No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

#31: The Ship Thieves: The True Tale of James Porter, Colonial Pirate -- Sian Rees

I seem to have read quite a few books, lately, about 19th-century penal Australia. (Just embarquing on The True History of the Kelly Gang ...) This one could have been more interesting than it was, and I don't think the problem is in the subject matter -- recidivist James Porter and the most audacious of his plans to escape from penal servitude in Van Diemen's Land -- as the format. I think I prefer Giles Milton's approach to popular history: in White Gold, for example, chapters focussing on an individual are alternated with overviews of the historical context.

Which is not to say that Rees can't write or that this is a dull book. Her depiction of convict life (though not as vivid as Richard Flanagan's fictionalised version in Gould's Book of Fish) is stark and forbidding, drawing on contemporary accounts and dry bureaucratic reports and fleshing them out with credible imagined detail.

James Porter seems the sort of criminal who can't bear to be deprived of his freedom. He batters against the walls of his cell (metaphorically, most of the time) in a sort of dumb panic, though he's not stupid: he always has an escape plan on the boil. This book focuses on a well-planned escape in 1834, when -- in the company of nine other convicts, most with some nautical experience, and the ship's cat -- he stole a newly-built brig from the officers in charge of it and sailed over 6000 miles to Chile. The cat wandered off into the jungle (I was most impressed that they left some seal-meat for it, having failed to lure it back!) and the escapees passed themselves off as ship-wrecked sailors.

The deception lasted for over a year, during which a series of increasingly undiplomatic despatches shuttled between the governments of Britain and Chile. Much of the argument hinged on whether the escaped convicts had committed an act of piracy (a capital crime) or not. Was the river where they'd stolen the brig really the 'high seas'? Didn't the fact that there had been no bloodshed, and that they'd made considerable efforts to leave the marooned officers provisions and supplies, count in their favour? Had any of them been thinking of 'profitable plunder'? Were they not escaping from an intolerable regime? (Various reform and anti-slavery Acts were underway at the time.)

Meanwhile, oblivious to all this paperwork, the men found work, wives (or, at any rate, women) and a kind of respectability. Then it all went wrong.

Rees occasionally sounds rather exasperated by her subject. "Porter himself was doubtless an irritating little so-and-so," she says at one point, "with his boasting and swaggering and always knowing best." She worked from Porter's original writings, and notes dryly at one point that "the prominence he accords himself in retrospect does not quite square with other accounts."

Porter fell on his feet at last. Returned to Norfolk Island, he came under the purview of Captain Maconochie, a philanthropic and well-intentioned commandant whose letters and reports would do a great deal to improve conditions for the transported convicts. Porter, perhaps tiring of the constant battle for freedom, did well; was treated well; was, finally, given his liberty. His happy ending is oblivion.

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