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Friday, March 5, 2010

Upon Van Diemen’s Land


The very day we landed upon the Fatal Shore,
The planters stood around us, full twenty score or more;
They ranked us up like horses and sold us out of hand,
They chained us up to pull the plough, upon Van Diemen’s Land.(1)

In 1770, when Captain James Cook first discovered the continent of Australia, he made landfall on the east coast at a place he called Botany Bay, just south of present day Sydney Harbor, and then sailed on. The Aborigines thus remained undisturbed, as they had been for centuries before, until a day in January 1788, when the first British convict fleet, comprised of eleven vessels, landed on their shores. Beginning on that day “an unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick.”(2)

The first convict colony (1788) was called New South Wales. In 1804 a separate convict colony with its own Lieutenant Governor was established at Van Diemen’s Land, an island off the southeast coast of Australia. Van Diemen’s Land was named after Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company, who organized an expedition in 1642 to map the unknown parts of the world. The expedition commander, Abel Tasman, discovered the island, thinking it was the mainland, and named it after his patron. More than two centuries later, after the name had become tarnished with cruel and shameful memories, it was changed to Tasmania after the island’s discoverer.(3)

Early in January (summer in the Southern Hemisphere) the barren hills and mountains of Van Diemen’s Land appeared in the distance. The Canton entered the mouth of the Derwent River and dropped anchor in Hobart Town harbor at 7:00 p.m. on January 12, 1840. A 16,000-mile voyage to the “very southeastern outskirts of habitable creation”(4) had finally come to an end.

The next morning the superintendent of convicts, William Gunn, “a very respectable looking man with but one arm,” came aboard with his staff. He began the tedious task of interviewing all 230 convicts, and preparing an official written record on each one. After a long series of questions about his family, his education, his religion, etc., each man was instructed to strip to the waist, and his physical features, scars, and marks were all noted:

[James Gemmell] Native Place, Ayrshire; Trade, gardener; Height, 5 ft. 8 ½ inches; Age, 23; Complexion, pale; Head, round; Hair, dark brown; Whiskers, red; Eyes, hazel; Nose, small; Mouth, large. [Con. 18/5] (5)

While still aboard ship in the harbor, James received the first news of his nine friends who had arrived six months earlier on the Marquis of Hastings. Mr. Gunn informed Miller:

McLeod, McNulty, and Van Camp are, I am sorry to say, dead. They lived but a short time after landing. The others are in the interior and are well. They appear to be very good men. I hope you and your comrades will conduct yourselves as well.(6)

Miller and Gemmell esteemed these men as their own brothers, after all they had endured together. They regarded Alexander McLeod as a noble man, “comparatively faultless in person, mind and heart.” Five days after his death, several of his shipmates had been sent to the hospital to help bury the dead. They found a body, dissected and disemboweled, lying on a table: “Behold, it was poor McLeod whom they all knew and respected.” They gathered up the pieces, placed them in a crude wooden coffin, and buried him in an unmarked grave with thousands of other felons. (7)

After nearly four months at sea, twenty-five-year-old James Gammell set foot on Australian soil at Hobart(8) dock on January 17, 1840. Any privileges he may have enjoyed aboard the Canton now came to an end. The convicts were marched to the prison yard, mustered, given prison garb, and subjected to a long speech by the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, His Excellency Sir John Franklin.(9) Specifically to the U.S citizens he said, “Your notions of liberty and equality must be kept within your own breast. Van Diemen’s Land is not America.”(10) They were then ushered into prison society and soon learned that Franklin was right—America it was not!
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  1. Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. ix. (Convict ballad, ca. 1825-30)
  2. Hughes, pp. 1-2.
  3. Hughes, p. 47.
  4. Archives Office of Tasmania (transcription.) See Miller, pp. 255-257. James was 23 when captured.
  5. Miller, p. 257.
  6. Miller, pp. 257-259; Wait, pp. 127-129. Four years later Miller, still in VDL, visited Hobart in search of McLeod’s grave, but never found it. The Canadian prisoners wanted to erect a gravestone in his honor.
  7. A small monument unveiled by the Canadian High Commissioner (1995) in Princes Park, Battery Point, Hobart, honors “The memory of 92 exiles transported from Canada.” It fails to mention that nearly 80 of them were Americans.
  8. Sir John Franklin was Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Jan.1837- Aug. 1843. He was a nephew of Ben Franklin.
  9. Miller, p. 271.

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