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Posts tagged ‘Convicts’

Lost to History

Nine-year-old John Hudson narrowly escaped death by hanging, for stealing a few household items, to become the youngest convict at the time of sentencing and one of thirty-four children to arrive in Sydney on the First Fleet. In 1788 when John, now thirteen, arrived in Australia along with more than 700 other felons, approximately 250 Aboriginal languages each with different dialects reverberated across our vast continent.

Along with the convicts and their jailers, the First Fleet brought a new language to the land; a language that evolved into Australian English. It is a rich language enhanced by colloquialisms, such as ‘a kangaroo loose in the top paddock’. Australian English developed under the influence of the convicts giving us words like ‘fair dinkum’, ‘chook’ and ‘brumby’, as well as Aboriginal languages which gave us words such as ‘budgerigar’, ‘yabber’ and ‘billabong’ .

For me, it is a tragedy that the original languages of the land are no longer spoken and sung across the continent. Modern Australia would be far more auroral if it were ablaze with the languages of the many Aboriginal tribes of Ancient Australia.

When my two young nieces, who are mixed-race Aboriginal girls, recently stayed with me for a weekend, the seven-year-old and I explored the Italian language together. (I am learning Italian as an adult and she is learning it at school.) As we enjoyed making this connection through a foreign language, I experienced a sense of sadness that we weren’t also able to enjoy exploring the language of her Aboriginal ancestors. From the whitefella side of her family (and from the wider community) she has inherited and learned the language of English. But the language of the blackfella side of her family has disappeared.

Just as Aboriginal languages were lost to history, so too was young John Hudson. The last known record of him is that on 15 February 1791, he received 50 lashes ‘for been out of his hutt after nine oClock.’

It occurred to me that perhaps my nieces and nephews, through the loss of the language of their Aboriginal ancestors, have also lost a connection to ancestral memories. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a heartbreaking possibility.

As my mother used to say, ‘it’s no use crying over spilt milk’ but I can’t help imagining an Australia where all Australians grow up speaking the local Aboriginal language as their second (or even first) language. Instead of struggling with the mandatory and irrelevant French I studied at school, I could have learned from the Kurnai language of my local area that the pelican is called ‘boorun’ and the Southern Cross is known as ‘Ngooran’. Speaking their language would have been a powerful way to demonstrate respect for the Kurnai people, as well as creating deeper bonds between the whitefella tribe and the blackfella tribe. Colonialism robbed not only Aboriginal Australians but all Australians, of the opportunity to know the first languages of our homeland.

It’s long been a dream of mine to see Aboriginal languages taught in schools as a mainstream subject for ALL students. I thought it was an impossible dream but it’s exciting to know that more is being done now by the Education Department and other agencies to revive and teach Aboriginal languages. Some schools have already implemented Aboriginal language instruction. So there is hope for my dream to be realised.

And perhaps one day, maybe when a descendant is researching their family history, John Hudson’s story will also be dragged out of the depths of history.

Glossary:

billabong: a dry section of a river that fills when the river overflows

brumby: a wild horse

budgerigar: a small parrot

chook: a hen

kangaroo loose in the top paddock: to be mentally deficient

Kurnai: title of the tribe that inhabited Gippsland

yabber: to chat or rabbit on

References:

Robert Holden, Orphans of History: The Forgotten Children of the First Fleet, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999

First Fleet Fellowship Victoria Inc.

Thomas Keneally, A Commonwealth of Thieves, Anchor Books, New York, 2007

https://firstfleetfellowship.org.au/convicts/john-hudson/

Kurnai Language Glossary from Wurruk by Vaughan Nikitin

 

Persian Plantings

Recently, a chance mention of a ship called Persian by fellow writer and storyteller, Jackie Kerin, led to the discovery of an intriguing coincidence.

Jackie uses the Kamishibai format to tell the story of the historic voyage of the Persian in 1833 when it transported seeds and plants such as ferns, grasses and grape vines from England to Australia. The plants survived this long and arduous journey thanks to terrarium style glass boxes called Wardian cases.

The 1833 voyage carried an experiment by amateur horticulturist, Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, who wanted to see if the boxes he had designed could successfully transport plants and seeds across the oceans of the world when all other methods had failed.The experiment was a resounding success. After six months at sea enduring temperatures from  -7°C   to 40°C  (19.4°F to 104°F), the plants arrived ‘alive and vigorous’.

The Wardian cases were on the third voyage the Persian had made to Australia. The coincidence we discovered relates to the Persian’s second journey in 1830. This time, my paternal convict ancestor John Rowley was on board.

In 1830, John Rowley, an eighteen-year-old labourer from Leeds, and his partner in crime, twenty-two -year-old William Thackrah, were sentenced to death for breaking into a premises and stealing goods and chattels (such as  spoons,  sheets,  aprons, table-cloths & fabric).

Why the death sentence despite the fact the men had not hurt anyone? Crimes against property (and the Crown) were considered the most heinous by the British Government of the time, and no doubt the privileged class that owned property held the same view. So while thieves were hanged, a man found guilty of manslaughter was fined as little as one shilling.

Eventually, the death sentences imposed on Rowley and Thackrah were commuted to fourteen years transportation to Australia. Both men were on the Persian in 1830 when the ship transported 198 convicts (all male) to Van Diemen’s Land.

Three years earlier in 1827, the Persian had made her first voyage to Australia as a female convict ship carrying sixty convicted women including, to give an example, sixteen-year-old Charlotte Williams who had received a life sentence for a first offence of ‘stealing a watch from the person’.

All three voyages brought foreign transplants to the Australian continent.

Not all of the convict ‘plants’ had a beneficial impact but most of the 160 000 plus men, women and children who were transported across the oceans and transplanted on the Australian continent made positive contributions to the building of Modern Australia. When my ancestor, John Rowley, had served his time, he left Tasmania to take up land allotments in Gippsland, Victoria and played a significant role in the development of the township of Rosedale. Without convicts like him we would not have the Australia we know today.

Like the convict transplants, not all the exotic plants (or the microorganisms that travelled with them in the soil) transported in Wardian cases made a positive contribution to the Australian continent. However, without Dr Ward’s amazing case we would not be enjoying the health benefits of the Cavendish banana or locally grown delicious mangoes. In the 1840s the Wardian cases brought grafted mango trees to Australia from India, generating the establishment of mango production in Queensland.

The Wardian cases were so successful worldwide they revolutionised the transportation of plants and were even used in botanical espionage. In the19th century, China’s tea monopoly came to a halt when Wardian cases were used to successfully move nearly 20,000 tea plants from China to India. Likewise, Brazil’s monopoly on rubber ended when the Wardian cases facilitated the successful transportation of 70,000 germinated rubber tree seeds to Ceylon.

After bringing the first Wardian cases to Australia, the Persian returned to England in 1834, once again successfully carrying plants, such as the coral fern and the black wattle, across the oceans.

My ancestor was not free to return to his homeland but in his new land he planted many, many more plants starting with his own eight children who went on to ‘propagate’ numerous more Rowley ‘plants’.

Learn more about  Jackie Kerin’s story of The Amazing Case of Dr Ward .

Until next time….JB 🙂

References:

The Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases by N.B. Ward

A Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Keneally, Anchor Books 2007

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