Con­vict or­deal dis­tilled into its brutal essence

Ro­han Wil­son celebrates the wild bril­liance of our foun­da­tion his­tor­i­cal novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Visit a gift shop in Tas­ma­nia. Be­yond the plush tigers and devils, the Huon pine key rings, the wilder­ness post­cards and the dried laven­der, some­where in a cor­ner on a low book­shelf you’ll find a copy of For the Term of His Nat­u­ral Life. Mar­cus Clarke’s fic­tional his­tory, first pub­lished in book form in 1874, is the face Tas­ma­nia pre­sents to the world. It’s how we ex­plain our idio­syn­cra­sies. Read this, we say, and you’ll un­der­stand. Read this, and see where we come from. You could be in Ho­bart, Stra­han, Burnie or Bicheno. It doesn’t mat­ter. There’s al­ways a gift shop, al­ways a copy of Clarke’s great book.

I first en­coun­tered Clarke in a gift shop. My fa­ther, a peer­less cray fish­er­man, docked his boat full of pots at the Port Arthur jetty and let us out to ex­plore. It was the school hol­i­days, some­time in the late 1980s. I was ter­ri­fied. I knew all about Port Arthur. I knew it was haunted by ghosts and was the site of un­spec­i­fied hor­rors. We had break­fast in the cafe — the same cafe where Martin Bryant would later com­mit his in­fa­mous mas­sacre — and af­ter we ate I went straight for the gifts. I re­mem­ber hold­ing Clarke’s book and look­ing at the cover, which de­picted men in chains and men in cells. Some­thing about the ex­pres­sions of those men told me that the real story of Port Arthur was not the ghosts. The real story was what had hap­pened to the pris­on­ers. To a young, eas­ily scared boy, that story seemed too for­bid­ding.

It would be an­other two decades be­fore I fi­nally read For the Term of His Nat­u­ral Life: the tale of Ru­fus Dawes, the un­luck­i­est man who ever lived, who is trans­ported to Van Diemen’s Land af­ter be­ing framed for the mur­der of his fa­ther. On be­ing trans­ported, he sur­vives a series of ever more un­lucky events — a mutiny, a failed sui­cide at­tempt, a gutsy res­cue mis­sion — be­fore even­tu­ally ar­riv­ing at Port Arthur, where the worst luck of all awaits.

The only per­son who can save him, the forth­right colo­nial girl Sylvia Vick­ers, has mar­ried his sworn en­emy, the cruel over­seer Mau­rice Frere. Af­ter suf­fer­ing a bout of pneu­mo­nia, Sylvia for­gets that it was Ru­fus who res­cued her and Mau­rice from star­va­tion at the Sarah Is­land prison set­tle­ment. This is the last ar­row of ou­tra­geous for­tune that poor Ru­fus can take. He de­scends into mis­ery. But his suf­fer­ing is not yet com­plete. Just when it ap­pears things can get no worse for Ru­fus, the rogu­ish John Rex ar­rives to steal his iden­tity and his in­her­i­tance.

If all this sounds night­mar­ish, then that is more or less the point. Clarke wrote the orig­i­nal se­ri­al­i­sa­tion of this book in the early 1870s, al­most 20 years af­ter trans­porta­tion to the is­land had ceased and the colony had been re­named Tas­ma­nia. By then, con­vic­tism was al­ready his­tory. Like many peo­ple, Clarke found the pe­riod fas­ci­nat­ing. He began a series of ar­ti­cles for The Aus­tralasian called Old Sto­ries Re­told, which looked at some of the nas­ti­est as­pects of con­vict life. He re­searched, he in­ter­viewed and he trav- Port Arthur is the scene of great suf­fer­ing and hor­ror in Mar­cus Clarke’s ground­break­ing novel, first se­ri­alised in the 1870s elled. And soon the ar­ti­cles mor­phed into some­thing much larger. In this re­gard, Clarke’s novel is per­haps best un­der­stood as Aus­tralia’s first ma­jor work of his­tor­i­cal fiction, and it be­gins the na­tion-build­ing project of cap­tur­ing, in nar­ra­tive form, the process of our be­com­ing. That process in Tas­ma­nia was, of course, one of brutal pe­nal servi­tude.

There is no more po­tent a sym­bol of trans­porta­tion than Port Arthur. Nowa­days, the pen­i­ten­tiary has lost much of its gothic power. The ru­ins of it stand peace­fully in the for­est near Ea­gle­hawk Neck, just as the re­mains of the Ro­man past stand in forests all across Europe. Per­haps its chief func­tion is to re­mind us that we don’t have ac­cess to the past, only to its me­di­ated restora­tions. (The English artist John Glover used the im­agery of Ro­man ru­ins in his paint­ings un­til he came to Van Diemen’s Land in 1831, where­upon he started fill­ing the holes in his land­scapes with frol­ick­ing Abo­rig­ines, which served a sim­i­lar the­matic pur­pose.) It’s easy to imag­ine the young English-born jour­nal­ist Mar­cus Clarke vis­it­ing Port Arthur in 1870, while the prison was still in oper­a­tion, and hear­ing the sto­ries of how hard life had been in the early days. He was surely over­whelmed by the hor­ror of what he heard and saw, or at least that’s the im­pres­sion you get from read­ing For the Term of His Nat­u­ral Life.

And in no small mea­sure it was his writ­ing that en­sured Port Arthur be­came the pre-em­i­nent sym­bol of the hu­mil­i­a­tion and suf­fer­ing vis­ited upon the con­vict class.

This is re­flected in the sen­sa­tion­al­ist na­ture of the novel. The bad luck that Ru­fus Dawes suf­fers of­ten strains credulity — but, as in­cred­i­ble as much of the ac­tion ap­pears, most of it has a ba­sis in the his­tor­i­cal records. The fi­nal ship to leave the Sarah Is­land set­tle­ment was in

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