Dark Convicts: Ex-slaves on the First Fleet by Judy Johnson (UWA Publishing, 2017).
The subtitle of Dark Convicts identifies these men (as it happens they are all male) as ex-slaves on the First Fleet: eleven black prisoner-pioneers who are among ‘the founders of Australia’, as the continental commonwealth would become known. The site of their enslavement had been what would in its turn become known as the United States of America.
They had gained their freedom by enlisting in the British Imperial and Loyalist forces during the War of Independence. Some of their fellows had been resettled in Canada and other British colonies, but many of the over 8,000 fugitive slaves who defected were shipped over to a new life in London. They had left the caste of slavery, but they could not escape the class of poverty. In the metropolis, they had no access to charity, no respect from their emancipators and little chance of gainful and dignified employment. In desperation, no doubt, many turned to crime.
Ironically, it was that decision that admitted them to the relentless record-keeping of the British Imperial and mercantile machine of state and so preserved at least the skeleton of their stories for this poet to revisit and recapture in this engaging and moving book. The substantial sequence of nearly fifty poems is interspersed with a prose commentary which identifies speakers and protagonists, sustains the narrative and contextualises the action.
Judy Johnson is directly engaged in this story since she is descended from two of the Dark Convicts, John Martin and John Randall. Martin married the daughter of his best friend Randall and their descendants now probably number 25,000. If any of them read poetry, they will be proud of the achievement of their congener. The sequence of poems concentrates on ‘the flavour of the life and times’ of the two ancestors. The poems evoke much of the detail and general condition of the early years of the New South Wales settlement.
Martin, sentenced at the Old Bailey to seven years transportation. He spent three years in Newgate and two years aboard the hulk Ceres (remember Great Expectations), where Randall was also held. It was there the two probably became friends. By the time Martin reached Sydney Cove, he had only eighteen months of his sentence to serve but had to wait until 1792 to be restored to liberty and granted 50 acres of the Northern Boundary Farm, Parramatta. His conduct had been exemplary, and he had among other duties been a member of the night watch. On the same day, Randall who had served as one of the governor’s three ‘game shooters’, and thus enjoyed some freedom of movement and encounter with the indigenous people, received a grant of 60 adjacent acres.
However, not all the Dark Convicts settled as happily as Martin and Randall. All suffered drought and famine: most succumbed to scurvy, dysentery or venereal disease. Many, Martin among them, were mercilessly flogged for minor infringements of whatever the code was. Within the first few years, several men and women were executed. In June of the first year, two young men, both in their early twenties, were hanged. Samuel Peyton for the theft of ‘shirts, stockings and combs’, and Edward Corbet for attempting to escape into the bush.
Judy Johnson neatly captures the coordinates of imperial rule. Her poem on the first church service is called ‘Church Tree’, the poem on the first hangings is called ‘Death Tree’. Equally telling is John Martin’s ironic recall of Governor Philip’s own words in ‘John Martin’s Twenty-Five Lashes’: ‘there will be no slavery in New South Wales’. The sequence maintains a balance between details of experience, observation and sensation on the one hand and the overall purpose and shape and moral ambiguity of the enterprise on the other.
The story told in Dark Convicts is preserved in many sources, and the poet is scrupulous in her acknowledgements, italicising quotations from the journals and books she has used. The power of the work, however, emanates from the poet’s disposition of the information and of the words of many of the original First Fleeters. The story covers nearly forty years, from just before the war of 1776, to 1812, when John Martin, 57, marries Mary, 19, daughter of John Randall and Mary Butler.
The poet’s basic decision on the poem’s form was to give it a kind of unity, or homogeneity, by settling ‘on a thirteen spoken-syllable line’. It sounds like a rough-and-ready metre, but the brave decision does seem, albeit unevenly, to pay off. All the poems are subjected to this measure, yet the poet achieves variety and liveliness in several prosodic ways. Many of the poems are given to the different voices of the participants (the two central characters, other convicts, the parson, the governor, soldiers, and officials). Stanzaic form varies from poem to poem, and the poet makes telling use of internal and, occasionally, end rhyme. There are also some skilful uses of quite strict prosodic forms.
The first poem, for example, is ‘George Washington’s Lost Slave Villanelle’, in which the General urges resistance against the British, or else the Americans will ‘be subjugated much like the slaves we own’. The thirteen-syllable line seems to struggle with the rhyme scheme and refrain of the verse form. However, the awkwardness of the resulting rhythm is right for what is a compromised defence of slavery recalling Johnson’s question: ‘How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’
In ‘Eleven Black Scoundrels Bound for the First Fleet’ which is ‘to be sung to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas’, the strict line-length doesn’t appear to harmonise with the form of the song. However, in ‘Farewell and Adieu Old England’, the strict line length is matched to a form of rhymed and half-rhymed quatrains which gives us an engaging sea-shanty. ‘Black Caesar’s Pantoum or The Bear is Hungry’, a poem spoken by David Collins, the Judge Advocate, about the incorrigible giant who became Australia’s first bushranger (eventually shot dead by a bounty-hunting fellow convict), is a triumph. A pantoum (also ‘pantun’) is a Malay verse form composed of quatrains, using assonance and a complex pattern of line repetition. Judy Johnson handles the form deftly and suits it to the speaker’s thoughts, combining direct quotation from Collins with her own imagined words.
Apart from the formal and prosodic pleasures of poetry, Dark Convicts testifies to the poet’s feel for and delight in words themselves. George Worgan, surgeon on the Sirius, writing home ‘On the Pleasures of Exploration’, speaks of ‘a bottle or two of O be joyful thrust into our knapsacks’. The ‘Game Shooters for the Governor’ talk of the ‘frizzen’ and the ‘flash pan’ of their weapon, the flintlock. Although Black Caesar’s assassin is ‘No pudding-sleeve/ parson’, he does intend ‘to conduct a service with/ his musket’.
Dark Convicts is an enterprising and exemplary work. It should engage many Australian general readers and will certainly interest both the readers and the writers of poetry.
Tony Voss retired from a University teaching career in South Africa in 1995 and emigrated to Sydney the following year. He continues to publish academic research papers and poetry, mostly in South African journals.