Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 10

The band of Romulus, it is most certain,

Were ruffian stabbers and vile cutpurse knaves;

Yet did this outcast scum of all the earth

Lay the foundations of the eternal city.

Before daybreak next morning the light of Port Jackson was visible from the deck of the Leviathan, and shortly afterwards that trusty vessel entered the Heads — two bold bluff precipices, between which lies the entrance to that spacious harbour, supposed to be one of the finest on the surface of the globe. A pilot had come on board to direct the course of the ship to her anchorage; and during the run of nearly seven miles from the entrance of the Port to the site of the town of Sydney Rashleigh had ample opportunities of scanning the external features of the land in which he was destined to find his future home.

The shores of Port Jackson then possessed few charms, either natural or acquired: sandy bays opening to great distances inland, bordered apparently by stunted trees; rocky headlands between each inlet, crowned with similar foliage; and far away, on either hand, a background displaying dense forests of sombre green. There were then none of those elegant mansions or beautiful villas, with their verdant and ever blooming gardens, which now so plentifully meet the eye of the new colonist, affording abundant proofs of the wonted energy of the Anglo-Saxon race, who speedily rescue the most untamed sods from the barbarism of nature and bid the busy sounds of industry and art awaken the silent echoes of every primeval forest in which they are placed.

Not a single patch of cultivated soil appeared in those days to refresh the sight of the wearied voyagers with evidences that here the foot of civilised man had ever trod prior to their arrival. One of the passengers, who had visited New South Wales before, called the attention of his companions on the poop to an isle called Garden Island, and Ralph looked towards the spot, expecting now, at least, to detect some proof of the reclaiming hand of man. But alas, the so-called Garden Island presented nothing to his view but a doubly sterile mass of rugged grey rocks rising from the bosom of one of the numerous bays, and crowned with the same unvarying livery of russet green; but as they rounded the next projecting point they came in view of a small embattled building on a height, which was said to be one of the forts at the entrance of Sydney Cove. Immediately afterwards they saw a straggling range of cottages, mostly of a very small size, which stretched along an eminence, and which were declared by their informant to be a portion of the town of Sydney known as “The Rocks”.

The Magnet was shortly brought to anchor opposite a neck of land on which stood a slaughter-house, and our voyagers could survey the greater part of the town from a very favourable position. The dwellings appeared to he chiefly of one story; in fact, most of them deserved no better name than huts. The streets were narrow and straggling; nor did there seem to be more than half a dozen good or convenient private buildings in the town. There was no cultivated land to be seen from their station, and but a very few miserable cottages, peeping here and there out of the trees, stood upon the north shore of the harbour, in various parts of which there were then about six other large vessels at anchor, besides a good number of small cutters and boats which were passing to and fro continually.

The day after their arrival, the Colonial Secretary, the Principal Superintendent of Convicts, and other officers came on board to muster the newly arrived prisoners, who were each called separately into the cabin, asked their names, ages, religions, native places, trades and a host of other interrogatories, the replies to which were taken down and a personal description of each convict added. When this ceremony had been gone through with all the new arrivals, these official visitors departed and a number of other persons came on board, some seeking news from the “old country”, some to enquire after expected relations, a few of the great ones to ascertain what sort of men the new chums were, and whether there were certain descriptions of persons among them, according to the wants of each querist in the article of labour.

Among others who thus came was an elderly gentleman who kept an academy, whose object was to enquire for a suitable assistant in his scholastic labours. The surgeon superintendent accordingly recommended Ralph Rashleigh, who was at that moment writing in an inner cabin. Being called out, he was presented to the applicant, who questioned him as to his attainments. The answers appeared to prove satisfactory and the schoolmaster departed.

In about a fortnight from their arrival the prisoners on board were again mustered preparatory to their going on shore and received each a new suit of clothing, after which they were placed in boats, by divisions, and rowed to a spot of land near Fort Macquarie, where, being landed, they waited until all had arrived and then proceeded through a part of the public promenade known as the Domain, up to the Prisoners’ Barracks, where they were placed in a back yard by themselves, and shortly afterwards again paraded. On their dismissal a host of the older prisoners insinuated themselves among them for the purpose of bargaining for clothes, trinkets or other property, and many a poor new chum — the distinctive name bestowed upon them by the old hands — was deprived of all his little stock of comforts by the artifices of the others, who appeared to pique themselves in no small degree upon the dexterity with which they could thus pick up (rob) the unwary new-comers.

The day after Rashleigh’s landing the dispersion of his shipmates began, and in four days there remained but himself and two others out of about 140 who had safely reached the Colony with him, the remainder having all been sent, or, as the phrase ran, “assigned”, to the service of private individuals, by tens, fours, threes, or single individuals, according to the priority of application or degree of interest possessed by the masters. Most of these men were employed at the trades or occupations to which they had been brought up or accustomed, except such as had been used to trades which were not then in existence in New South Wales. They were assigned as labourers and sent into the interior. Of these the most numerous class was the weavers, who subsequently made but sorry shifts at using the axe or the hoe, the latter being by far the most usual mode of tilling the soil in that early period of Australian agriculture.

As for Rashleigh, he was in a few days sent to the schoolmaster whom he had seen on board the ship, and after a long lecture from his employer touching his future conduct, was duly installed into office, which, truly, was all but a sinecure, for the system or rather no system, of education pursued at this “classical and commercial academy”— for such, in sooth, it professed to be — was full easy for both instructors and instructed. It was most true that in Ralph’s after experience he never found any of his quondam pupils had attained any very high grade of scientific or literary acquirement; but then, the meeting was always a pleasant one, nevertheless, because the pseudo-scholars ever remembered their tutor with gratitude as one who was always ready to do his devoir at obtaining them a holiday, if he could, upon any pretence or no pretence at all.

The chief of this “educational establishment” was much more fond of his amusements by day and the allurements of the social glass by night, than the toil inseparable from that “delightful task” which Mrs Barbauld has sung so sweetly. His assistant, Rashleigh, who was now, once more, respectably clad and enjoyed a good deal of liberty out of school hours, began to form acquaintances among other educated prisoners, chiefly clerks in government offices, who were wont to meet, after they had concluded the small share of what they were pleased to call work that fell to the portion of each, to discuss matters of more weighty and deep moment, no less than the affairs of the State, which, being everybody’s business, were, as is usual in the opinion of such sages at least, most shamefully neglected.

But alas, no prophet is honoured in his own age or country, and the political disquisitions of these learned pundits at last attracted the attention of the Sydney police, who were so illiberal as to take umbrage at them. And one evening, when our hero, who began to feel the full fervour of amor patriae for his adopted country, was loudly descanting upon her wrongs under the iron sway of General Darling, then Governor, an addition to the auditory, equally unexpected and unwelcome, was made in the persons of half a dozen constables under the command of a chief who had formerly been a member of that fraternity, so useful to anatomical science, yclept stiff-hunters, or body-snatchers.

This man of office, with awful brow, began to question all of the amateur politicians as to their appellations and places of residence, but specially honoured Ralph Rashleigh, whose oratorical display he had so cruelly marred, with a double portion of his scrutiny. No further steps were taken that night, the party of embryo Demosthenes’ being permitted to repair to their several abodes, marvellously discomfited at this malapropos interruption.

After this Rashleigh dared not seek the same society for a while, and confined his amusements to walks in the town and neighbourhood, for though accustomed, as he had been, latterly at least, to scenes of vulgarity and to association with the lowest of the human race, even his mind revolted from mingling with the only sort of companions accessible to him.

The town at that time contained but two classes, one comprising the high government officers and a very few large merchants, who formed at that period the aristocracy of Australia. The other was composed of men who, like Ralph, either were or had been convicts, or, to use the milder colonial phrase, “prisoners of the Crown”. Many of the last, who were now free, had become very wealthy; but Heaven knows, they formed no exception to the description given by Pope of those on whom riches are generally bestowed, they being, he says,

Given to the fool, the vain, the mad, the evil,
To ward, to waters, chartres, and the devil.

And surely, the men among the freed convicts of New South Wales who had acquired riches offered abundant evidence of the truth of the above couplet, the nucleus of their gains having been acquired either by the exercise of every art of fraud, or at least by chicanery, and in some cases by pandering to the grossest vices of their fellow-convicts, whose chief luxuries. and in fact the grand prima mobile or summa bona of whose existence were rum and tobacco, to wallow in beastly drunkenness being to them the very acme of earthly bliss! As our adventurer was thus debarred from such male society as he preferred, he would fain have sought for solace among the gentler sex, who were beneficently bestowed by the creator to soothe the cares and enhance the blessings of man; but here the case was even worse, for the only females accessible to a person in Rashleigh’s situation had also reached the Colony as prisoners, and in pity to the frailties of the softer part of the creation the author willingly draws a veil over the description given by Ralph of the “ladies” of Sydney in those early days.

But the time was now at hand when a new phase in the life of a convict was about to open upon our hero. In about a month after the occurrence before related, when the police had interrupted his diatribe against the Governor, a constable came one day to the school with an order from the Chief Superintendent of Convicts that Ralph Rashleigh should accompany the bearer to Hyde Park Barracks; a mandate with which he was fain to comply, though sundry misgivings as to the purport of the recall shot athwart his mind. When he reached that establishment he was placed in strict and solitary confinement, and the next day, before sunrise, having been handcuffed, was dispatched in the care of a messenger, on the road to a Government Agricultural Establishment situated at Emu Plains, about thirty-five miles from Sydney. He was not to be permitted to call at his former abode or to obtain from thence any clothing or other necessaries. The messenger in whose charge he was proved obdurate to all his entreaties or offers of a bribe if he would only allow him to diverge a few yards from his road for any purpose; and thus he was compelled to march along in the slight dress he wore while teaching and having on a thin pair of shoes, which, long before he reached the end of his day’s stage, at Parramatta, were dropping from his feet in tatters. The day following he was obliged to march the remaining twenty miles barefooted over miserable apologies for roads, the greater part of which lay along stony ranges, so that his feet were cut and bleeding from twenty wounds before they reached their destination.


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