Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 11

Robin: Work! Work! Work! All the day long! No such thing as stopping a moment, to rest yourself, for if you only straighten your back, up comes the overseer, and then ——.

Having crossed in a punt the splendid sheet of water which the Nepean river forms at Penrith, nearly at sunset on the second day of their journey, our weary travellers had a view of the broad expanse of Emu Plains, which afforded a noble prospect. But Rashleigh was too tired and full of pain to appreciate its beauties, only looking forward to the hope of a rest in some shed, however humble, and caring but little, at the moment, what might be his lot on the morrow, so he might enjoy a little present repose. They had yet a mile to pass over from the river; and when that intervening space had at last been crossed, they entered the camp — as it was called — a collection of huts built on both sides of the way, which might have reached to the number of nearly thirty. Though of all kinds, they were invariably of the same materials, being formed of split slabs of timber, one end of which was set in the earth and the other nailed to a pole, that formed a wall-plate above it, the whole being covered with sheets of bark.

The external appearance of these dwellings was anything but captivating, for the materials of which they were built had been all used quite green, and in seasoning, the slabs had shrunk one from another, so that a man could easily pass his hand through between them. In different places these chinks had been stopped up with old rags, parts of which, projecting farther than they were intended, either hung down in beauteous negligence or waved to and fro at the bidding of each capricious breeze. Glass, of course, there was none to any of the numerous openings called windows, they being supposed to be closed by shutters made of boards nailed on a sort of frame; but both these and the doors, from the same cause as the slabs, had shrunk to such a degree that the openings between the boards were half as wide as the boards themselves.

Here Rashleigh was given over in charge to the camp constable, a tall, stout countryman with a limp in his gait, who shortly piloted him to the residence of the superintendent of Emu Plains, or to Government house, as it was called. He was there directed by his conductor to wait while the other entered the mansion. In a brief space a personage made his appearance followed by the constable, who stood bareheaded behind him and motioned our adventurer to pull off his hat.

The superintendent was engaged in reading a letter, during which operation Ralph had time to scan the personal appearance of a man whom he had often heard spoken of before as a terror to all the convicts in the Colony. This official was rather above the middle stature, of an exceedingly swarthy complexion, with brows of portentous gloom, and when he spoke the stern severity of his tone belied not the austerity of his looks.

“So, my fine fellow,” said he. “you are inclined to politics, are you? Wen, we will try if we cannot find you something else to think of here. You are sent to this establishment to learn field labour, and on no account to be employed in any other way for two years. When that time has expired you will he assigned to a settler. Take him away, Row, and send the principal overseer to me when the gangs come in.”

Our hero now followed his conductor back to the camp, where the latter said with a sneer, in a strong west country dialect, “As you bees another of theasem dom’d quill drivers, I do zuppose you had better be put along with the rest; so you will stop in the pla’house there”, indicating an irregular sort of straggling-looking mass of buildings, all of them of the same stringy-bark order of architecture with the huts before described, from which it differed in no degree save size.

Rashleigh, who was really tired, nearly to death, and would have given worlds, had he possessed them, long before, to have been permitted to lie down, soon made his way to the hovel in question. Finding the door open, though the inmates were absent, he walked in and flung himself upon a rude bench made of a piece of split timber, set upon two stumps sunk in the earthen floor.

He now surveyed the interior of his future dwelling, which he quickly discovered was in perfect good harmony with its external attractions. Like the famed mansion of that worthy who delighted in the cognomen of “Jack Straw”, it was neither wind — nor water-tight; frequent awful gaps in the bark roof plainly indicated the causes of the many puddles on the dirt floor, and the cracks between the slabs freely admitted the playful vagrancy of every sportive zephyr. Furniture Rashleigh saw none save a table, made in the same manner as the bench on which he sat, two large iron pots, and a few vessels of tin.

His fatigue soon overpowered him, and he fell fast asleep; nor did he awake until he was rather roughly shaken by the shoulder, a man telling him at the same time that he must get up and answer his muster. He now staggered half asleep outside the hut; and in a few minutes the camp constable, with a train of watchmen, came bearing a lantern, which one of them held while another called over the names of the prisoners belonging to that hut, Rashleigh, of course, being last. In his simplicity he now asked the great man of office where he was to sleep.

“Wherever yow like, and be dom’d to yow,” was the courteous reply.

“But shall I not get a bed and blanket?” asked the new chum.

“I’ll tell ‘ee what!” retorted the other. “On’y I think yow bees a fool, by what yow’ve been up to in Sydney, I’d knock yow down for axing me such a dom’d stupid question. But I’ll compute it to yower ignorance. and tell yow there an’t no blankets for nobody in the stores. There’s two hundred men here a’ready wi’out any, and many on ’em has been so for more nor this two years; so doan’t ‘ee be bothering me any more, or else I’ll be dom’d if I doan’t find a shop for ‘ee.”

With this cheering assurance he departed, and Ralph followed the party into the interior, where one of the men observed “old Tom Row was getting good because he did not put the new chum in the chokey,” and another man, assenting, added that sometimes he had “knowed a dozen men put in for less than half that provocation.”

Ralph now begged to be informed what he had said that could by any possibility be construed into a crime; and the first speaker replied, “Lord bless you, stop a bit. You’re like a motherless cub, all your sorrows to come. You’ll soon find out the men in office here don’t want to receive no provocation to get a man flogged, for they delight in making out schemes to do so without”— an observation Rashleigh had abundant opportunities of verifying by actual experience afterwards. But he now enquired what shifts the rest of the men made for bedding who, like himself, were without any. His informant said some got a few sheepskins, which, indeed, were mostly stolen from drays passing on the road, and they sewed them together, rolling themselves up in them at night; while those who hadn’t the luck to get any skins had lately found out a way to prepare tea-tree bark for the same purpose; and he volunteered to show our hero the method of doing this the first leisure time he had.

Rashleigh returned his thanks, and as there was no other remedy, lay down in the ashes of the fireplace, Which, like those of the olden time in England, was spacious enough to allow half a dozen men to do so, besides leaving room enough for the fire, as it, in fact, occupied all one end of the hut. Here, though he was very hungry, he quickly fell asleep again, and awoke not until an excessive bustle caused him to do so.

Looking around him, he quickly perceived it was morning. The hut was nearly empty of its inmates, who were running out in great haste. Our adventurer jumped up. Being already dressed he found now to be some advantage, and he followed the throng of men he saw before him, going towards the camp gate, which Ralph was about to pass through, when the camp bell, which till now had been rolling most vociferously, ceased to ring; and instantly as it did so, a florid-faced man mounted on a black mare spurred across the gateway, stopping the egress, and roaring out, “Stop there, you sons of bitches! I’ll teach you fellows to come a little smarter to muster. Here, Sam, take these men’s names down.”

“Sam” was a clerk. albeit he wore a most unclerkly appearance, being very ragged, with an old pair of slop shoes on, that, having been immensely too large for him at first, had turned up at the toes, until the soles were now staring their wearer in the face. On the back part of his occiput he wore what had once been a cap made of kangaroo skin; but the crown, being nearly out, now overhung, flapping against his back; and the whole tout ensemble of this pupil of the pen much resembled what in Scotland is called a “potato bogle”, and in England a “scarecrow”. He now began to take down the names of those men that were inside the gate, of course, including our luckless adventurer whom the principal overseer no sooner saw than he cried Out, “Oho, my fine quill-driver, you are beginning well, at any rate! Here, Joe! Take this chap into your mob, and try if you can’t waken him up a bit.”

Upon this, Joe — as he was styled — a little bandy-legged chocolate-cheeked Jew, said, “Come here, you, sir. S’help mine Gott, I’ll shtir you up before night.”

Shortly afterwards, the names of all the men being read over, each shouldered his implement of labour, and the gangs began to move off; but for Rashleigh’s part, the overseer Joe called him and ordered him to take up a rope that lay near, and bring it along. Ralph looked at the rope, which appeared heavy enough to load a horse, it being nearly as thick as a cable and of great length. He attempted to lift it, but finding it far beyond his strength, he was fain to desist. He then received a volley of oaths from the little Jew, and two men being called, they placed the rope on his back. It was as much as he could stagger under, and finding it impossible to walk steadily, he ran a few paces, when his foot caught something, and he fell beneath his load, cutting his shin upon a root, so that it bled profusely. But the inflexible Joe directed the rope to be replaced on his back, which was done, and although he repeatedly fell down, it was as repeatedly again hoisted on his back, until at length, trembling in every limb from the intensity of this over-exertion, Ralph reached the scene of their appointed labour.

The gang under the orders of overseer Joe was at present employed in burning off the trees, which had been some time previously fallen, for the purpose of clearing the land and reducing it to culture. To do this the huge monarchs of the forest, now recumbent, were lopped of all their boughs, and the larger limbs and branches cross cut with saws into convenient lengths, the stumps of the trees having before had all the earth dug away from around them, so that the roots were laid bare, many of tile smaller ones being cut through. The timber was then piled around and over these stumps, the butts or large logs beneath, and the smaller and lighter branches above, the interstices being filled up with twigs, bark and chips, to make the whole ignite readily; and when a suitable number of the stumps had been thus made ready — or in wet weather, as fast as they were prepared — the masses were lighted, the fires, if necessary, being attended to until the firewood and with it the stump were completely burned out.

All the gang, having now arrived at the scene of action, were quickly distributed to their several tasks; and Ralph and some others each obtained a wooden handspike, with which to roll out the trunks of trees or carry them upon to the fires for which they were designed. A favourite plan with the overseer — Joe — who appeared to delight in oppressing his men as much as possible, was to cause six or eight handspikes to be laid on the ground before a large trunk of wood, which was then rolled thereupon; twelve or sixteen men, one at each end of the handspikes, lifted the trunk bodily up, on which master Joe would order six of their number away, on pretence that the remainder were well able to carry the log. These were thus often compelled to strain every nerve to do so; otherwise, if any one gave way, of course the log fell to the earth, and those on the same side with the defaulter stood in imminent danger of fractured limbs. But should they escape these, they were certain of incurring punishment from Joe, who would surely cause them, every man, to be flogged for neglect of work, or, at least, put into “Belly Bot” that night.

Again, this worthy would pitch upon one of the gang who had incurred his anger — which it was most easy to do, by the by — generally someone who was old or constitutionally infirm, and having selected a stump or short block of wood of the very uttermost weight any ordinary man could carry, he would call the culprit to him and cause two other men to lift this burden upon his shoulders, directing him to carry it to some distant fire. If the poor fellow could at all make shift to move under his load, he would stagger off, amid the jeers of the overseer and his toadies. When he had nearly reached the place where he supposed he had been directed to carry the load to, Joe would shout with the lungs of a Stentor — for though a small, stunted abortion of humanity, he had wondrously effective lungs —: “You blasted crawler, where are you going to? That’s not the fire. Take it over to the one far over there, on your right.”

The poor wretch, frightened at the threatening tone and language of the overseer, would now attempt to go as ordered; but Joe would still keep on, roaring out, “Not there”, “Or there”, wherever he went, until at last the man, being utterly exhausted, would fail himself or perchance throw down the load, when he was certain of condign punishment from the bench of the magistrates.

It may seern strange that such doings were allowed; but besides this establishment being a place of punishment for convicts who misbehaved in a minor degree, yet whose offences were not cognisable by law, the superintendent was very anxious to get as much work done as possible by any means. To effect this he selected from among the convicts under his charge the worst behaved and most indolent of the number for his overseers and other subordinates, who, as he rightly judged, by being the most afraid of the hardships of work themselves, would exercise all manner of rigour towards their fellow-prisoners and exact as much labour as possible from each, in order to keep their places. Thus it was that the men were so much oppressed, for if one of these convict overseers were working a gang of fifty men and had ten of them flogged every week — no uncommon proportion — it became a mere matter of arithmetical certainty that another who had a gang of twenty-five could not do his duty unless he took five of his men to Court weekly also.

Again, it was the policy of the superintendent to put two gangs of similar strength at the same kind of work within view of each other, when the overseers would vie one with the other to try which could get most done; and dire was then the cursing, swearing, raging and tearing of the rivals, who would goad on their men every instant with threats of the torturing lash, uttered with all the real arrogance of low-bred jacks-in-office, who, it need hardly be said, were capable of any atrocity themselves, and would commit any crime rather than descend from their ill-sustained eminences to work among their fellows. This is premised, lest the reader should scarcely believe what follows; yet there are many scores now alive in New South Wales who can vouch for the truth of the leading features.

Rashleigh and his fellows were quickly immersed in their fatiguing occupation, grimed from head to foot with charcoal from the logs they carried, and blinded by the smoke from the numerous fires near at hand; until at length, being employed with the others in turning the huge butt of a tree which was partially embedded in the earth by the force of its fall, Ralph, through his awkwardness, placed the end of his handspike between the body of the tree and a broken limb which was attached to it, and which formed a very acute angle with the body of the log. When, after many oaths and the expenditure of much sweat, the log at last was moved, it went over with a sudden jerk; and the branch referred to, striking the back of Ralph’s handspike as it turned over, of course forced the implement out of his grasp, and the handspike whizzed through the air, passing so close to overseer Joe’s head that it tore a portion of the brim of his hat away in its flight, and then ploughed a furrow in the earth for some distance behind him. Most assuredly, if it had struck his head, this worthy would have ended his days on the spot; but fate had otherwise decreed the issue, and Joe, transported with rage, now rushed towards Rashleigh, pouring forth a volley of mingled threats and execrations.

It chanced that upon his way he had to pass the trench out of which the log had just been turned; here there lay, now exposed to view, an enormous Jew lizard — a kind of reptile supposed to derive its name from the membranous bags around its jaws, which it distends with air when enraged, so as to form a slight resemblance to a human beard. This the overseer nearly trod upon; but drawing back, he lifted it on his foot, casting it with great fury towards the unlucky Rashleigh, who, on his part, seeing the unknown but very forbidding reptile come flying towards his throat, made an involuntary blow at it with his right hand; and Joe being now close to him. the lizard was flung full in his face. Dropping from thence on his breast, it began tearing away at his handkerchief and shirt, until one of the bystanders assisted the affrighted Israelite to remove it. The latter no sooner recovered himself than he ordered Rashleigh to be secured, vowing, with the bitterest malice in every gesture, that “he’d make him pay for all”.

Accordingly, Ralph was seized by the deputy overseer and the water carrier of the gang, and hustled to a tall bare stump standing near, when a chain having been passed round it, he had his hands locked behind his back to the chain by a pair of handcuffs. In a few minutes Joe came up, and saying, “You blasted varment! I’ll teach you to mutiny and try to take my life, I will,” he then struck the defenceless prisoner on the head, knocking off his hat; and having thus given him a foretaste of what he might expect from his brutality, this choice specimen of a government officer then withdrew.

Not long after, the superintendent made his appearance on the ground, and having demanded what Rashleigh had done, was informed by the overseer that he had thrown a handspike at him and attempted to take his life, showing his mutilated shirt and tom straw hat in proof of what he alleged.

“Let him be confined in the camp until next Tuesday, and then brought to court,” said the great man.

At dinner-time, Rashleigh was marched a prisoner home, when being given up to old Tom Row, that functionary grinned and said, “Oho! Thee bees danngerous, boost thee? Oi’ll teake cear thee does noa more dommage for one whoile!” Thus saying, he laid hold of the culprit’s collar, and in this guise conducted him to an open triangular space formed by the converging ends of buildings erected on two sides of a square, the external side of this space being secured by a high palisade fence, in which was a small open wicket.

Tom Row pushed Ralph in at this opening with such force that the latter almost fell headlong; as it was, he lost his hat in going through. The old constable chuckled and said, “There! Thee bees safe enough naw! Thee’ll knock nobody’s brains out naw, I’ll warrant thee!” And he laughed heartily while he locked the gate. Rashleigh begged in vain that he might have the handcuffs he wore transferred from behind his back to his front, as the former position, besides being very painful, impeded any attempts at helping himself. The other, however, only grinned and left him.

Being bareheaded, and the sun now nearly vertical, he knew not how to shield himself from its too powerful rays, which made him feel both giddy and sick; but the open area in which he was enclosed prevented his gaining any shelter until the afternoon, when the sun’s decline enabled him, by thrusting his head against the end of one of the buildings, to obtain a little shelter and relief. His dinner, a morsel of salt beef and a dough-boy, or dumpling made of boiled maize meal, had been brought to him soon after his confinement; but at the time he felt much too sick to eat anything. When he got better he would fain have done so, but did not know how, as the position of his hands, thus secured behind him, would not permit any other mode of eating than by going down on his belly and gnawing his food, like a dog, out of the dish. This, at last, hunger compelled him to do, and he was compelled to remain this way from the Thursday night until the following Tuesday morning, without the handcuffs being once removed. It being advanced in autumn, the nights were piercingly cold and the dews abundant; so that our unhappy prisoner was regularly wet through his flimsy rags every evening soon after sunset, and he spent each long night shivering in this plight, not being dry again until the sun acquired power enough to do so, after many evolutions and turnings on his part to expose each side of his person alternately to the beneficent source of heat. Sleeping, it may well be imagined, was almost out of his power, as independent of the cold preventing him, the constrained position in which his arms were confined produced intense pain. In the bitterness of his anguish he repeatedly wished for death, and in order to effect it ran his head with great violence two or three times against an angle of one of the sheds; but this only added to his excruciating torments.

At last the morning of Tuesday arrived, and his keeper came to order him out of this wretched place of confinement. It was necessary he should he washed, and for this purpose his handcuffs were taken off, but the anguish of bringing his cramped arms round again into their natural position completely overpowered him, and he fell fainting to the earth. When he recovered he found himself lying in a puddle of water; and the cause of it was disclosed by the sneering laugh of one of the constables standing by with an empty bucket in his hand, who asked, “An’t I a fine doctor to bring any fellow out of a swound?”

Ralph got up, and then, for the first time, saw that his wrists were swollen to more than twice their original size; and when he tried to wash his face lie found he could not bend his arms to do so. This swelling produced one good effect: there was not a single pair of handcuffs to be procured that would go upon his wrists, and consequently they were, sorely against their will, obliged to permit him to go over to Penrith without any. But one of his feflow-convict constables marched alongside of him, having received strict injunctions from Tom Row at parting, that if the prisoner made the slightest attempt to escape, the constable was to knock him down that minute, for, added this humane official, “’Tis no odds breaking the heads of a score such fellows as he. There’s plenty more of his sort in the country.”

In this guise they reached the Court-house without any interruption, and they found the business of the day there far advanced. There were a great many men — as usual, from Emu Plains — brought up to answer various charges of insolence to overseers, neglect of work, breach of regulations, or disobedience to orders; and the majority of them had already been tried and sentenced to receive various amounts of corporal punishment, from seventy-five to a hundred lashes being the general proportion of the sentences. A very few accounted themselves fortunate in only having got fifty; and one man came out of the presence of the awful conclave of magistrates wearing a countenance radiant with smiles. On being asked by a compeer what had been his luck, he replied, laughing, “Oh, I’ve nobbed it. I’ve got life to Newcastle,” meaning that he was fortunate in being about to leave Emu Plains, though he was sentenced to go to pass the rest of his days at a place of punishment of no common degree of rigour.

Ralph’s turn now came to be heard, and he was placed at the bar before the magistrates, who were an ancient parson, an old settler and a young military officer. Overseer Joe, being now sworn, circumstantially related the facts of a most mutinous attack and murderous assault which had been made upon him by the culprit, who he said had shied a handspike with all his force at the head of the said overseer, and he once more produced the mutilated straw hat in proof of the narrow escape he had made from death. He added that after this Ralph had come up to him and violently assaulted his person, so as to tear his shirt — also produced — and wound up by assuring the bench that he “never knowed a more desp’rater, a more dangerouser ruffian than the willain before them”.

Rashleigh was now asked by the military gentleman what he had to say, though the settler J.P. muttered two or three times, “A clear case, a very clear case. Never heard a clearer case.” As for the clerical gentleman, he had been asleep nearly ever since Ralph came into Court. The prisoner, however, shortly detailed the real facts of the case, making use of his hands and fingers to show the relative positions of the log, branch and handspike. While he was doing so the young officer observed the swollen state of his wrists, and demanded to what this was owing, on which Rashleigh narrated his sufferings in handcuffs. As the captain had not been very long in the Colony, all these proceedings were quite new to him and appeared to excite his compassion. He minutely questioned our adventurer as to the facts, and finally, appearing to be convinced that he spoke the truth, the military man turned to the farmer magistrate with an air of astonishment and asked if it was possible such cruelty could be allowed.

The other calmly replied that it was necessary the most stringent measures should be adopted to control the turbulent spirits of convicts and ensure their safe custody, that no doubt the prisoner now before them was much better known to the authorities of Emu Plains than to any other persons, and that, in short, it would not do for the magistrates to interfere with the duties of a government establishment like that or they should never be out of hot water. The last portion of this reply was made in a very low tone of voice, as if confidentially to the captain; but Rashleigh’s ears being sharpened by self-interest, he caught it every word.

As soon, therefore, as he could speak with propriety, he declared to the magistrates that this so-called offence had taken place on the very first day he had been sent to work upon Emu Plains, and also that this was the only charge that had as yet been made against him since his arrival in the Colony. On this the captain asked if he had any witnesses who could prove his statement. The settler J.P. observed with a sneer, “Witnesses! Aye! I’ll be bound he has. Fifty, if that’s all, ready to come and swear to that or anything else.”

“But,” returned the militaire, “we’ll take care of that. Let him name his witnesses to us only. Then let him be closely confined over here till the next Court day, so that he cannot see or speak to any of them. We will examine them ourselves, and if he has attempted to impose upon us, we will give him a hundred lashes in addition to the punishment of his crime.”

This proposal being agreed to, Rashleigh described four men who had been working with him as well as he could to the military magistrate, and the case stood over.

Upon the next Court day the same three magistrates attended, and shortly after their arrival Rashleigh was again ushered into the Courtroom. The reverend J.P. was installed into the chair, and the captain and settler sat on either side of him. The proceedings began by the clerk reading the deposition already made by the overseer and the prisoner’s defence. During this reading the chairman, as was his wont, went to sleep, ever and anon making such profound reverences to the back of the clerk that his reverend nose appeared to be in imminent danger from the desk behind which he sat. The settler J.P. in the mean time amused himself by reading a newspaper. The captain next enquired whether the witnesses were in attendance, and having ascertained that they were, he ordered one to be called in.

This fellow, who was a raw countryman, made a loutish reverence and looked very much afraid as he entered the room. He was sworn, and the captain asked him if he knew the prisoner.

Witness: (scratching his headwith a sort of leer): Ees, sur; that is, noa, sur.

Captain: What do you mean by that? Did you ever see the prisoner before?

Witness: (very much afraid): Whoy, Oi’ve a-seed un, sur, on the pleans.

Captain: Were you ever at work with him? Don’t be afraid, but speak.

Witness: Ees, sur, Oi wor.

Captain: Well, do you know what he did to be brought here?

Witness: Whoy sur, they do zay he troyed to kill th’ overseer.

Captain: When did that happen?

Witness: That day as he wor at work wi’ Oi.

Captain: Were you there?

Witness: Oi wor a-working alongside of him.

Captain: Now, tell us what you saw of the matter.

Witness: Whoy, sur, Oi on’y seed the Jew lizard a-tearing of Joe’s shirt.

Captain: You did not see this man throw a handspike at his overseer.

The witness replied that he did not, and a few more questions satisfied the captain that the matter had occurred as Rashleigh had stated; which was unwillingly confirmed by the other men, who all gave their evidence in the prisoner’s behalf with great apparent reluctance, being obviously fearful that they would suffer the ill will of the dreaded Joe for speaking the truth.

The captain now addressed the settler, and enquired what he thought of the matter after that.

The agricultural Lycurgus smiled sarcastically and said, “Oh, captain, I leave it entirely to you. But when you have been so long in this country as I have, you will not take much notice of anything these fellows either say or swear!”

The captain now ventured to disturb the profundity of the reverend chairman’s slumbers by a gentle nudge, asking him at the same time what he thought of the case.

That holy man suddenly jumped out of his seat, pulling up the slack of his black silk small-clothes as he did so, and cried, “A most dreadful scoundrel, an atrocious villain. Send him to Newcastle. Or stay! He won’t stop there . . . Send him . . . Send him Aye, send him to eternity!”

“Nay, but,” remonstrated the captain, “it don’t appear to me he’s guilty of any offence. Mr Clerk, read over the last evidence!”

While this was being done the reverend gent settled himself for another nap; but ere he could go to sleep again the brief notes taken in the case were concluded, and he then said, “Well, well. Give him a hundred; it will help to smarten him.”

“Pardon me,” quoth the son of Mars, “I can’t see he has deserved any punishment; or if he has, surely what he has already suffered ought to be taken into consideration.”

“Oh, you don’t know the artfulness of these scoundrels,” retorted this christian pastor. “You’d better give him seventy-five, at any rate.”

I think rather,” persisted the captain, “we may let him go this time; but if ever he comes again, we’ll double his punishment.”

“Well, well. Do as you please, captain,” said the chairman with an air of virtuous resignation; “but the overseers ought to be supported in their duty.”

“True,” said the captain; “but this man has been twelve days now in strict confinement, and we’ll take that for his present punishment. Prisoner, you are discharged. Go back and mind your work, for if ever you are brought here again, you will not escape so easily.”

“No,” added the farmer J.P. “You shall receive double punishment for giving us all this trouble.”

Rashleigh was removed, and when the Court had concluded was about to leave the place in charge of a constable, when overseer Joe came up to them, his saffron-coloured cheeks fairly livid with rage; and shaking his fist at our adventurer, he said, “Gott shtrike me dead, my fine fellow, if you an’t the very first man that ever beat me at Court; and I’ll take blasted good care you don’t come off free next Tuesday.”

A commanding voice was now heard from within a pair of Venetian blinds attached to the window of one of the rooms in the Court-house close by. It called out, “Come here, you, sir!”

Joe’s jaw dropped. He was about to walk off when the blinds were pushed open suddenly, and the military magistrate thrust his head out of the window and again called loudly and passionately, “Here, you, sir! You, overseer, I mean! Come back instantly!”

Joe now very reluctantly complied, and pulling off his hat, confronted the dreaded man of power bareheaded, while the latter said, “Now, sir, I happened to overhear your language just now, and in the first place I’ve the greatest mind in the world to give you a most sound flogging for the daring impiety of your expression; but as the Court has now broken up I will overlook that. Still, I’d have you take great care what you are about, for if I catch you tripping in an oath, I’ll prosecute you myself for perjury. And by heaven, sir, I’ll make you wish you never had been born. Now be off to your duty, sir . . . and beware!” shaking his finger at Joe in a most significant manner.

Joe now sneaked off, and he suffered not the grass to grow under his feet until he was completely out of view from His Majesty’s Court-house, Penrith. Our adventurer was shortly afterwards reconducted to the camp, when he was received by his fellow-prisoners with a kind of awe, such as vulgar minds feel towards a conjuror or person of wondrous acquirements. In fact, he was looked upon by the convicts as being a kind of lusus naturae, solely on account of his acquittal; for such a phenomenon had never before been known in the history of Emu Plains as a working man obtaining a victory over an overseer, or even of getting the benefit of a doubt in his case when a charge was preferred against him by such a hard-swearing fellow as Joe was well known to be, it being a common saying of him “that he would swear a white horse was a chandler’s shop, and every hair upon his back a pound of candles”, rather than be vanquished.

Rashleigh slept this night in clover, for a man who had run away a short time before had left behind him a little nook formed of a sheet of bark like a boxed shelf, which was filled with the inner husks of Indian corn. Among these the wearied wretch, who had not since his arrival had any better resting-place than the slab door of a lock-up or the cold earth, was too happy to burrow as quickly as he could. In the dead hour of the night, however, he was aroused by a most discordant din, arising, as it appeared, from half a score or upwards of old tin dishes, beaten with fists, after the fashion of gongs, and sundry other noises, which reminded him of the manner in which the country people of England swarmed their bees.

Upon enquiry, he learned that this unearthly turmoil was occasioned by a party of men, who, having resolved to run away themselves, adopted these means of beating up, as they called it, for “recruits for the bush”!

In consequence of the execrable system of tyranny and intolerable oppression perpetrated by the convict overseers, constables, watchmen and others “dressed in a little brief authority” upon this government farm, scarcely a week passed without numbers of men absconding in this manner; and others were actually paid by the petty officers, their fellow-convicts in place, to do so, that the latter might gain either a pecuniary reward or a remission of sentence for taking them prisoners again. For instance, there was either a sum of ten shillings in money or a remission of six months’ servitude allowed for every runaway convict apprehended by another. It was a common practice, therefore, for the overseers to oppress some poor fellow under them until they had, as they called it, converted him into a crawler, that is, a spiritless wretch heart-broken by hardship and hunger, who could scarcely move, and who could not, then, do any proper share of hard work. The overseer would next say to him. “Why the devil don’t you bolt (run away)? I’ll give you some grub, to get rid of you;” and the poor fellow, willing even to earn a few days’ rest from labour by a sound flogging, would at last agree to abscond. The same night he would receive from his kind friend a few pounds of flour a small quantity of tea and sugar, and perhaps a little meat, the overseer promising him in addition his favour and protection after he should succeed in getting the reward for taking him. It would then be agreed by the crawler that in three days’ time, which it was necessary should elapse before any reward would be given, the overseer should meet him in a certain place, whither the latter would go, as if by chance, and capture him. He would then bring his prisoner before the magistrates, magnifying his exertions, of course, in making this capture, and swearing a host of lies respecting the desperate resistance made by the runaway, who would, if it was his first offence, get off for the punishment of a hundred lashes, being then returned to his work, where his overseer would quickly turn him out of his gang, to be subject to the same discipline from another, ending in the same results, except that the runaway, on his second offence, would be punished by being sent to a penal settlement. In this manner many of the convicts’ officers shortened their allotted periods of servitude; for the terms being eight, six, and four years for a life, fourteen, or seven-year convict respectively, of course, if any of them could thus capture half a dozen runaways, it at once wiped off three years from his servitude.

The next day after Rashleigh returned from the Court at Penrith he was ordered into a different gang, which was employed in felling timber under the orders of one David Muffin, a Welshman, the brutality of whose character will best be exemplified by the following incident, which occurred the first morning our adventurer was at work in his party.

The men were employed in pairs, and it chanced that two were cutting down a huge tree, which proved to be quite decayed at the heart; so that when they had chopped through the living timber, it snapped off suddenly, and falling in the line on which the boughs spread heaviest and farthest, crushed two ill-fated wretches beneath its ponderous top. So instantaneous was its fall that not a second’s space was afforded for warning the sufferers, who, being intent upon their work, did not observe the mass until, as it proved, they were hurried into eternity. But four of the men who were nearest ran to see if they could help their comrades; and they were penetrated with horror to find only a shapeless mass of quivering flesh and bones. denuded of all resemblance to the human form, where but a twinkling of an eye before had stood two robust, athletic young men in all the pride of conscious strength.

Davy, however, did not allow them to stand moralizing a moment on the subject, for with a volley of oaths, he ordered his satellites to put them, all four, into handcuffs for daring to leave their work without his permission; and for this crime they each got a punishment of fifty lashes on the next Court day. Such being the temper of his overseer, it may very easily be imagined Ralph Rashleigh’s employment under him was anything but agreeable, and as, although he was willing enough to work, he was most awkward in his attempts to do so, he came in for a double share of threats and abuse every time the overseer approached him.

Thus waned the day, until, at the sound of a bell, the overseer directed his deputy, or assistant, to collect the men and tools, while he started off to the camp. Rashleigh was loaded with a heavy rope, which he was told always fell to the lot of the man who had last joined the gang to carry, and consequently he was among the last that reached the tool-house, where, on throwing down his burden, he found Davy, Joe and other overseers standing by a number of men handcuffed to a chain, two and two, and guarded by two or three of the camp constables. He was ordered to join this body, which he did with a heavy heart, not doubting but that he was about to be confined again, in order to be brought once more to Court. In a few minutes the miserable cortège set forth towards a place of security called “Belly Bot”, which was situated about a mile from the camp, inside the first range of the Blue mountains.

Upon their arrival here, they were ordered into the interior of this receptacle, which was subdivided into cells about seven feet by four feet in area and eight feet high, into each of which they were literally crammed in an erect posture, until it was absolutely impossible any more could be stowed in them, when the doors, which shut from the outside, were closed upon them, squeezing them in tight against each other.

They were then left to pass the night as best they could. To sit or lie down was out of the question, unless some of them had been willing to be undermost and would also permit the others to lie upon them. But to prevent this possible contingency, a quantity of water was daily thrown into each cell, which converted the stratum of clay that formed the floor, with a very little trampling, into mire, ankle-deep at least; and thus these unfortunates were obliged to stand all night.

A little after daybreak next morning the doors of their dens were thrown open, and they were ordered to be off to muster. This they did as quickly as possible for fear of being too late, in which case they were sure of receiving some further punishment; and by the time they had reached the camp, the bell demanding their attendance began to ring, so that they had barely time to snatch a morsel of bread, which, eaten as they walked to work, formed their only breakfast.

In this wretched manner Rashleigh spent five nights out of each week for nearly three months after this, and was besides lumbered almost six months, the latter meaning being obliged to work for Government on Saturdays, while the rest of the men were allowed from one o’clock on that day to mend and wash their clothing. This was the mode by which Mr Davy Muffin avenged upon our adventurer the outrage which, through him, the majesty of overseership had received in the person of his brother officer Joe. This system of confining the men all night was allowed by the regulations of the place to be put in force by the petty officers as a sort of minor punishment for the misconduct of the working prisoners, which they were at liberty to inflict without appealing to any superior.

This, however, produced one tragical event in our hero’s presence. A man named Bright, of a gloomy morose temper, had been confined in Belly Bot one night by his overseer. As was this man’s wont, he bore it in silence, not even grumbling or saying one word to the men who were in durance with him; but on reaching the camp next morning, he went into his hut, like the others, for a piece of bread, and then walked across to the tool-house, where the implements of labour were laid in readiness for each man to take one with him to work. Bright here picked up a very narrow felling-axe, which he generally used, and went on towards the gate.

It chanced his overseer passed him on the way; and Bright said to him, “What made you put me into Belly Bot last night, ToM?”

“For a lark, you b — — ” replied Tom.

“Then take that for a lark!” responded Bright, at the same time swinging his axe down with irresistible force, so that he sank the head of the weapon to the poll in the overseer’s skull, until the edge protruded beneath his victim’s jaw.

So fell had been the blow that he could not disengage the axe again; but the dying man having sunk on the ground before him, he placed his foot on the body — for the overseer had neither spoke nor moved from the moment he was struck; and Bright was now struggling in vain to free his murderous weapon. In the mean time some of the camp constables, whom his demoniac fury had perfectly paralyzed before, rushed in and secured the murderer, who now surrendered himself, saying, however, “I wish I could have loosed my axe. I’d have made dog’s meat of a dozen more of you blasted tyrants.”

This man was soon after tried and hanged for his crime. When called on for his defence, he only said he was tired of his life, and all that he was sorry for was that he had not killed a hundred such wretches instead of only one.

It might be supposed this would have some effect in altering the system of the remaining overseers for the better. So far from it, however, they became more brutally oppressive than ever, each one after this carrying a huge club for protection; and if any of the men only looked cross at one of them the overseer would say, “You are a-going to bright me, are you, you rascal? I’ll chalk you first, at any rate,” finishing his speech by knocking the offender down.

Nor was the ill-treatment of the overseers, combined as it was with the hardship of perpetual labour, all the evil these luckless men on Emu Plains had then to contend with. As remarked before, nearly one half of them had no blankets or any other bedding. Happy and luxuriously lodged was the wight who was master of a few pieces of sheepskin, however acquired. The rest made beds of corn husks, thrown loose on their berths; these, however, could be obtained only once a year. For a covering to sleep under, they fabricated a kind of rug by stitching together layers of the paper-like inner bark of the Australian teatree. These rugs, indeed, were exceedingly fragile, and when they became perfectly dry, would tear like tissue paper. Some others wove a kind of matting of long grass. But all these expedients were wretchedly inefficient, and were it not that fuel was abundant, so that the prisoners could thus maintain large fires at night in the winter season, they must have suffered much more severely than they did. As it was, most of the elder men were periodically laid up with the rheumatism, and not a few lost the entire use of their limbs from paralysis.

The period of our adventurer’s sojourn at Emu Plains was also one of great dearth in the Colony, almost amounting to famine, arising from drought. No rain having fallen in any part of the country in sufficient quantity to cause vegetation for upwards of two years, all the inhabitants were reduced nearly to a state of starvation. Wheat was sold the year of his arrival on the Nepean river at seventy shillings per bushel, and maize at forty shillings, very little of either being in fact procurable at all. And such indeed were the necessities of the lower class of free colonists that when the government cattle were being slaughtered upon Emu Plains — which was done weekly to supply meat for the prisoners’ rations — the stockyard was absolutely besieged by old and young, the inhabitants of the once fertile district around, to beg of the convict butchers the entrails and offal of the cattle, a bullock’s paunch being esteemed a rich gift, and the feet almost invaluable.

This being the destitution of the free population, it may well be conceived the prisoners did not fare very luxuriously. The ration they at this time received was a fractional quantity more than five and a half pounds of flour and nine pounds of beef to all men in the service of Government weekly. In addition to this each obtained one gill of pease or an equivalent quantity of rice per day. This formed the whole quantity out of which they were supposed to make twenty-one meals; but in many places, where the whole weekly supply was issued to each individual at once, the prisoners would devour it all in, at most, three days, many of them, indeed, in one day; and they would then starve through the rest of the week as best they might, eking out a meal with various grasses and herbs — for vegetables were not accessible to them even if the seasons had permitted their growth — and in many cases satisfying the cravings of hunger with snakes, rats, lizards and even far more repugnant materials.

On one occasion a party of men stationed upon a road over the mountains coaxed a fine dog belonging to a traveller. When he came near they secured him with a noose after the mode of the South American lasso, and managed to stifle his yells. When the proprietor missed his faithful companion, and returned to the camp of the road party, where he remembered having seen him within the last half-hour, he saw a gaunt and hungry-looking wretch busily engaged in skinning the poor dog’s head. Upon questioning this man, it turned out that a regular fight had ensued for the dismembered limbs of poor “Nelson” as soon as the carcase was skinned, and that this man, in the scramble, had only got hold of the head, which he loudly complained was unfair.

As for the men on Emu Plains, their food was issued to them daily, so that they were at least certain of one meal. such as it was, in the twenty-four hours. To obtain more than this, many very ingenious schemes were resorted to. From the time that peaches, of which great quantities grew almost wild along the river banks, and even nearer to the camp, had attained the size of hazel nuts, they were eagerly sought after and devoured, many boiling them and adding salt to the mess.

When the crop of maize began to ripen, a fresh plan was followed by the starving wretches with much avidity. The men in the camp were mustered twice every evening, the last time at eight o’clock, after which it was a punishable offence for anyone to be found out of the hut to which he belonged; yet very many, impelled by hunger, would, at the season referred to, dare all the danger of being caught by the numerous watchmen round the camp, or those in the corn fields, and steal off to the latter provided with an old tin dish converted into a grater, or fiddle, as they called it. They would then spend perhaps three or four hours grating the scarcely Ripe cobs of maize with these implements, until they might probably have succeeded in obtaining four quarts of pulpy meal, and for this wretched booty they were content to lose the greater portion of their rest, beside running the hazard of obtaining at least a hundred lashes if detected.

So stringent were the rules of Emu Plains at this period of scarcity that if a constable or watchman, on entering a hut — which was done by one or other many times in the course of every evening, to see what was going on — should chance to observe the print of a cob of maize in the ashes of the fireplace, where they were sometimes roasted by the prisoners for food, the constable would question that unlucky wight who at the moment stood nearest to the fire, and if he could not point out the offender or would not do so, he was confined, and being brought before the worshipful bench of magistrates the next Court day, he was certain to receive seventy-five lashes, whether he had been roasting a Hawkesbury duck — which was the colonial phrase for a cob of parched maize — or not.

While our adventurer was thus placed amid scenes of suffering the like of which he had never before wimessed, it may excite surprise that he was not many times tempted to commit suicide; but the fact is no less singular than certain, that the majority of men only value life in a directly inverse ratio to the enjoyment it might be supposed to afford them. Thus Rashleigh declared that during his life of criminal prosperity in London, when he indulged in every pleasure that money could purchase, he had never valued existence half so highly as he did during the time of his most intense suffering as an Australian convict. This appears a most merciful dispensation of providence, for were it otherwise, there can be no doubt that eighty out of every hundred malefactors who for their crimes were exiled from England to this Colony of New South Wales until about ten years ago would most certainly have rushed headlong into eternity.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00