I invite you to visit also my literary blog: Journeys in Creative Writing where I post original fiction including short stories, poetry and 'Paternity', a full length mystery novel.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Australia's Convicts - Were they simply scum?

Source: Mollie Gillen's The Founders of Australia

The white settlement of Australia began in the late 18th century because the English wanted to be rid of thousands of people clogging up their gaols and spilling into old ships hulks where they led an indescribable existence of squalor and degradation.

In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip led the First Fleet of ships bearing 1,400 people sent to found the nation which is Australia today. An overwhelming number of those people were convicts.

Source: Mollie Gillen's The Founders of Australia

Many stood trial at the famous Old Bailey courthouse in London (above), often for quite trivial offences. I’ve asked myself what type of people were these convicts whose suffering laid the cornerstone of today’s prosperous society in the Great South Land?

Source: Mollie Gillen's The Founders of Australia

These are the signatures of some of the ‘better off’ (non convicts) who were on board the First Fleet – beginning with the Captain who would become Governor Arthur Phillip, and Phillip Gidley King, also a Governor of the colony.

The young settlement certainly began in inequality, and it is indeed interesting that inequality seems to have been an abiding concern for Australians ever since. Governments seem to be more popular here today when they look to concerns of the little people as well as to those of the great and powerful.

Source: Mollie Gillen's The Founders of Australia

These signatures of some of the convicts on board demonstrate inequality. Note the large number who confirmed their signing with their mark ‘x’, signifying that they could not write – even in those days a barrier to advancement in society.

The first years of the colony were brutal, but inequality did dissipate somewhat and gradually as many convicts served their terms to become part of the society, contributing to the general good. This movement grew in pace as a new generation of Australians was born, declaring pride in their native land.

From a portrait attributed to R Read the elder, published in Australian Genesis 1974

Esther Abrahams (c7769-1846) is the only First Fleet convict known to be the subject of a portrait. She was sentenced to transportation in 1786 for the theft of some black lace, even though evidence against her was circumstantial.

She became the wife of First Lieutenant George Johnston who later held the position of Lieutenant Governor and was a leader in the rise against Governor Bligh. The marriage only took place some years after she had had seven children by Johnston.

There is no photograph of John Hudson, probably the youngest convict, who was found guilty on circumstantial evidence at the Old Bailey in 1783. His crime was alleged to be breaking into a house at night and stealing some clothing and a pistol. He was eight years-old at the time.

Our third convict, William Lane, stole a substantial bag of goods when he was 30 years-old, and was in trouble again soon after he reached the colony. He received 2,000 lashes when, with another convict, he stole 13 pounds of biscuit. He said he did it because he was hungry.

James La Rue began life in Exeter. He was sentenced there to be publicly whipped for petty larceny at the age of 20, and was later transported for an unnamed felony. He was sent to Norfolk Island and regularly received harsh punishment, including work in heavy irons and 800 lashes. Le Rue died in 1816 at the age of 51.

At that time the Hobart Town Gazette wrote: “Jemmy La Rou (sic), a poor maniac whose death was occasioned by being exposed during the night to all severities of the weather in the state of intoxication. He was a poor harmless being who was regarded with pity and compassion.”

Mary Humphries was known in London as “Hell-Fire Moll”. She was transported after she assaulted a young man until he cried. They accused her of stealing 23s 6d which was found in her chimney.

Will Parish was transported for threatening a man with a pistol in an attempted but unsuccessful robbery.
David Lankey was a young tailor sent on an errand by his father, when he was accused of the theft of a handkerchief. Even in the colony he continued his tailoring work, becoming known for his expertise. Apparently by this time he was regarded as “respectable” and useful.

Photograph: R N Dalkin

And then there was Thomas Headington, an unskilled labourer who was transported for stealing.

The inscription on his Norfolk Island gravestone was

“Dear wife do not grieve
Nor children shed a tear

For I am gone to heaven above

To meet sweet angels there.”

He died age 40 years.

Author Mollie Gillen spent 20 years hunting through primary documents to put together brief biographies of almost everyone on board the fleet, and her book The Founders of Australia is the result.

In her book Gillen quotes a German traveller Henry Meister on the barbarity of the English justice system. Meister noted that often the smallest theft (that is, against property) was punished with death, yet the most heinous violence often went unnoticed.

Other historians disagreed.

In 1956 Manning Clark had looked also at later convict arrivals to conclude that they were professional criminals. Others did the same.

In 1970 John Cobley seemed to put the newcomers in the same bag as Manning Clark’s later arrivals. Cobley concluded that the First Fleeters were NOT “more sinned against than sinning” and that no convict in that fleet was transported for a purely political crime.

It is possible that convicts in the First Fleet may have been hand picked to assist the fledgling colony, colouring Mollie Gillen’s general conclusions.

Whatever the historians may say, Australia’s convicts were certainly human beings with hopes, and desires, and needs.
They were people who, just as we do, felt pain and hunger, and love and hate, with the need to satiate these needs. They were people who may have been into crime for excitement and easy profit. They may have been vicious and violent people. Or they may have become embittered by cruelty.

Of course it is very difficult to compare values and behaviour of the past and today.

Regardless, convicts were torn from their personal roots, whatever former lives had been. Once the fleet sailed, they certainly lived with increasing fear and uncertainty, often bereft of love and respect – for themselves and others.

The story of the white settlement of Australia, today so sophisticated, is fascinating.

It is certainly a mixed story and often an ugly one. But it is also to some degree at least a tribute to the hard work of these raggle taggle people.

Were the First Fleet convicts universally no-hopers, deserving of the label “scum of the earth”?
What would we do if our children were hungry?
Would our characters change under such pressures?
Would we respect our captors?
Should we put labels on people as a group anyway?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Nature's Designs Part Two

We continue a look at nature's designs today, as promised before thoughts of the boat people got me onto another track.

This time human beings are in the act alongside nature in some of the following photographs.

There might be imitation of the natural world going on, or humans there alongside nature to make their own imprint on the situation.

This is really where we left off last time. Remember the photograph of the palm taken from below and looking for all the world like an umbrella? This pic drives the lesson home, I think.

Nature is often quite orderly in its pursuits ...

Take this deciduous tree unfolding its branches on a perilous site.

The photographer was there with his big lens following the surfboard riders in the distance. I was there to capture him - and the patterns of the tree and the waves.

The breakers are also making a design statement of their own aren't they? And the rocks ... It's a random statement, but interesting for that.

Here man and nature have melded to make something beautiful, in my view. This is part of one of a series of seats designed for the beach area. The natural grains and colours of the different woods make an impressive team.

And then we have the graffiti types. It annoys me that they destroy the ambience of our public spaces, but in many cases I can't help having a sneaking regard for their abilities in design.

People have graffitied this row of flax plants growing beside a pathway at Cooly Beach. Can't they leave nature well alone please? Although I do appreciate the fun in this case.

Here a natural slate is used for an interesting low wall, and ferns soften the effect. It's as though nature decided to lend a hand here ...

This pic is nature in its glory. The seed pods of this pandanus palm, the crazy trunks and the spiked leaves all go together well, making their own design statement, with the never ending sky a fitting backdrop.

Are you a design freak, or couldn't you care less?

Friday, 17 April 2009

Australia's Boat People Dilemma after Remote Explosion

Thirty-one boat people have been injured in an explosion on board a 20m wooden vessel detained off the Australian coast, the latest event in the continuing tragic story of refugees seeking asylum from world trouble spots. Three people were killed and two others are missing.

Cartels of profit seeking people smugglers are taking advantage of thousands displaced by war and other disasters. Desperate people are paying high prices for passages on unseaworthy crowded boats in an effort to find new lives. However, the voyages often have disastrous results.

Image from

This is one of the Vietnamese boats that set sail for Australia 30 years ago. The refugees could not have known the dangers they faced in the hands of unprincipled smugglers.

Those 49 people on board the 20km wooden boat involved in this week's explosion are thought to be mostly Afghan males hoping to gain refugee status in Australia after escaping the war in their homeland. However, their attempted voyage into Australian waters was illegal, bypassing lawful ways of applying for admission.

The people smugglers themselves face two years gaol if found guilty of flouting the laws.

The explosion and fire occurred seven hours after the vessel was intercepted by Australian Navy patrol boats which were ferrying them to the official refugee processing station on Christmas Island.

Boat people on the way to rescue on a naval barge. SMH

Four naval personnel on board the small boat were also slightly injured.

The explosion occurred in extremely remote and lonely seas north-west of Australia, 800 km from Darwin and 610 km north of Broome. It signalled the beginning of a dramatic rescue effort that continues even now.

Navy personnel on the patrol boats plucked the boat people from the sea and took them first two nautical miles to an oil platform on Ashmore Reef. Early treatment was given by a single naval doctor.

Worst injured were then taken three hours by helicopter to a remote World War II naval base at Truscott in the Kimberleys for transfer by jet plane to Darwin Hospital. This was the burns trauma centre used for victims of the Bali bombings.

Other injured boat people were taken to Broome and even to Perth, much further south.

This injured man is being admitted to a hospital in Perth. (Getty Image: Paul Kane)

The new Rudd Government in Australia is struggling to reach a fairer centre ground on the issue of asylum seekers arriving illegally in Australia, and at the same time stamp down severely on illegal arrivals spawned by smugglers.

Only this week the government inititiated talks with Indonesia in an effort to thwart smugglers working from its shores.

For many years under the Howard Government illegal asylum seekers, including whole families with young children, were detained indefinitely in isolated and harsh gaol-like conditions, some on the mainland and others on Pacific Islands. The Howard attempts to dissuade refugees were seen as flouting human rights laws.

Kevin Rudd came to power vowing to wipe the harshness of this system while remaining determined to stop the people smuggling racket.

Australia has always accepted numbers of bona vide refugees arriving legally, while sending back to their home countries those found to be simply attempting to jump immigration queues. Many thousands of Vietnamese people, for instance, have made excellent lives for themselves in Australia, contributing greatly to the society.

For many years now there has been an extensive immigration programme, accepting appropriate people who apply in legitimate fashion. Our population has grown by many millions in this way.

In fact, looking at history, all Australians (except the original Aboriginal inhabitants) are either boat or plane people!

However, the Rudd Government's task is to discourage any flood of illegal refugees while establishing orderly intakes of immigrants in numbers which our economy and the extremely fragile nature of the environment can handle.

Australia is a land of coastal habitation and large empty space inland, much of which is incapable of maintaining human life.

The plight of refugees is an increasing and difficult one in today's world. What would you do if you were in Kevin Rudd's position?

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Nature's Design

We human beings think we're red hot when it comes to design, but nature will beat us to the post every time. I'm not even talking about the grand design that preoccupied Darwin, but aesthetic design - the wonderful patterns and shapes that will stop us in our tracks daily - if we're prepared to look around, observe and appreciate.

These pictures feature some of the designs that caught my eye on one of my recent walks ...

The first photo features the shadows of pandanus palms as cast on a pathway on a sunny day. These (above) are the amazing roots of the same tree.

And these are some new shoots on the plant that will develop into the many pronged roots capable of holding the pandanus firm against violent winds that plague its cliff top habitat.

Look closely at the ground beneath a pine tree. Delicate colours, delicate shapes.

Lovely swirls, patterns and colours of lichen on this rock ...

This looks as thought it could be something akin to an elephant's hide.

Until we look again at the trunk of an old palm tree. Does this one remind you of an umbrella? Next post we'll see how humans appropriated this particularl design.

It might be fun to see how many of nature's designs you can appreciate around you today ... the kids would love this game as well.

Friday, 10 April 2009

She's Pumping at Snapper Rocks

Surfing is such a huge culture among young people in Australia. It's a lifestyle, an economic phenomenon, and mostly good clean fun.

This week my photography walk took in the points at Snapper Rocks and Greenmount - two of the Meccas of surfing on the Queensland/New South Wales border. It was a beautiful sunny day after weeks of wild weather and waves. It was pumping!

For generations. because our country is so isolated, it's been something of a rite of passage for our young to take off on a plane and explore the world, and often these days the search for a wave is one of the central features of these quests. They can be found anywhere where the waves are renowned - including Hawaii, Bali and the more far flung parts of Asia.

Many take time off from studies and work to follow the waves in Australia, living on 'the smell of an oily rag', camping in their cars and vans for sometimes months at a time.

Early on, surfing was unsophisticated and those who took part were often seen as 'beach bums', escaping from their responsibilities. Gradually things changed and these same 'bums' found themselves a niche, building up an industry that's now gigantic.

They are the CEOs of big companies that make surfboards, wetsuits, specialist clothing and other paraphenalia regarded as essential on the sand and in the waves.

For years there has been a dark and shadowy underbelly to surfing - talk of drugs, excessive alcohol and outrageous behaviour. There is now a big effort to change this reputation, with top surfers urged to become role models for clean living.

There is a worldwide network of competitions, where surfers vie for money, fame and adulation beyond dreaming.

Australians have been taking over the spotlight more and more, and surfers of the border zone between New South Wales and Queensland are taking more than their share of success. Coolangatta local woman Stephanie Gilmore is the current world titleholder, becoming the winner for the second year in a row in December.

Another Coolangatta local Mick Fanning has held the male world title.

Stephanie is known locally as 'Happy' Gilmore, and still calls Cooly and Snapper home.

During my walk this week I passed a young blond woman in a pink surf shirt, bursting with obvious health and toting her board towards the tubes. After she passed I realised that Stephanie was there to join the fun.

Here's a short video showcasing her prowess:

Steph Gilmore is surfing's 2 x ASP World Champion

However, by far the largest number of surfers at Cooly and Snapper are not champions, although they are mean performers on their boards.

Many learn to surf here, and professionals hold regular classes to pass on their skills.

It's not long before a learner becomes a 'gromit' and begins to move up the surfing hierarchy.

These guys and gal are on their way to the point at Snapper.

There's a sand culture to the surfing world as well. That's where boy meets girl, a time when the blokes will bypass the waves for a while, doing what comes naturally. It used to be that girls always sat on the sand, waiting eternally for their mate - out there on the crest of a wave. These days once a relationship is cemented (and before) the girls are much more likely to be there vying for space.

I love this picture. There is so much body language on show here.

Maybe they're familiar and comfortable partners and he's holding his beloved board aloft after coming in from the water.

Or is the board a safety barrier while he makes a play? And is she absorbed in other things?

They talk disparagingly about young people's bedrooms. This shot shows that they can be organised when there's a reason ... This van is typical of the homes-away-from-home in the surfing scene.

This sign is an indication of the move towards the mainstream. It's been placed at Snapper by Gold Coast City Council and surfing associations to pass onto newbies the rules of the waves.

These have been built up informally over the years and make for a more orderly and safer surfing experience in times where the waves are becoming more popular and crowded than they have ever been.

It says: Surfers Code: Give Respect to Gain Respect. I would have thought that's a pretty good life lesson generally.

Surfing does not stop with the age of responsibility. You can often see 60 year-olds out there too.

Whatever, the board is generally the surfer's prize possession. It's waxed and coddled almost to extinction. After a session, the board gets washed first, and only then does the owner get the treatment.

And why not? The waves and the rocks are a spiritual experience for so many - and life's difficulties can be unravelled so much more easily in such surroundings.

The many rocks that are there to reinforce the shore bank at Snapper Rocks have become something of a memorial for those who loved this place. Some have even died nearby. The tablets tell stories of people young and old and with a central commonality - a delight in the sea.

What memories found their way to the the surface as you looked at my photographs? Please tell me in a comment.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Seeing the Light at Fingal

There’s something majestic yet mysterious about the lighthouses that still play a major role in keeping safe shipping that plies the Australian coastline. And given that the length of this sprawling coastline is 34,218 km, it’s a big job.

Fingal Head lighthouse, the most northerly of New South Wales lighthouses, is situated on a headland that’s becoming familiar to people who visit this blog. We're fast learning that there are many sides to this lovely little area which is not far from my home.

Fingal is probably one of the smaller lighthouses in Australia but it still plays a useful role, standing on one of the most easterly points of Australia with deep water offshore. The structure itself is only 7 metres high and it's 24 metres above sea level.

This is the western side of the present building.

The original lighthouse was established in 1872 to help guard shipping against a large number of dangerous reefs in the area.

According to the Tweed Historial Society
, entries from the log book of the Tweed River Pilot Station under the date of Monday, 19th February 1872 noted that trees were felled for the Fingal Head light, and a pole structure of approximately 30 feet high was erected to hold the light, a fixed kerosene lantern.

A daughter of Mr William Arnold, the first lighthouse keeper at Fingal Headland described the 1872 lighthouse as being shaped like a large meat safe, mounted on a wooden structure resembling a pigeon loft.

A hut was constructed for the keeper, who had to previously row from the Tweed Heads Pilot Station each day, and light the lantern at sunset.

This notice on the western side of the the present building carries a reference to the date of the original structure not the new one.

In October 1878 the Maritime Board of NSW decided to build a new modern lighthouse, and the first structure was replaced with a sandstone tower and attached oil room with a four room cottage for the keeper a short distance away.
The ruins of the keeper's residence are today still 20 metres northwest of the lighthouse.

In 1920 the first light was converted to unmanned automatic acetylene operation and all buildings other than the tower were demolished.

This section of the 1878 lighthouse is today the oldest existing public building in the Tweed Shire.

Picture Tweed River Historical Society

Mr Arnold remained as keeper after the new building was constructed, and he was pictured here with his granddaughter around 1900, before the structure was partially demolished.

This is the view today from the front of the lighthouse whose rays reach eight nautical miles seaward due to the addition of electricity in 1980.


All photographs on this site are copyright to June Saville unless otherwise attributed.

Are lighthouses still used to aid shipping where you live?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

What's at the End of the Path?

Last post I promised to continue our walk on Fingal Heads, a stunning peninsular near my home on the North Coast of New South Wales, Australia. This part of the path leads further into an area of bush being regenerated by a volunteer land care group. Tweed Shire Council has co-operated by providing such infrastructure as this lovely board walk.

The path and the boardwalk wind and twist, bringing new viewpoints as we go. It's intriguing ...

As in the first half of our walk, there's lots of detail. I loved the lacey pattern formed by these branches below.

And the floor of the little forest where the leaves fall and dry to form fascinating patterns ...

Occasionally there is a glimpse of what is to come.

The leaves of spiky pandanus palms frame the path here (below).

A tantalising taste of rocks and sea ...

And into the open.

This is the northern end of Fingal Beach with Cook Island just off the coast. The water is the Pacific Ocean which brought James Cook south to 'discover' Australia in 1770.

Here we can look further north towards the man made towers on the Queensland/NSW border, and the prominence which Cook called Point Danger.

To the south and beyond Fingal Head itself - the creamy sands of Dreamtime Beach.

Do you have in your country volunteer groups like ours that work on regeneration and supporting native plants ? Let us know about what you know in a comment below ...