Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Where the Fairy Tern is winging: Convicts, execution and injustice.

Old Army Barracks, Kingston. These date from the second penal colony, 1825. Picture Jim McIntosh

Much of history's accounts and popular literature perpetuate the myth that Norfolk Island's penal settlements were for the worst type of convict - the recidivist dregs, or the most hardened repeat offender from England's penal colonies in Australia.
Recent analysis of actual convict records disproves this popular misconception. 

"The legend tells us that the men detained at Norfolk Island were a particularly dangerous sub-stratum of convicts. Yet the original offence data shows proportionately few explicitly violent crimes. There were thirty cases of murder and manslaughter combined, fewer than twenty rapists, and merely a handful of arsonists and violent thieves. Nearly 70 per cent of offences were non-violent crimes against property, including burglary, picking pockets and highway robbery."
and -
"Explaining why prisoners were detained at Norfolk Island is one of the trickiest aspects of the second settlement’s history. As already noted, the assumption that Norfolk Island convicts were ‘all, or nearly all’ doubly-convicted capital respites is repeated in virtually every work mentioning the Island, yet it is a great misconception."

Most were shipped directly from England to Norfolk Island, via Port Jackson (today's Sydney) or Tasmania's Port Arthur, and few were the repeat offenders from Australian penal colonies as popular belief has it.

With memories of the Scottish uprising in 1745 still somewhat fresh, rebellion in America a devastating loss and an example of what the masses could achieve, and unrest among the Continent's poor, England's fearful aristocratic ruling class took extreme measures to ensure their continued control over the common person. Sentences were disproportionately long and unjustifiably harsh by any standards today. 

Overflowing gaols, full floating hulks, and the loss of her American colonies set England seeking new solutions of where to send her potentially rebellious poor, so The First Fleet's 11 ships set sail for Australia's Botany Bay carrying 789 convicts, including 193 convict's wives and their 14 children. 2 ships continued on to Norfolk Island to found the First Penal Settlement there in 1778.

There's an humanity and respect that needs to be reconciled to those once imprisoned on Norfolk Island. 

We should see them in the light of an oppressed poor within a system that administered harsh 'justice' to ensure the protection of the status of the ruling class. If so, were these convictions fair?

Hash brutalisation drives desperate men to desperate ends!

"I welcome death as a friend ... I have been treated more like a beast than a man." So spoke William Westwood, prior to execution for his part in the convict mutiny on 13th October, 1846. 13 convicts were hanged and denied burial within consecrated grounds and their bodies thrown into a disused pit, now known as Murderer's Mound just outside the cemetery. 

This is the only marker for those buried in  'Murderers' Mound' in 1846. Picture Jim McIntosh.

History's records of an earlier convict uprising show how brutal conditions were:
"Following a convict mutiny in 1834, Father William UllathorneVicar general of Sydney, visited Norfolk Island to comfort the mutineers due for execution. He found it “the most heartrending scene that I ever witnessed”. Having the duty of informing the prisoners as to who was reprieved and who was to die, he was shocked to record as “a literal fact that each man who heard his reprieve wept bitterly, and that each man who heard of his condemnation to death went down on his knees with dry eyes, and thanked God." 
Wikipedia History of Norfolk Island

I had an hour to sit atop a small rise overlooking the old part of Kingston's cemetery, which has burials from 1778 to the present within the fenced and consecrated ground.
Many visitors could miss the mound just outside the oldest part and close to the surf. Here is the mass grave of 13 convicts, who were denied burial in hallowed ground.

I was struck with the deep impression of the sheer unjustified harshness of the social conditions that bound these ordinary men to be caught in a system they had no voice in, the conditions of severe treatment that dehumanised them and drove them to futile mutiny resulting in their punishment of hanging, and the subsequent denial of simple Christian burial and headstone.

Above me the island's fairy terns were flying. 
What thoughts filled the minds of an exhausted, brutalised convict in chains, as he looked up to see the fairy terns soaring above him?  

The fairy tern. Picture by Jim McIntosh.

Where the Fairy Tern is winging: Convicts, mutiny and injustice.

There's a grave that lies unmarked beyond consecrated ground
Here we lie - the executed: relief we finally have found
Above, a Fairy Tern is winging: pines swaying stately fro
Gentle surf is singing where we sleep so long below.

When I was once a young lad, just barely seventeen
To feed my starving family I took the rich man's bread
But the Peelers captured me, they beat me to my knees
The judge cast me down forever; hard labour is what he said.

And these rocks are crushing me
I'm desperate to be free
Where the Fairy Tern is winging
My soul longs there to be.

Our ship sailed out from Plymouth, I could bid not a fond farewell
Friends and family lost forever, on Norfolk now I dwell
Where rocks are sharp and crushing, these chains still have me bound
I have built my own stone prison and all these walls around.

And the cat is flailing me, cutting deep this worn body
But finally we have risen against this harsh brutality
Mutiny may prove futile: no one will weep for me
But I will seek my freedom where the Fairy Tern flies free.

Now I welcome this reprieve
Where the rope's awaiting me
Soon, no chains will hold me captive
Where the Fairy Tern flies free.

The fairy tern spends its breeding season at Norfolk Island laying one egg and raising its chick on a horizontal branch of the stately, and rather grandiose Norfolk Pine. These dainty white sea birds soar above the coastline in great numbers.

Pic courtesy   
Someday, justice may be served and those buried in that mass grave be accorded a Christian blessing in consecrated ground. Maybe the fenceline be adjusted to bring them within the company of their companions.

Murderer's Mound is in the centre of the pic on the left side of the cemetery fence and marked by the little signboard at the gateway.

Perhaps a Christian blessing of Murderers' Mound is long overdue?

This is a re-vised version of my article that was first posted here- Around the world in eighty


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Waltzing in Vienna: The imagined newly-independent traveller's lament.

I want to dance a Strauss waltz in Vienna
An der Schonen Blauen Donau
but the band I can't hear,
and I'm stuck right where
I can't take a step without you.

I could climb the Eiffel Tower in Paris
way up top to admire the view
but I'd be so scared
'cause it would be weird
to look down so far without you.

I would go climb high mountains in South America
or hike solo to Machu Pichu
but I'd trip and fall
no trouble at all
if I could not lean upon you.

I could drive a rental car to the Highlands
sample a dram of single malt, or two
but whisky gets me frisky
and then I'd get tipsy
and cry in my drink over you.

I should safari in wildest Tanzania
for the migration of zebra and gnu
but that bull elephant
would make me mess my pants
and there's no-one would wash them but you.

I can dream of going walkabout in Australia
and sunset gazing upon Uluru
but the Dreamtime is mine
for this little rhyme
and I would only be dreaming of you.

So I can go for a camel ride in Morocco
and solo trekking in Sierra Leone
I can do all I want
and be independent
but I can't dance a Strauss waltz alone.

Nope, we haven't split up. We're tight.
The above comes about because on the train ride last month from Frankfurt to Rudesheim, a very historic and beautiful city on the Rhine River, we passed the time talking about some of our travels to exotic places. And I thanked my wife for being a great travel partner. Times and places would not have been as enjoyable, nor would we have gone to so many destinations had we not spurred each other on.
So I scribbled a few verses on a German Language newspaper shanghaied from the seat opposite and had Kay chuckling while reading my trite poem.

I don't ever want to dance a Strauss waltz alone.



Saturday, July 6, 2013

Say A Prayer For The Rhino.

Photo by Ayesha Cantor.
Say a prayer for the rhino: it's coming again,
evil is stalking, seeking its prey.
Full moon silhouette giving her away.
Say a prayer for the rhino that she may evade.
With the night so long and the moon so bright
she's aware of the sounds, footsteps so light.
She senses a demon stalking her ground
closing so slowly, there's danger inbound.
Hide the horn, burying her face.
Look around: there's no hiding place!

Where is little one?
Scared, running around,
taps against belly once mum is found.
The fright, the scurry, the loudness, the sound!
Run baby, run!
Make your feet pound the ground.

So she'll bolt and she'll plunge in a headlong charge
at the upright two-legged predators at large.
And in the moment of loss and the panic of flight
acacia will break, more sounds in the night.
Fright empowered feet imprinting the clay,
each small step gives her path away
for the evil following her with its gun sight this night
may bring to an end this rhino's might.

Where is little one?
Scared, running around,
taps against belly once mum is found.
The fright, the scurry, the loudness, the sound!
Run baby, run!
Make your feet pound the ground.

As the Roller bird ceases singing its song
and the Ox-pecker flies screeching alarm
he binds himself to his mother's speed
as she seeks the cover they desperately need.
They've gone into the shadows,
they've gone into the night,
avoiding the expanse of the open savanna
they find cover and silence their fright.
Say a prayer for the rhino:
alive...for one more night.

Written in collaboration with Guy P Murdock, a friend on Facebook.
You'll find the above also published on Fight For Rhinos

We were both intent on using our skills to highlight the appalling decimation of rhinoceros numbers because of escalating poaching. Poaching of rhino in Africa and Asia threatens to exceed 1,000 this year. 476 kills so far in South Africa alone.
My contributions of verses 1, 3 and 5 are inspired by Leonard Cohen's song "Ballad of a runaway horse", brilliantly covered by Emmylou Harris. I loved how the lyrics described the scene so imaginatively, and so that style I have tried to emulate hoping to paint a picture of the bush scene.