Posts tagged ‘bushrangers’

15/01/2021

The Van Diemen’s Land Warriors, or The Heroes Of Cornwall

 

 

For many a mile, through many a sultry day,
In vain these heroes o’er the mountains stray,
When fortune deeming it was monstrous hard,
That men so spirited should be debarred
From falling in with Brady’s treacherous crew,
And proving what a valorous heart could do,
Made the keen eyes of all the party see
The looked-for robbers sleeping ‘neath a tree:
Gladly they saw the rascals snoring lay
Then fixed their bayonets and—ran away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stop the presses.

We have spent some time considering the question of “the first Australian novel“, which despite arguments of provenance is generally considered to be Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton.

Without disputing Savery’s title, it has recently come to my attention that there was an earlier work of—if not fiction, exactly, then non -non-fiction – the first poem to be published in Australia as a free-standing work – The Van Diemen’s Land Warriors, or The Heroes Of Cornwall: A Satire In Three Cantos by someone calling himself “Pindar Juvenal”. This humorous work tells the story of a band of citizens who, disgusted with the failure of the army to capture the Tasmanian bushranger, Matthew Brady, set out to do the job themselves.

This is today a very rare work, with only a couple of copies of the original document still in existence and its authorship still in dispute. The copy held by the State Library of NSW has a handwritten annotation on its title page (see above) suggesting that “Pindar Juvenal” was actually “Robert Wales of Launceston”…though who Robert Wales was is also in dispute. The Oxford Companion To Australian Literature refers to Wales as “an officer of the Tasmanian courts”. However, in a 1947 edition of the Launceston newspaper, the Examiner, an academic called Dr Morris Miller comments that he has, “Read a reference in the Hobart Town Courier of 1830 to Robert Wales as editor of the Launceston Advertiser.” Either one of these positions would have given Wales sufficient cause to hide behind a pseudonym.

But Wales is not the only one nominated for authorship. In fact, we have a competing annotation in the copy of The Van Diemen’s Land Warriors held by the National Library in Canberra, which states that the author was one James Atkinson, about whom I have not been able to find anything out.

The third nomination is Evan Henry Thomas, an important figure in Australian publishing at this time. In 1822, his poems first appeared in the pages of the Hobart Town Gazette: the first poetry to be written and published in Australia, albeit that it was not released in book form. By 1824, Thomas was the editor of the Gazette—and in fact was the author of the editorial against Governor-General George Arthur that got publisher Andrew Bent imprisoned for libel.

There was an effort made to sort out the authorship of The Van Diemen’s Land Warriors nearly twenty years before Dr Miller’s research of the 1940s. In 1928, the proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society published a short paper by Arthur Jose reporting on an exhibition of early Australian publications at the British Museum, including a copy of the poem by “Pindar Juvenal”. Because of the work’s great rarity, Jose summarises it.

He then poses a question that anyone reading this poem must ask themselves:

“Just a cheap witticism, you think, a ‘pipe’ of the kind fairly common in the early days. But at whom was it aimed? And why publish it in 1827, when Brady had been caught by John Batman early in 1826? Many of the details (I have not enlarged on them here) seem stupidly irrelevant if they do not refer to something that actually happened. But I cannot find in any book available this side of the oceans any chase of Brady that could have given rise to the story. After all, a satire must be intended to satirise something. Can anyone tell what?”

Jose’s plea received a response from the editor of the Proceedings, in which he highlights the poem’s historical importance and addresses the authorship debate. With regard to its intent, the editor references an article in the Tasmanian newspaper, the Argus, from 1911, which called the poem, “A satire on the military forces for their repeated failures to put an end to the bushranging of those evil days.”

He then points out perhaps the most important thing of all about this work: it was probably Australia’s first banned book. Copies of it, it seems, were literally burnt.

Perhaps we need to keep in mind here the lessons of Henry Savery’s other important work, The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land. While much of its satire is today inexplicable, at the time of its first appearance it was absolutely understandable, to the point of getting Andrew Bent sued for libel again (this time, to his great cost). So just because later readers do not “get” the references is no reason to conclude that the satire has no point.

And in fact, I think the clue to the satire can be found in the details of Matthew Brady’s career—despite the fact that he had been captured and hanged the year before. Considered incorrigible, in 1823 Brady was transferred to the brutal penal colony of Macquarie Harbour on Sarah Island, from where, despite the “Alcatraz” conditions, he and a band of confederates managed to escape in a small boat. Over the next two years, Brady became one of Australia’s “popular” bushrangers: he had a reputation for not resorting to violence except in self-defence, and for considerate treatment of women.

The highlight, so to speak, of Brady’s career was his gang’s occupation of the town of Sorell, during which they captured the local garrison after ambushing the soldiers stationed there upon their return from an unsuccessful day spent searching for, you guessed it, Matthew Brady: giving them a night in their own lock-up.

Furthermore, Brady became one of the many waging a personal war against George Arthur—even issuing a satirical “wanted” poster for the much-hated Governer-General. The furious Arthur responded by escalating the reward for Brady’s capture, and then taking to the field himself. But while Brady was eventually cornered, and though his capture is attributed to the actions of John Batman (who is famous and infamous for too many things to be discussed here), it seems that the bushranger’s downfall was due to the infiltration of his gang by an informant.

So if we place The Van Diemen’s Land Warriors in this context, it makes sense as part of the ongoing campaign against George Arthur, despite the demise of Brady. Perhaps we should even read “Captain Snip”, the tailor who leads the band of “warriors”, as Arthur himself. Alternatively, perhaps the “warriors”, named only by profession rather than name, were meant to be sketches of certain prominent citizens of Launceston: a reading bolstered by the wish-fulfillment aspect of their ultimate fate.

(BTW, at the time Tasmania, or rather Van Diemen’s Land, was divided into two “counties”, with the territory north of the 42nd parallel, including Launceston, part of “Cornwall County”.)

After opening with the author’s dedication to his “best and most sincere friend” – himself – The Warriors Of Van Diemen’s Land begins with a statement of its manifesto:

War, and those gallant souls, I proudly chant,
Whose lion hearts did bravely fiercely pant—
To capture Brady, and his ruffian band,
Who reigned the terror of Van Diemen’s Land;
I sing the meeting of the valiant crew,
Who met to argue what was best to do,
What was the sure and most effectual plan,
To take the lives of Brady’s murd’rous clan;
Oh ! Wellington, the feats that I’ll report,
Will make thy brav’ry dwindle into nought;
The fields of Talavera—Waterloo—
Were nought, compared to what the muse will shew!

From here we pass to a gathering of citizens airing their grievances, among which we find the failures of the soldiers and so on up the chain of command:

He wished to axe the gentlemen if they
Did not with him most solemnly enveigh
Against the silly rules and measures planned
By Colonel Arthur, Governor of the land,
Who sent out soldiers to destroy the band?
Soldiers, indeed! why he himself would fight
A dozen such, and put them awl to flight!
But as he always acted on the square,
He’d rather have the angry battle fair,
And fight one soldier, if one soldier dare…

After agreeing that they must band together and take action, the next matter of business is who is to command this new militia. Each man suggests himself, and offers up his qualifications for the job. The town tailor is eventually appointed, he having beaten two men both hindered by wooden legs:

At last they all with one accord agreed,
The Tailor’s action was the bravest deed,
And each resolved to make this daring trip
Under the charge of gallant Captain Snip,
Who proudly—fiercely girding on his shears,
Exclaimed come on, I’ll clip the villains’ ears!

The band’s first venture comes to nothing, as it is belatedly discovered that they charged their weapons with boot-black instead of powder; besides the Baker loading his musket-balls and “powder” in the wrong order: mistakes which have some immediately positive consequences:

Well might the Grocer’s little ’prentice puzzle
To find the cause (though loaded to the muzzle!)
His gun would not go off and shoot,
That noble animal—the bandicoot!

Well might the wond’ring Baker try
To ascertain the reason why
His gun so obstinate refused to fire
And gratify his murderous desire;
Because if real powder had been used,
The musket would have still refused
To breathe destruction to the kang’roo-rat,
Which on a log most impudently sat…

Having returned home to fix their weapons, the band sallies out again and has – as it then believes – its first encounter with Brady and his gang: an encounter that (as per my header quote) ends rather ingloriously. However, after the initial panic, they steel themselves for the job – the bushrangers are, after all, still sleeping – and, creeping up, fire away:

…kindly harmless every bullet passes,
And spares the lives of five or six jackasses…

****

The startled animals their long ears pricking,
Jumped up, and proved themselves alive and kicking,
For, cocking their tails, o’er hill and dale they bound,
Leaving the warriors masters of the ground,
(Except a few who’d shut both eyes to fire,
And did not open either to enquire,
Before they ran, how many robbers bled,
Or whether the whole, or only part were dead…)

Others are in the vicinity, and drawn by the sound of firing. Suddenly finding themselves at gunpoint, the warriors are ordered to drop their weapons and hastily obey:

And thirteen men were hapless prisoners made,
Who thought if yielding would obtain them quarter,
T’were better to do so, than to risk such slaughter;
Meekly submitting, every hand was tied
Before th’ affrighted prisoners descried
Their stout and gallant conquerers to be,
From the 40th Regiment of Infantry…

…who of course were also out hunting Brady, and are disinclined to listen to their prisoners’ indignant claims of innocent citizenship. The captives plead their case before a magistrate who, after a few unkind words about their lack of bravery, discharges them. He also consoles the soldiers:

My gallant friends, I must allow to you,
There’s greatest praise and every credit due,
In spite of your unfortunate mistake,
An error very natural to make;
So natural indeed my mind conceives,
The devil himself would take them all for thieves…

The warriors are still getting over their fright when they walk almost into the arms of the very people who, at that moment, they least wish to see:

Alas! whilst busied setting stitches,
And mending his company’s ragged breeches,
The unsuspecting Captain Snip descries
(With terror equal to his great surprise)
The daring Brady with his lawless band,
Around himself and hapless comrades stand…

Snip does his best:

When thus to him did Captain Snip reply
With chatt’ring teeth, and tearful sorrowing eye
Upon his trembling and submissive knees;
My Lord—your Excellency—your Honour—please
To spare our lives, we’re not (as you suppose)
Armed as your Rev’rences most daring foes,
But only sportsmen bearing guns to shoot
The kangaroo-rat and bandicoot…

Warned by Brady that they have only ten minutes to live, the warriors fall to their knees and begin confessing their sins, which causes some eyebrow-raising amongst the bushrangers, who observe that they are innocent men compared to these “honest citizens”. After some debate, they agree to spare their prisoners’ lives—but mete out a round punishment first:

With cat-o nine-tails, and with one accord,
Most kindly liberally did award
To every private volunteer, the sum
Of fifty lashes on his naked b-m,
By way of what they called a pay or pension,
Due to their services and good intention…

Brady then confiscates the trousers of the sobbing crew, and sends them on their way:

In such a glaring dishabille, alas!
Through streets of Launceston compelled to pass
The girls and women vowed t’was monstrous rude
For men to walk about the town so nude;
While every ragged little urchin screeches,
‘Pray what’s the price of buck-skin breeches’?
At last they gladly each arrive once more
Safely within his own respective door,
Resolved no more in search of fame to roam,
To mind his business, and stay at home.

.