I have to apologise profusely to my regular blog readers, I have been out with chronic bronchitis for eight weeks and only just got my personality and brain back sometime last week. Meanwhile in between dealing with absolutely zero energy I have been working on a commissioned radio play for ABC (Australian broadcasting Corporation). Set on one of the convict ships Lady Penrhyn that was part of the First Fleet to sail out to Botany Bay; it focuses on the true-life love story between a young Jewish convict and a young Scottish lieutenant. Esther Abrahms was merely 16 with a young baby when she was transported for stealing about five yards of lace. Britain at the time was a place of huge social inequality and had already had a record of transporting ‘criminals’ to America (then after the war of Independence the Americans naturally said enough with the criminals) so they had to find an alternative destination. Initially they tried the African coast (to great disaster, most of the men and convicts were killed by the local or died of disease). Cook had already suggested Australia and by 1787 there was already a colony of male convicts, the Brits then decided on a policy of deliberating transporting women (for relatively minor offences) to boost the female population (which, frankly, apart from abducted local indigenous women was next to nothing). It was a grim prospect and Esther (who lied about her age and said she was twenty) must have been both incredibly precocious and strong willed to have both psychologically survived the trip (it took about nine months on a ship the size of a Sydney ferry) and strategic. George Johnston, who was then 23, was already a war veteran having served in the navy since he was 12! He fought against the Americans in the War of Independence and against the French in India and was, from all accounts, blonde, handsome and tall and well respected amongst his fellow officers and sailors. Despite strict orders about the female convicts having anything to do with the men on board both emotionally and sexually, liaisons happened (nine months at sea, what did they expect!) and Esther was one of the youngest and physically striking. Even so, this must have been a love story for once they arrived in Botany Bay the two went onto have eight children, prestigious lives and eventually married. The Sydney suburb Annandale was named after their large mansion Annandale House (named for the small Scottish town George Johnston grew up in) and at one point George Johnston was Lieutenant Governor of NSW. (Well know to my Australian readers). In executing my research I came across the complete log of the ships journey written by the ship’s Sturgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth. Written almost in plot points, it is the description of some of the day to day life on aboard but is also a fantastic record of the experience of both wonder and adventure of the actual journey from Plymouth 1787 to Botany Bay 1789 – through ports such as Teneriffe, Rio de Janeiro, Cape of Good Hope (Africa). There is one extraordinary account of hearing Africa slaves singing at dawn moored in the harbour of Rio de Janeiro (Portuguese colony and big slave trading post), with the beautiful singing drifting across the water as the Sun rises. Smyth casually explains to us that it is known that the slaves sing when about to go to auction or to execution! This in-passing-casualness is a graphic illustration of how accepted slavery was – the convict ship’s route crosses the slave trading route and there are several references to passing slave traders – sometimes flying English flags, sometimes Portuguese.
I have also been reading an excellent non-fiction book I recommend to anyone interested in late 18th century literature, science and philosophy. It’s one of those great books where you can join the dots between the great romantic poets, the emergence of science and it’s split with religion but also glean an understanding of the kind of utopia romanticism that drove those early British explorers. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. Coincidentally it covers the young Joseph Banks’s experience of The Endeavour’s journey through to Australia (Captain Cook’s journey 1770 -) that ironically, I guess, was the precursor to the first fleet of convict ships seventeen years later (find Paradise, must send convicts.). Bank’s very courageous, idealistic (and extremely privileged – the guy was a serious trust fund baby) enthusiasm and open-mindedness is inspirational.
For anyone in Sydney –
I have a new short play opening, see below! It’s a darkly funny short piece – a ghost story set in Mortuary Station (a quirky mock-Gothic 19th century building attached to Central Station) which used to be the loading point for coffin train heading out to the main cemetery, heavily used in times like when Plague hit Sydney in 1900.