This was a book I kept seeing on certain kinds of bookshelves: there was one on the Commerce Street apartment of Rosen's grandmother, for instance. I bet Helen Stevens' dad had a copy. Finally a trip to Australia coincided with coming across a chance mention of it in SDB's writings so I read it.
My favorite kind of book: books where the thesis is "history is absurd," some amazing fact on every page, and the author writes like he's had one or two before sitting down at his typewriter. You've heard that Australia was settled by convicts, but the details of England deciding to transport boatloads of people, basically treated like human garbage, onto a distant place nobody knew the slightest thing about keeps getting more incredible.
England was filling up with criminals - people who'd, say, stolen some cheese or a shirt. It seemed too much to hang these folks, so they kept them on leaky hulks in the river. There was a vague plan to send them to America, but then the Revolution happened. The ships kept filling up. There was an idea to dump them in West Africa and let them fight it out with the locals, but that was scraped, finally, in favor of sending them to Australia, which had been visited like three times.
To the busy FunFriend I can't recommend a 605 page book about Australia, so share in my joy vicariously through these highlights.
- "At the lower end [of poor London circa 1788] were occupations now not only lost but barely recorded: that of the "Pure-finders," for instance, old women who collected dog-turds which they sold to tanneries for a few pence a bucket.
- one guy who got transported was "an impecunious young actor" named Mansfield Silverthorpe who stole a trunk.
- of the first night the convicts were allowed on land in Australia: "as the couples rutted between the rocks, guts burning form the harsh Brazilian aguardiente, their clothes slimy with red clay, the sexual history of colonial Australia may fairly be said to have begun."
- sometimes people would have a heavy iron put on their leg. "Months later, when the weight was removed for the voyage, the prisoner's right leg would jerk up uncontrollably as he walked."
- "Davey marked his arrival in Hobart Town in February of 1813 by lurching to the ship's gangway, casting an owlish look at his new domain and emptying a bottle of port over his wife's hat."
- runaway convicts were called "China travelers," because they thought they could maybe run all the way to China. Instead they'd starve in the bush or be bitten by snakes or killed by aborigines.
Anyway, if you like floggings and sadism, there's lots of that in this book, on average a flogging per page.