treatment, he witnessed an incident which was tragic and also inspiring. there was a man named Bright, of a gloomy, morose temper, who had been confined with him one night, and Rashleigh had noticed particularly that he had borne his punishment in silence, without a grumble or an oath. On reaching camp in the morning he went as usual to the tool-house for a narrow felling axe, and, on the way to muster, happened to pass his overseer. 'Here, tom,' he asked, 'what made you put me in Belly Bot last night? I hadn't done aught.' The overseer laughed: 'Oh, for a lark, you bloody fool?' he answered lightly. Rashleigh gasped with excitement at the sudden change in Bright's appearance. The man's eyes suddenly fired, every muscle in his body seemed to flex, while his face went dead white with rage. "Then take that for a lark!' he snarled, as he swung his axe high with an almost gleeful gesture and brought it crashing down with such force that the overseer's head was cleaved to the jaw-bone, in which the axe remained fast stuck. So sudden and unexp0ectged was the attack that the overseer had not time so much as to cry out for help. One moment the taunt was in his teeth, and the next he was dead. Bright struggled to free his axe, but before he could do so the camp constables, who had been paralysed by the swiftness of the attack, rushed upon him and secured him. He made no attempt at resistance, saying to his captors with the utmost coolness:
'If only I could have got my axe loose, I'd have made dog's meat of a dozen more of you bloody tyrants!' At the trial, when called upon for his defence, he showed neither remorse nor repentance. 'I was tired of the whole damned business. Life was just hell,' he said morosely. 'All I wish is that I was to swing for killing a hundred blasted overseers, instead of one, you lot of miserable tyrants!' This man's outbreak - for which he was hanged - had no ameliorating effect upon the treatment of the prisoners of Emu Plains. On the contrary, their oppression became more brutal than ever, and each overseer was provided with a heavy club, for protection, and if a man so much as looked sideways at him the overseer did not hesitate to knock the man down.
"You're going to Bright me, are you!" became a catchword among the overseers, and was inevitably preliminary to a crack over the head with a club.
The period during which Rashleigh was on Emu Plains was one during which the whole colony was suffering from the effects of a severe drought, no rain having fallen in sufficient quantities to cause vegetation for over two years. The inhabitants were reduced to a state of semi-starvation; wheat was selling at seventy shillings a bushel and maize at forty shillings, and the supply of either grain was extremely meagre. Such w the neediness of the poorer class of free colonists that, when the Government cattle on Emu Plains were being slaughtered each week to supply meat for the prisoners' rations, the stockyard was besieged by old and young begging the entrails and offal from the convict-butchers.
Terrible as were the conditions of the free population of the district, those of the convicts were immeasurably - and naturally - worse. The weekly ration per man at this time was about five and one-half gills of peas or rice, with which they were supposed to make twenty-one meals, and keep fit and strong for the heavy work which was expected of them. When, as in some Government establishments, the nations were served out in one issue for the whole week, the half-starved wretches would frequently consume the lot in from one to three days and starve completely for the remainder of the week, eking out a meal with what grassed and herbs they could find still growing, and eating unhesitatingly snakes, rats, lizards, and other repugnant foods.
As an instance of the lengths to which hunger drove these men; one one occasion a gang were working near a rod over the Blue Mountains and coaxed away from a traveller a fine dog. As it approached they caught it round the neck with a lasso-noose, and killed it. Shortly afterwards the owner returned on his tracks, searching for the dog, and on reaching the roadside camp found a gaunt, emaciated wretch busily skinning his pet's head. On questioning he fellow the owner learnt that, as soon as the beast had been skinned, there had ensured a sanguinary fight for bits of the dog's carcass, during which he had only managed to secure the head, which, he averred, had little eatable upon it. On Emu Plains rations were issued daily, which ensured the men getting at lest one meal a day, but the quantity was manifestly insufficient, and many were the methods pursued to augment the official food. Peaches grew in profusion along the river banks, and at spots nearer to camp., but by the time the fruit had reached the size of nuts it was plucked and devoured, either boiled or raw. The ripening of the maize crop provided the starvelings with another opportunity. To leaver the camp after the evening muster at eight o'clock was an offence punishable by one hundred lashes, but the men made no bones about the risk of capture, but would steal off to the cornfields carrying an old tin dish covered with a grater - a fiddle, as they called it - and spend hours of the night grating the scarcely ripe cobs of maize, creeping back to camp with their booty of pulpy meal.
The rules on Emu Plains during this period of scarcity throughout the country were stringent even for that home of harshness. If a constable or watchman, an entering a hut in the course of their regular evening duty, saw even the point of a cob of maize in the ashes of the fireplace, where they were sometimes roasted by the convicts, he would insist upon the man nearest to the fire to point out the maize thief. If he could not, or would not do so, the man was confined, tried at the next court, and was certain to receive at least seventy-five lashes, whether or not he had been roasting a 'Hawkesbury duck' the colonial name for a cob of maize.
The wonder was that Rashleigh and others were not tempted to commit suicide, as death could scarcely hold more suffering, hardship and misery than the life to which they clung. It would, however, almost seem as though men actually value life in inverse ratio so their enjoyment of it. He, at any rate, declared later that never during his periods of criminal prosperity in England had be valued life so highly in itself as he did during the worst days of his servitude as a convict on Emu Plains and elsewhere. He did not hear of a single case of suicide among the convicts during his entire stay there.