Poenamo Book the First - Chapter VI.
I Forswear the Great Convict Land
As the mail-cart drew up at
the little inn of Bathurst the clock struck the midnight hour, and the new
year of 1840 was ushered in to me to the tune of a discordant fiddle, danced
to by assigned convicts, who shuffled and scraped vile steps on the
kitchen-floor to an audience whose well-marked countenances of the true
convict stamp were new to me. I well remember going to bed with a
disagreeable twinge passing through me, resulting from the question put in
confidence to myself whether I was quite sure that I had done the right
thing in having exchanged my prospects in India for those in the land in
which I now found myself. But in turning my back on the Palmyra I had
finally disconnected myself with physic, and for ever barred the possibility
of being ignominiously advertised in company with a cow! My future practice
was never to be more than amateur, so to speak, only acting the good
Samaritan when other doctors were not to be had. But that night I was far
more ill with my profession than with sheep, and almost wished I had never
heard of such a thing as a "run in Australia". I really think the scraping
of that fiddle and shuffling of those heavy feet, and the hoarse laugh which
found its way to my bedroom throughout the night, created a feeling in me
repugnant to casting my lot in life in a land where such an element as I had
seen disporting itself downstairs existed.
Before morning my imagination
in the half-sleeping, half-waking state i which I lay—I had conjured up a
new and appropriate accompaniment to the fiddle—the clanking of the convicts
in chains—but it was imagination only. The ''chained gangs" I had seen
working on roads when crossing the Blue Mountains were not permitted to
dance the new year in. That was a privilege only to be obtained when the
chains no longer fettered them.
The morning of this New
Year's day was my first introduction to the day being ushered in with the
bright sun of a midsummer's morning; but many and many more were in store
for me in the future.
As I stepped forth from the
little Inn I looked on the Plains or Bathurst already basking in the hot
sun. The convict element had disappeared—all was quiet. Last night's scene?
had it only been a disagreeable dream or a painful reality?
A bullock-team at this moment
stopped at the inn-door, the driver entered, and from his face my eye
instinctively went to his ankle. No, there was no chain there; but—last
night's scene had not been a dream!
After breakfast I presented a
letter of introduction to a gentleman in the neighbourhood, a retired
military officer, He did not ask if they lithographed these things now at
home, but took possession of me there and then, installed me in his house,
and sent off to the inn for my light baggage. Under his hospitable roof I
took my first lesson in "dumping wool," for he was busy "baling his clip" to
send down to Sydney for shipment home.
I had an opportunity also of
studying the convict element of the colony—of the population which supplied
labourers for the settlers, for as yet the immigration which had taken place
consisted mostly of capitalists who were employers of labour.
After a short sojourn with my
kind friends I heard of a party of gentlemen who were going towards the
Lachlan River, and I made arrangements to join them.
At that juncture it was
prudent to travel in numbers, as the country was infested by a gang of
bushrangers who had been attacking the isolated homesteads of the settlers.
Their mode of proceeding was something after this fashion: on arriving they
collected all the inmates of the house, put them into one room, and placed a
sentry with a loaded gun over them, with the instructions to shoot, without
compunction, any recreant individual who dared to stir "an inch," in
delicate language employed. This was termed "baling up."
This ceremony completed, the
gang then made free with the house and everything in it—took what they
fancied and could carry away, which really was only money and jewels. They
sat down and regaled themselves with the best to eat and drink in the house,
and on taking their leave, whatever was better than what they arrived with,
in the shape of horseflesh and saddlery, they took away—on the principle
that a fair exchange was no robbery, the fairness not taken into account.
The gang had been making quite a long and pleasant excursion, undisturbed by
mounted or any other police, and were in full swing at that time. On journey
to the Lachlan River we had travelled just a day in advance of the gang, as
they arrived at two of the inns in we had stopped just the day after we had
I reached in due course of
time, not the Lachlan river, but the river course, for the river itself had
not been running for two years. The whole country was just recovering from a
drought of unprecedented and alarming continuance—so that when at length
rain fell, Parents remarked to each other, "What. will the two-year-olds
think of this?" for offspring had been born and lived to that age without
ever having seen a drop of rain! On our journey we had convincing proofs of
what the drought had been. We passed dried-up water-holes with circles of
skeletons all around. Cattle and sheep had gone to drink, had stuck in the
mud, and, without strength to extricate themselves, had there died. At the
time of which I write, after rain had fallen, we had ridden for half a day
at a time, looking forward to a drink of water at some customary
watering-place, but on arriving at it found nothing more liquid than thick
mud. We carried in our saddle-bags as many peaches as we could eat, and
after eating one we kept sucking the stone to keep moisture in our mouths,
the one peach and peach-stone keeping us going until we arrived at the stage
where it was safe to indulge in another; calculating very nicely, however,
the distance which so many hours' sucking each fresh peach-stone would carry
us along on our journey until we reached our camping-ground of secured water
supply. It was sometimes a shepherd's station-hut, or the canopy of heaven,
the latter time preferable of the two: sometimes a settler's comfortable
homestead. From the Lachlan River I made another long tour, and in all spent
three months travelling through the country, which gave me a perfect idea of
that part of Australia, and of the description of life that had to be led
and the social intercourse that existed. And the conclusion that my sapient
youthdom arrived at was that the whole thing would not do for me.
I concluded that if I turned
squatter and kept sheep with my nearest civilised neighbour fifty miles off,
and with only my fellow-men of the released chain-gang kind to look at, the
chances would be that I should soon lose the half-memory with which I had
been born, and become little better than the sheep I had intended to own.
And there was a still more cogent reason, and of a pecuniary kind—that most
peremptory of all reasons—for my determining not to turn squatter—the price
of stock was at such an exorbitant rate, some eight to nine pounds a head
for cattle, and forty shillings for "maiden ewes," that my small capital was
nowhere. Add to this, moreover, that at this epoch of Australia's history
the assignment system was done away with, so that the hitherto cheap free
convict labour, which had been no inconsiderable element in the profits of
wool-growing, had now to be replaced by free very dear labour.
My young mind, verdant as it
most undoubtedly was could not see through these disadvantages which it
conjured up, wisely as the future history of the colony proved. But the fact
was that all this time there was an undercurrent at work. I had been
harbouring one very strong predilection, one prevailing idea that the thing
to do was to go to a nww place and a new settlement, and rise with it.
My five hundred pounds would
do nothing in sheep and cattle and farming in the existing state of matters
in Australia. It might do a very great deal elsewhere in some other way in
some other place.
I think if the real truth
were known I had never got over or shaken off that first night's dream of
shuffling convicts' feet and chained gangs, and unrecognised there still
vibrated in my ears the discordant sounds of that vilely-scraped fiddle. And
as I now knew of fresh fields and pastures new, where I could go and be a
first settler, the slow but sure fever was at work which was to carry the
I determined to try my
fortunes in the new land now proclaimed as pertaining to the Crown of
England—a land where the taint of convictism was unknown, a land which the
Imperial Government guaranteed should remain and be held intact from it, and
to that land I determined to go.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.