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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

My silence has a reason

I Musici: if you look carefully, you can see the sails of the Opera House behind the players.

The audience.  There's a champagne tent
at the very back
I am on the trail of a story.  The outline was conceived last Sunday morning, while sitting on the Bennelong Lawn, just south of Sydney's famous Opera House, in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. It happens to be just about the oldest part of Sydney. To those who know me, yes, I was counting bird species, but mainly, I was listening to music.

It was a delight: Rossini, Donizetti, Paganini—and if you know anything about the players, you won't need to ask which extended Vivaldi lollipop they brought us, the piece that they resurrected, along with the Red Priest, half a century ago.

The lawn is named after an Aboriginal leader who was a boy when the white people first arrived here in 1788. He later travelled around Australia, some time after being seen wounding a man with a boomerang in 1804, almost within shouting distance of where I was sitting.

We were listening to an Italian group, I Musici who were mainly playing on instruments older than white settlement, and I was toying with a challenge/request laid on me by a teacher this week.  It was to produce an account of the First Fleeters that was a bit less banal than the average, that would get kids 9-10 jumping.

I soon realised that I had most of the fragments of a good story assembled, and it started to come together, but when I got home, I did some burrowing in old newspapers, the records of the Old Bailey and other stuff.  Here's what I have as the beginning, leading into the main structure:

The First Fleet was about 60% (I need to check the exact figure) convicts, and it was sent out to establish a penal colony.  It was also staking a British claim to part of a continent that they regarded as unclaimed.  (Yes, there is a degree of reservation in that statement.)  The fleet left England in mid-1787, and arrived here in early 1788.

On one day in 1787, two Elizabeths were had up at the Old Bailey. Elizabeth Hayward who, at 14 when she left England, would be the youngest female convict on the first fleet, got seven years for stealing a gown, a bonnet and a cloak from her master (she was an apprentice).  Elizabeth Beckford was 70 when they left: she was nicked for purloining a cheese worth four shillings.  They gratefully accepted their fates.  There were, incidentally, another 18 First Fleet convicts sentence to be transported that day, and something like 50 more who were sentenced to go as well, but appear not to have been on any ship.
Elizabeth Beckford died on the voyage, and was described by the surgeon as being "82 years of age", so who can tell how old she really was?  Elizabeth Hayward died in 1830, but I don't have much on her as yet.  I know she got 30 lashes for insolence, not long after landing and ended up on Norfolk Island for a while.
There's more. On the same day, D'Arcy Wentworth, a surgeon of good family (read a cad!), was arraigned for trial as a highwayman.  I already know quite a bit about D'Arcy and his descendants, so this was good.
Acquitted at the end of 1787, somebody suggested that he got off lucky this time, but next time wouldn't be so easy, so he went to Australia with the second fleet, knowing that voluntary transportation was better than the involuntary sort.  This was a disappointment, as I thought D'Arcy had gone on the first fleet, but it contrasts beautifully with the next case, of somebody who seemed to greatly fear transportation -- but all was not as it seemed.
On that same day, Samuel Burt, forger, declared once again that he would rather swing than have that commuted to a life sentence on the east coast of New South Wales, and this after the King had graciously given him a reprieve.  No thanks, Kingy, said Sam, I'd just as soon get this life stuff over and done with.  He reneged in March, and also sailed in the second fleet--and apparently helped foil a mutiny on his ship on the way out.
It appears that Burt was rejected by a young lady because he was an apprentice, with time to serve, and so was not free to marry.  He committed a forgery before surrendering himself to the police at Bow Street, hoping to be hanged (a sort of non-violent suicide-by-cop). As a sad case, he was offered the King’s pardon and he several times refused the offer, until the lady agreed to marry him and then, joy, oh rapture unconfined, he preferred to live.  Sadly, she visited him repeatedly in Newgate Prison, where she caught gaol fever, and died.
You couldn't invent this stuff, you know.

So, I already have a strong start, though there's more digging to do.  Did Samuel Burt ever marry?  Where did he end up?  I know that he thwarted a convict mutiny on his ship coming out, and that on January 31, 1794, he was unconditionally emancipated, but then the trail goes cold, aside from a land grant somewhere near the Cook's River.  I suspect that he headed back to England, as he could do with an unconditional pardon.

There will be more on this at some point, but I just wanted to point out that I haven't forgotten the fossils, but that I have been gainfully employed.  I have a third Elizabeth, Mrs MacArthur, who put in all the hard yakka while here husband was swanning around in England—but guess who took the credit for creating the Australian merino sheep!

I also have a convict who faked a gold mine, a Mauritian called Black Caesar who was the first bushranger, a botanising, twitching surgeon who made good use of his time, the first European to become an initiated man of an Aboriginal tribe, a stalwart astronomer and more.  On the way home, we passed Ralph Clark's much-pillaged garden (which wasn't on Garden Island), and that's part of the story as well.

You definitely couldn't invent this stuff.

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