State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 23 April 1979

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Review of His Natural Life By J. J. Shillinglaw

In his dedication to Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Mr. Marcus Clarke, in a few sentences, gives us the purpose he had in view in writing one of the most horribly fascinating books we have read for a long time. He points out that while Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, and Charles Reade in Never Too Late to Mend, have portrayed the convict in two aspects, no author has yet given us the dismal condition of a felon during his term of transportation. What that was in Van Diemen's Land and in Norfolk Island is the purpose of ‘His Natural Life’ to tell, and the awful moral to be drawn from it is, that although the British Government have ceased to deport the criminals of England, the method of punishment of which that deportation was a part is still in existence. Port Blair is another Port Arthur, filled with Indian men instead of Englishmen; and New Caledonia, the French penal settlement, will probably repeat in its own annals the fearful history of Macquarie Harbour and of Norfolk Island.
Mr. Clarke has shown us that transportation may be made more terrible than death. Like a lady's postscript to her letter, the climax of his book is to be found in the Appendix, where he gives us chapter and verse for the hideous sufferings through which he carries his hero. These references are from parliamentary and other authentic sources, and are indubitable. Indeed, were it otherwise, and without a distinct purpose of warning in the future, these
‘Truths severe, in Fiery fiction dress'd,’ would be open to challenge on the score of good taste. For the whole book blazes with horrors. He does not spare us a manacle. We see the iron enter into the soul of Rufus Dawes, and shudder to think that it is all true. We have murders in quantities, a ship on fire, typhus fever in a convict ship, mutiny, suicide, cannibalism, buckets of blood shed on the ground where men have been flogged at the triangles, and other cruel, debasing, and inhuman incidents, some of which require the utmost literary skill of the author to gloss over. That this is managed with marvellous cleverness, all who know Mr. Clarke's previous writings will readily believe. The book is certainly a very dramatic and powerful one, and may almost be called a tragedy. It should make a strong impression both here and at home, and the recent occurrences at New Caledonia will no doubt aid it. In the short space at our disposal we can attempt no analysis of the plot of the story. The heroine, Sylvia Vickers, reared in this dusky atmosphere, is a charming creation, and, through the medium of the journal of the Rev. Mr. North, the convict chaplain — ‘who smoked clay pipes, had been detected drinking beer out of a pewter pot, and had been heard to state that white neckcloths were of no consequence’ — we get some of the best of the author's quality. No doubt, in future editions, Mr. Clarke will see the necessity of making certain corrections — notably that it really was not in Lady Ellinor's power to declare her son a bastard, and any such admission of hers would have had no effect in law.
In closing our notice of the book, we extract the painfully pathetic story of the suicide of three children at Point Puer. The volume is handsomely got up, and is a credit to Mr. Robertson, the publisher. It ought to leave on the mind of young readers an impression of deep thankfulness that the fathers of this colony thrust the foul thing — transportation — from the shores of Victoria.
So the next two days were devoted to sight-seeing. Sylvia was taken through the Hospital, and the Workshops, shown the semaphores, and shut up, by laughing Maurice, in a ‘dark cell.’ Her husband and Burgess seemed to regard the prison as some tame animal, whom they could handle at their leisure, and whose natural ferocity was kept in check by their superior intelligence. This bringing of a young and pretty woman
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into immediate contact with bolts and bars had about it an incongruity which pleased them. Maurice penetrated everywhere, questioned the prisoners, jested with the jailers, even, in the munificence of his heart, bestowed tobacco on the sick.
With such grateful rattlings of dry bones, they got by-and-by to Point Puer, where a luncheon had been provided.
An unlucky incident had occurred at Point Puer that morning, however, and the place was in a suppressed ferment. A refractory little thief named Peter Brown, aged twelve years, had jumped off the high rock and drowned himself in full view of the constables. These ‘jumpings off’ had become rather frequent lately, and Burgess was enraged at one happening on this particular day of all days. If he could by any possibility have brought the corpse of poor little Peter Brown to life again, he would have soundly whipped it for its impertinence.
‘It is most unfortunate,’ he said to Frere, as they stood in the cell where the little body was laid, ‘that it should have happened today.’
‘Oh,’ says Frere, frowning down upon the young face that seemed to smile up at him. ‘It can't be helped. I know those young devils. They'd do it out of spite. What sort of a character had he?’
‘Very bad — Johnson, the book.’
Johnson, bringing it, the two saw Peter Brown's iniquities set down in the neatest of running hand, and the record of his punishments ornamented in quite an artistic way with flourishes of red ink.
‘20th November, disorderly conduct, 12 lashes. 24th November, insolence to hospital attendant, diet reduced. 4th December, stealing cap from another prisoner, 12 lashes. 15th December, absenting himself at roll call, two days’ cells. 23rd December, insolence and insubordination, two days’ cells. 8th January, insolence and insubordination, 12 lashes. 20th January, insolence and insubordination, 12 lashes. 22nd February, insolence and insubordination, 12 lashes and one week's solitary. 6th March, insolence and insubordination, 20 lashes.’
‘That was the last?’ asked Frere.
‘Yes, sir,’ says Johnson.
‘And then he — hum — did it?’
Just so, sir. That was the way of it.’
Just so! The magnificent System starved and tortured a child of twelve until he killed himself. That was the way of it.
The party reviewed the workshops, and saw the church, and went everywhere but into the room where the body of Peter Brown, aged twelve, lay starkly on its wooden bench, staring at the gaol roof which was between it and Heaven.
Just outside this room Sylvia met with a little adventure. Meekin had stopped behind, and Burgess, being suddenly summoned for some official duty, Frere had gone with him, leaving his wife to rest on a bench that, placed at the summit of the cliff, overlooked the sea. While resting thus, she became aware of another presence, and, turning her head, beheld a small boy, with his cap in one hand and a hammer in the other. The appearance of the little creature, clad in a uniform of grey cloth that was too large for him, and holding in his withered little hand a hammer that was too heavy for him, had something pathetic about it.
‘What is it, you mite?’ asked Sylvia.
‘We thought you might have seen him, mum,’ says the little figure, opening its blue eyes with wonder at the kindness of the tone.
‘Him! Whom?’
‘Cranky Brown, mum,’ returned the child; ‘him as did it this morning. Me and Billy knowed him, mum; he was a mate of ours, and we wanted to know if he looked happy.’
‘What do you mean, child?’ said she, with a strange terror at her heart; and then, filled with pity at the aspect of the little being, she drew him to her, with sudden womanly instinct, and kissed him.
He looked up at her with joyful surprise.
‘Oh!’ he said.
Sylvia kissed him again.
‘Does nobody ever kiss you, poor little man,’ said she.
‘Mother used to,’ was the reply, ‘but she's at home. Oh, mum,’ with a sudden crimsoning of the little face, ‘may I fetch Billy?’
And taking courage from the bright young face, he gravely marched to an angle of the
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rock, and brought out another little creature, with another grey uniform and another hammer.
‘This is Billy, mum,’ he said. ‘Billy never had no mother. Kiss Billy.’
The young wife felt the tears rush to her eyes. ‘You too poor babies!’ she cried. And then, forgetting that she was a lady, dressed in silk and lace, she fell on her knees in the dust, and, folding the friendless pair in her arms, wept over them.
‘What is the matter, Sylvia?’ said Freie, when he came up. ‘You've been crying.’
‘Nothing, Maurice; at least, I will tell you by-and-bye.’
So, when they were alone that evening, she told him of the two boys, and he laughed.
‘Artful little humbugs,’ he said, and supported his argument by so many illustrations of the precocious wickedness of juvenile felons, that his wife was half convinced against her will.
Unfortunately, when Sylvia went away, Tommy and Billy put into execution a plan which they had carried in their poor little heads for some weeks.
‘I can do it now,’ said Tommy. ‘I feel strong.’
‘Will it hurt much, Tommy?’ said Billy, who was not so courageous.
‘Not so much as whipping.’
‘I'm afraid! Oh, Tom, it's so deep! Don't leave me, Tom!’
The bigger boy took his little handkerchief from his neck, and with it bound his own left hand to his companion's right.
‘Now I can't leave you.’
‘What was it the lady that kissed us said, Tommy?’
‘Lord, have pity on them two fatherless children!’ repeated Tommy.
‘Let's say it. Tom.’
And so the two babies knelt down on the brink of the cliff, and, raising the bound hands together, looked up at the sky, and ungrammatically said, ‘Lord, have pity on we two fatherless children!’ And then they kissed each other, and ‘did it.’