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Australians: Eureka to the Diggers

Australians: Eureka to the Diggers

by Thomas Keneally

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The second volume of bestselling author Thomas Keneally's unique trilogy of Australian history in which people are always center stage
In the continuation of an impeccably researched, engagingly written people's history, this is the story of Australia through people from all walks of life, from Eureka to Gallipoli. From the 1860s to


The second volume of bestselling author Thomas Keneally's unique trilogy of Australian history in which people are always center stage
In the continuation of an impeccably researched, engagingly written people's history, this is the story of Australia through people from all walks of life, from Eureka to Gallipoli. From the 1860s to the great rifts wrought by World War I, an era commenced in which Australian pursued glimmering visions: of equity in a promised land. Immigrants and Aboriginal resistance figures, bushrangers and pastoralists, working men and pioneering women, artists and hard-nosed radicals, politicians and soldiers all populate this richly drawn portrait of a vibrant land on the cusp of nationhood and social maturity. This is truly a new history of Australia, by an author of outstanding literary skill and experience, and whose own humanity permeates every page.

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"A challenging but informing read."  —The Historical  Novels Review

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Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
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Australians (Volume 2)

From Eureka to the Diggers

By Thomas Keneally

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2011 Thomas Keneally
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74269-350-7


Old and new faces in a colonial society 1860s to 1870s


Conviction was at an end in Eastern Australia, but because of its shame it had induced in the white community a tendency to pretend that all convicts ceased breathing and vanished utterly at the date of the abolition of transportation. Much later in the nineteenth century, the Bulletin wrote that the day 'among all others which has been forced upon us as the natal-day of Australia is that which commemorates her shame and degradation'. Nowhere was the taint, and the desire and impossibility of forgetting, more intense than in Tasmania.

The convicts, however, were in many cases still serving sentences, or else living in the community, some of them lost souls, some cherished by families, some treasured even by society at large. The lost souls were numerous, though it can be argued these were far from being the majority.

At Port Arthur, in the era of transportation, a separate prison had been built to impose on prisoners a soul-scarifying form of solitary confinement: the Pentonville system, in which convicts worked in silence and had no contact with each other. Silence, solitude and lack of stimulation were considered the new cure for criminality. At their brief exercise in the yard, men wore masks. Even in the chapel each worshipper was screened off from every other, so that glances could not be exchanged. The system made the criminal more criminal, the deranged more deranged still. Perhaps these results can be seen in the case of two convicts who experienced the old system and the separate, Pentonville system as well. Mark Jeffery, a burglar when transported in 1850, had experienced this separate prison before his release in 1870. After a fight in a pub in which a man was killed, he was convicted of manslaughter and sent back to Port Arthur for life, where again he experienced the separate prison. There he tried to murder the doctor and, seeing that he was both unstable and dangerous, the authorities sent him to the Isle of the Dead off Port Arthur as the grave-digger. There the devil himself, 'His Satanic Majesty', appeared in Jeffery's hut and spoke to him. Jeffery begged to be released from the island and was sent to Hobart gaol in 1877, being guilty there of more assaults. Photographed in the 1890s, the former hulking terror of a man supports himself on two sticks. He ended in the Launceston Invalid Depot, where he died in 1903. Like a number of other male convicts he left no recorded Australian family behind him.

Richard Pinches had spent fourteen years on Norfolk Island for stealing shirts, and then served time in solitary in Port Arthur after the convict establishment in Norfolk Island was moved there in 1853. Released, he was tried for stealing pigs in 1860 and sentenced to four more years at Port Arthur. Then, at large after an escape, he broke into a building and was sent back to Port Arthur again for five years. By 1875 he was freed with a ticket of leave but then received a further sentence of fourteen years for larceny and a burglary in Hobart. For all his impulse to flee prison, he devoted his life to ensuring his return to it.

There were happier stories. An old lag named Jack Best worked as a guide at Port Arthur after it was closed, and was a favourite with Tasmanians and other visitors to the haunted place, having the last word on what had happened there.

Margaret Dalziel had arrived in Hobart from Glasgow in 1851 under a ten-year sentence for the highway robbery of a tin case and registered papers. She was a small woman, barely 5 feet, who was assigned as a convict servant to a number of masters — including James Hirst, overseer of the coal mines — but absconded and ended up in the Female Factory. In 1857 she was at Impression Bay Probation Station, where Scottish immigrants stricken with typhus from the immigrant ship Persian were quarantined. Perhaps she was selected because she could speak Gaelic and the ship was full of Highlanders. Margaret received her ticket of leave for her work there. In 1860 she was living with a former convict, Robert Carter, and had a son named James. Having begun a free life, she then disappeared from the record.

Mary Witherington, born in England in 1805, died in the town of Ross in Van Diemen's Land in 1890. She had been transported for stealing a blanket while working as a housemaid in London. In 1835 she married a convict stonemason, Daniel Herbert, transported for life in 1827 for highway robbery. He was subjected to severe punishments for idleness, insolence, drink and absconding. But he worked as an overseer on the Ross Bridge, a fascinating little sandstone arch which is decorated with the faces of many of the citizens, convict and free, of Tasmania, as well as those of classic and Celtic mythology. One of the faces is of the Viking of Van Diemen's Land, briefly a former President of Iceland, Jorgen Jorgensen. Another is Herbert's wife, Mary.

Most former convicts came from thee labouring classes but there were, as there had been from the beginning, the bourgeois ex-convicts. Francis Abbott had been a watchmaker transported for seven years in 1844 for acquiring watches by false pretences. He had a wife and seven children for whom his arrest and sentencing must have been a great crisis, but all of them would follow him to Van Diemen's Land. He not only ran a successful jewellery business in Hobart but by 1860 was a member of the Royal Society of Tasmania and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, and was made a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1869. He contributed meteorological data to the Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania from 1873–74.

Even more notable was the career of the Irish political prisoner and surgeon, Kevin Izod O'Doherty, involved in the abortive Irish Famine uprising of 1848 and transported to Van Diemen's Land the following year. Pardoned in 1856, by 1862 he had settled in the new colony of Queensland, doing so partly under the influence of his friend Bishop James Quinn, whose desire was to populate Queensland with the Irish. O'Doherty moved there with his young wife Eva, a notable Irish poet. By the mid-1860s O'Doherty was one of the two most esteemed Brisbane surgeons, founding president of the Queensland Medical Association, a member both of the militia and of the Queensland parliament, and a pioneer of public health and quarantine in that city. Though tragedy would take his two brilliant sons from him, and liquidity problems and anti-Irish bigotry later blight his life, he was for many decades, a model of the successful ex-convict.

Anthony Trollope, visiting his son in Australia in 1871–72, felt that the fact that New South Wales had such a vast hinterland in comparison to Tasmania allowed people in the founding colony to believe that former convicts 'have wandered away whither they would. Now and then a good-natured reference is made, in regard to some lady or gentleman, to the fact that his or her father was "lagged", and occasionally up in the bush a shepherd may be found who will own to the soft impeachment of having been lagged himself.' Although many families kept quiet about their connections to convictism, there was a less frantic attitude to the matter.

Some children of convicts had great longevity. Jim Kelly, surviving brother of Ned Kelly and son of the Vandemonian convict Red Kelly, was a boy in prison in Wagga at the time of the Kelly outbreak in 1880. When released, he worked as a farmer on the family's small block at East Greta, not far from Glenrowan, and under a reformed administration, was never in trouble again. (In the late 1930s he attended the opening of Woolworths in Benalla.) Significantly he died a hundred years after the great anti-transportation protests of 1842, and after the fall of Singapore. The eldest son of Irish convicts Hugh Larkin and Mary Shields, born in a bush hut at Coolringdon Station in 1845, worked long after the end of transportation as a blacksmith in Gundaroo and was still alive in 1920.

Did former Vandemonian and New South Wales convicts settle in South Australia? It would be remarkable if they did not, thus rendering the colony less pure than it chose to think itself. The South Australian Act of 1838 excluded them, and Adelaide's first execution, in 1839, was of an escaped Irish convict from New South Wales named Michael Magee. Other convicts and ticket-of-leave men came as members of droving parties, and some settled in shacks in the Adelaide Hills and were referred to as Tiersmen, fearless, lawless Irish who lived on the tiers of the hills above the Anglican plain of Adelaide. One of these men, Tolmer, was hanged for bushranging and outraged decent citizens by smoking his pipe on the scaffold. Other ex-convicts worked for the South Australian Company itself at its Encounter Bay whaling station, again as early as 1839. That some of them did not marry or beget young South Australians is improbable.

Western Australia remained the only Australian colony accepting convicts in the 1860s. From a want of labour, and under the aegis of Earl Grey, the British Secretary of State, in 1849 it had adopted the practice it once renounced, just as the other colonies were abandoning transportation. It wanted only those convicts whose prison record was good. The first load of seventy-five sailed for Western Australia in March 1850 on the Scindian, and on that and later ships the prisoners were guarded by military pensioners — that is, veterans who travelled with their families to Western Australia, where they were contracted to spend a number of years as penal guards in return for an ultimate land grant. Few of them, of course, went back. Even in the convict system, population building was the primary concern in Western Australia. And there was evidence that, having served in the ranks of the British army, the guards had a good sense of how men behaved under humiliation of sentence and were often less authoritarian and more compassionate than professional gaolers.

There was a pattern from the start to issue tickets so that convicts could work for private employers, and the system was more successful than assignment had been in the east, in part because there were no women convicts transported to Western Australia. A Visiting Magistrates Board was established in 1850 to hear any complaints from either side of the contract. By the 1860s the convicts were building prisons at Perth and Fremantle, a new Government House, the Pensioner Barracks at Fremantle and the Perth Town Hall. Ships running between the east and Western Australia preferred the southern town of Albany as a port, but the road between the south coast and Perth remained primitive. Further roads closer in, however, were built by convict labour. Around York to the east of Perth and southwards towards Bunbury the new thoroughfares were hacked out by convicts amongst the huge shafts of native hardwood. The York pastoralist, landowner and merchant John Henry Monger would employ in all sixty-three ticket-of-leave men up to 1871. He was the largest exporter of sandalwood and so an important generator of capital for the under-capitalised west. Monger was a relatively rare native Western Australian, having been born in the Swan River colony in the misery days of 1831.

Western Australia had trouble getting all those it wanted. The number of statutory transportation sentences had diminished since the high days of eastern convictism. Only 300 British were so sentenced in 1860 and another 300 the following year. The Western Australian administration wanted 1000 a year and could not get them. Later in the decade some 600 a year would be sentenced — in large part due to republican offences in Ireland.

J.S. Hampton, who had been a feared controller-general of convicts in Van Diemen's Land, came to Western Australia as governor in 1862, and in 1866 scandalously appointed his son Comptroller- General of Convicts in Western Australia, a lucrative post. The son's severity was not far removed from the harsh conditions then being promoted at British prisons such as Pentonville. His thinking was influenced by an 1863 British Committee on Prison Discipline, which recommended that there should be a far more severe experience of punishment than that which transportees underwent. Transportation was no good for punishment, since Western Australian property owners wanted as many of the convicts working out of prison as possible. Young Hampton managed at least to abolish the Board of Visiting Magistrates in March 1867. Convicts no longer had any right of complaint. If they were guilty of misdemeanours they found themselves on bread-and-water diets in darkened cells in grim Fremantle gaol, backed up by flogging and banishment to chain gangs as distinct from mere work gangs. Attempts at escape tripled under Hampton junior.

But a new comptroller named Fauntleroy arrived from England in that year, and Hampton senior left office in 1868. Fauntleroy at once established a more humane, though still severe, regime and reduced the number of chain gangs. The British government was about to announce that transportation would end, and the last ship, the Hougoumont, arrived in January 1868 with convicts and an especially recognised and quartered group of Irish political prisoners, or Fenians. They were young men, self-taught, often middle class, who had observed the Famine in their childhoods and believed that Ireland must be freed from the Crown to be run equitably. They were also physical force men, who drilled, however ineffectually, in the hills outside Irish cities — and some were British soldiers who rebelled from within the ranks.

Throughout the history of convictism, except perhaps for some gentlemen prisoners after the Irish uprising of 1798, there had not been any accommodation of the idea of separating the politicals from the 'common criminals' as on the Hougoumont. The civilian Fenians aboard had access to paper and books and produced a handwritten newspaper edited by a young Fenian named Cashman. One of their leaders was a young man named John Kenealy, their spokesman when Prime Minister Gladstone pardoned four dozen of them in 1869. Kenealy was a young man who in time would repent of physical force but who would nonetheless invest in a Yankee whaling ship, the Catalpa, to rescue the last of the unpardoned life-sentenced Fenian soldiers on Easter Monday in 1876.

The transportation of these young men caused a great deal of anxiety amongst the Western Australian establishment, and a body of citizens sent a delegation to Earl Grey begging him not to send the Fenians. The concern in Perth was characterised by the Crown Solicitor, George Leake, who warned citizens that America too was full of Fenians and that it would take only one American Fenian vessel 'merely armed with one long 18 pounder to lay Fremantle in ashes in a few hours'. The commodore of the British Naval Station in Sydney, Commodore Lambert, told Governor Hampton that to allay the fears of citizens he would send him HMS Brisk, a corvette of sixteen guns. Two companies of the 14th Regiment would also be temporarily brought from Tasmania.

A large number of these Fenians, when landed, worked in road and timber gangs. One convict, the Irish political prisoner John Boyle O'Reilly, a poet whose reputation would become international, would write of the country he worked in on a road gang:

Here the aisle
Moonlit and deep of reaching Gothic arms,
Realmed for towering gums, mahogany and palm,
And odourless jam, and sandal;
There the growth
Of arm-long velvet leaves grown hoar in calm —
In calm unbroken since their luscious youth.

He also called Western Australia 'the Cinderella of the South'. A soldier Fenian, he was to serve a life sentence, but escaped on a Yankee whaler in 1869 and became a noted Bostonian newspaper editor and literary figure, once reading his verse in a three-hander literary session with Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Some of his verse concerned the penal station for Aborigines on Rottnest Island. He would also write a highly popular novel named Moondyne concerning the convict Joseph Bolitho Johns, or Moondyne Joe, who was probably a better escapologist than bushranger.

Many of the civilian Fenians were pardoned by Prime Minister Gladstone in 1869 as a gesture towards Ireland, and most of them settled in the United States, though those who fell in love with Australian Irish girls on their way through Sydney — such as John Feehan, who married a dairy farmer's daughter from Gerringong, and John Flood, who would become for many decades the newspaper editor and owner in Gympie — stayed in Australia. Some of the civilian Fenians whose names were inexplicably not on Gladstone's list had to serve out their terms.

Most ex-convicts of either criminal or political origins remained labourers or became small farmers after their release but there were the normal convict success stories. One was that of Daniel Connor, a labourer's son from County Kerry transported for sheep stealing. On his release he peddled goods out of a backpack he carried along the country roads around Perth and Fremantle. He began to speculate in livestock and bought land at Guildford, an area in which he had laboured as a convict, and married an Irish servant girl from his home county. In Toodyay he acquired property, a flour mill and hotel, and began to advance money under mortgage to other farms. He became a stern forecloser when drought or the reluctance of banks struck those he had lent to. He also ran illegal gambling in Toodyay from his hotel. His son-in-law, Timothy Quinlan, who managed his father-in-law's Shamrock Hotel in Perth, would become a member of the Legislative Assembly. Two of his sons studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and returned to Perth to practise.


Excerpted from Australians (Volume 2) by Thomas Keneally. Copyright © 2011 Thomas Keneally. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Keneally is a novelist, playwright, and nonfiction author who is best-known for the Booker Prize–winning novel Schindler's Ark, which was adapted into the movie Schindler's List. His other titles include the Penguin Lives biography Abraham Lincoln, American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, and A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia.

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