Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 25

Poor wretch! The mother that him bore,

If she had been in presence there,

She had not known her child.

In pursuance of the latter part of the last sentence passed by the commandant upon Ralph Rashleigh, he was stripped perfectly naked the ensuing morning, being allowed, however, to retain a portion of his shirt to serve as a garment, similar to the manner of the fig-leaf aprons of our first parents. He was then loaded with another pair of leg irons in addition to those which he had constantly worn since his arrival at Newcastle, and being now placed on board a lime punt in the charge of a constable, was transferred to the north shore of the Coal river, a spot equally sterile and forbidding in appearance to that which he had left, both being mere hummocks of sand, scantily clad with verdure of a peculiar nature consisting only of patches — like angels’ visits, few and far between — of couch grass and a few stunted bushes.

But the naked misery of the limeburners was even worse than that of the side on which the settlement stood, the latter being at least redeemed in some degree from the dull monotony of absolute barrenness by a patch or two of garden ground, beside the bustle incidental to a place which contained full fifteen hundred convicts, some of whom were perpetually passing to and fro. Here, on the contrary, were no gardens and only two ranges of wretched hovels, enclosed within a tall palisade of strips made from the outer coat of the cabbage palm.

At the moment of Ralph’s arrival the miserable beings who were stationed here, being all of them exiles and outcasts even from the horrors of Newcastle, sent from thence for punishment, were busily employed loading boats with marine shells that were burned but not slacked for making lime. This was done, amid coarse vituperation and oft-repeated blows from the convict overseers, by carrying the shells in baskets into the boats, in which the cargoes were stowed in bulk.

Rashleigh had no sooner landed than a basket was given to him. He was ordered to go on with the rest; and when he ventured to urge the soreness of his back from the receipt of a hundred lashes only the day before as a reason why he ought to be put to something else for a short time, the wretch to whom he applied, pretending at first to look very compassionate, asked to see the sore place. When Ralph, with great pain, withdrew the rag from it that he had applied, being the only dressing within his reach, this brute in human shape threw a handful of lime, that he had held concealed, upon the festering sore, and then bestowed a smart cut with his stick upon the suffering spot, bidding the poor fellow, “Begone to your work, you blasted crawling caterpillar, or I’ll soon serve you ten times worse than that.”

Rashleigh was thus fain to take his basket; and though the agitation of the waves soon drenched his sore with salt water, when the slackening lime hissed red-hot among his excoriated flesh, giving him a degree of agony that may far better be imagined than described, he was obliged to keep on at the run until ten o’clock at night; when the last of the boats being loaded, the weary starving wretches, who had now been sixteen hours at unremitted hard work, were at length permitted to withdraw to their as wretched abode, to pass the hours of rest in the best manner they could. Happy was he who had a pile of dry seaweed, and could cajole the overseers into permission to let him keep it. But this was indeed a rare luxury. Perhaps not five out of the 150 men that were then employed at this fit prototype of the infernal regions could boast of any kind of accommodation whatever to lie upon, save the rough slabs that formed the sleeping places.

To give any idea of the state of suffering that was endured by the emaciated wretches about twenty years since at this spot far exceeds the descriptive powers of the author of this tale. Let the reader, however, conceive it from the following brief delineation of some of the circumstances attending a sojourn there, gathered from the different persons consulted as authorities, the most favourable of whose representations have been selected.

In the first place, no clothing save the apron before mentioned, or any bedding whatever, was allowed to be used here, whether in the nearly tropical heats of summer or the freezing nights of winter; but every man wore at least two pairs of irons and very many even four or six pairs each; and at all hours, according to circumstances relating to the state of the tides. the wretched convicts were obliged to labour always breast-high in the sea before they could unload their baskets, as the draught of water required by the boats would not permit them to come nearer than this to the shore; and as before mentioned, there was no wharf. Thus, in the summer the heat of the sun peeled the skin from every portion of their bodies, and in winter the excessive coldness of the ocean on that naked and exposed beach chilled their very marrow. From this labour they were obliged at once to withdraw to a slabbed building pervious on every side to the wind, where their only resource for warmth in the winter nights was to huddle as close as possible together. The allowance of food, also, was miserably insufficient, consisting only of three and a half pounds of maize in cob weekly, with three and a half pounds of very ill-cured salt beef. Even this wretched pittance was subject to the peculations of the overseers, who helped themselves freely out of the common stock and then divided the rest among the wretched labourers, who dared not grumble, or the brutal tyranny of the others would be let loose upon them with all the lawless fury of wicked and ignorant malice.

Last, though not least, there were no stated hours of labour, the only rule being that the overseers were bound to make the men work as long as they could and do as much as they could; which they generally acted up to the spirit of by obliging them four days in the week at least to labour fifteen hours out of the twenty-four.

Besides all this, they were exposed to periodical visitations from the commandant; for although the trebly exiled wretches were put entirely out of the pale of society so far as regarded the comforts and even necessaries of civilized life, yet they were not by any means suffered to deem themselves out of the reach of the iron grasp of discipline, which this petty imitator of the haughtiest monarch that ever wore a crown wielded with a severity that has perhaps been equalled, but certainly never could have been excelled. His presence at any of the outstations under his sway was ever the signal for an inordinate use of the cat. He never travelled a mile to observe the progress made by any working party without being accompanied by two scourgers, who bore an ample supply of their implements of torture; and if his piercing glance detected any flagging from the most arduous exertion on the part of a working man, without deigning to enquire into the cause, whether arising from positive physical inability to keep pace with the others or not, the offender was called to him as he sat on horseback, and after a few imperious words of reproach, tied up to the nearest fence or standing tree, where a number of lashes, never less than fifty, was quickly administered to him, and he was sent back, bleeding from innumerable wounds, to resume his implement of labour.

In fact, whether from depravity of taste or utter want of any feeling, no exhibition appeared to delight this modern Caligula so much as when, on his Sabbath morning amusement, four miserable wretches were groaning and writhing before him at once under the infliction of what is to most men a transcendently revolting punishment to witness. No music appeared to delight his ears more exquisitely than the agonised yells of a wretched being who felt the lash for the first time; and on such occasions the fiendish joy that sparkled in his eyes would appear to dilate his form to nearly double its original size, and his every word and gesture, which, of course, he took no pains to conceal, fully proved that such scenes and sounds were supereminently gratifying to his soul; and accordingly, he took the greatest pains to prolong the enviable enjoyment as long as possible, frequently roaring out to the scourger in tones of thunder, “not to hurry”, “to take time”, “strike harder”, etc.

Nay, upon one occasion, in Rashleigh’s presence, when one of these ministers of torture did not appear to please this humane man of power in the vigour with which he dealt out the lash, the “Captain” rushed upon him and belaboured the scourger himself with a cane, bidding him at the same time, “Go on, sir! Go on!!” And every stroke the scourger applied to the back of the culprit was accompanied by one upon his own shoulders from the commandant’s cane, with a loud shout from the latter, “Harder yet, sir! Harder yet!!” until at last the weapon flew into fragments in the hands of this splendid specimen of a British officer!

When the dreaded commander visited the limeburners’ station, it was no uncommon proceeding, if the number of men brought before him by the overseer for trial, and of course punishment, did not tally with his ideas of propriety, for him to command the whole body of men there, overseers and all, to be ranked in line before him, when he would pick out every second or third man with his own hand and order them to receive fifty lashes apiece, declaring that he was certain they had deserved it over and over again since they last were flogged, or if not, that they would be sure to merit it before he should see them again! Then, if the boats were in the bay waiting to be loaded, he would compel the bleeding sufferers to place their baskets of lime upon their mangled backs and wade into the salt water with them until the agony of their wounds, with the mingled application of the briny fluid and the unslacked lime, became almost too poignant for humanity to endure; and several wretches, in Rashleigh’s sojourn, actually drowned themselves in the sight of the commandant, who merely remarked, “It will save Government rope, and spare the hangman a job!”

Lest this picture should appear overcharged respecting the partiality of this officer for flogging those under his sway, the reader is requested to remember that corporal punishment was of almost daily occurrence in the British Navy, as well as the Army, twenty-five years ago; and it is very probable the gallant captain in question had been selected for his present command to control upwards of two thousand lawless desperadoes from his known severity in his military capacity. And he might have considered that nothing short of absolutely breaking down the bodies as well as the minds of the ruffians — for such no doubt they were for the most part — could either sufficiently punish them for their past crimes or prevent them from committing further atrocities in the exile to which they were doomed. If such were the views of this humane official, they were completely answered, at least in the case of the limeburners’ gang, for the one single master feeling of extreme pinching hunger, independent of their other woes, was amply sufficient to debilitate the person and paralyze the mind of the strongest of the human species in less than three months’ endurance of this rigorous discipline, by or before which time they had become so weak in body that one of the overseers, and he was by no means strong, could knock two of their heads together as if they had been children, in spite of their struggles; and their minds were so abjectly debased that they were perpetually wailing and crying for food, anxiously seeking the most revolting substances with which to appease their ever craving hunger. Thus even the grains of maize that were voided by the oxen were picked out of their excrement and eagerly devoured by these starving wretches.

Happy was the man to whose share a soft bone fell among his pittance of meat. Twenty pairs of eyes would he enviously fixed upon him while he voraciously gnawed it; and if at last, when his jaws were quite fatigued with the exertion, he threw any portion of the bone away, a scramble, and as certainly a fight, would ensue among the bystanders, who should obtain the enviable morsel, a circumstance through which Rashleigh was unwittingly the cause of a fellow-sufferer’s death on the second day after his arrival at this abode of horrors.

He having cast a bone of this description down, a scuffle ensued to obtain it, during which two men caught hold of the prize; but as they could not agree who had the priority of claim, they referred the matter to Ralph as the original possessor of the coveted boon. He wished them to divide it; but they would not do this, both vehemently insisting that our adventurer should decide who ought to keep the whole. At length he did so to the best of his idea of the justice of the case, and the vanquished party withdrew, looking daggers at both Rashleigh and his opponent. The latter, in the mean time, after partly crushing his prize between two stones, sat down on the earth, with his back against a shed, to discuss it, which he did most greedily and with the greatest apparent enjoyment.

Our adventurer was gazing at him, half in pity and half in dread that he should soon be as craving as the other, when a slight sound caused him to lift up his head; and just behind the unconscious wretch, who was chewing the bone so greedily, Rashleigh was struck with horror to see the man that had striven with him for the possession of his morsel, who, with features now expressing the most fiendish rage, stood over his late opponent bearing an enormous iron rake, used for gathering shells on the beach, which he uplifted as in act to strike his victim on the head. Ralph uttered an involuntary cry and sprang forward to arrest the murderer’s arm. Alas, he was too late! The blow had fallen, crashing through the sufferer’s skull with such irresistible force that the man’s head was crushed as if it had been paper; while the hungry wretch who perpetrated this atrocity cried out, “Aha, I’ve got it now!” and seized the piece of half-gnawed bone that had dropped from his victim’s nerveless grasp, and which, though it was now all bespattered with brains and blood from the dying man, yet the other, brutalised by hunger, crammed in that state into his mouth, holding out both his hands to the overseer, who now came running up, to secure him with a pair of handcuffs.

Atrocities like these, Rashleigh was informed, were of frequent occurrence, and he was particularly cautioned by a shipmate of his, whom he met with in this gloomy place, never to save any portion of his food — even if he could — for another meal, as there were many men in that abode of utter despair, who would not, in fact, who had not, scrupled to deprive a fellow-creature of life for the sake of a few grains of maize or a couple of ounces of their rotten salt beef.

A day or two after this, chance most unexpectedly provided our adventurer and some others with several hearty meals which proved most acceptable to them. They had been sent out in the bush to cut timber as fuel for the kilns; and as the country was very scrubby, they were necessarily much out of sight of their harsh taskmasters. The team of oxen that was to draw the wood in passed a short distance away from Ralph and his associates; and even the cattle at this most delectable spot being well-nigh starved to death, just at this instant one of the poor beasts, utterly worn out with hunger and hard work, fell down, and though he was stimulated by blows and curses, nay, at last — rare humanity in a bullock-driver! — even lifted up again by those that drove the team, all proved useless. The unhappy ox,

His labours o’er,
Stretched his stiff limbs to rise no more.

The carters were therefore compelled to take off his yoke and leave him there.

Rashleigh and his companions, who had been unobserved spectators of the whole affair, now rushed out of their concealment and quickly immolated the poor beast with their axes, dismembering his quivering limbs with the speed of thought and bearing them away in triumph. They effectually concealed their prey and withdrew to a distant part of the thicket before the overseer could arrive at the spot with the drivers to look at the fallen bullock, of whom, however, their astonishment was very great to find no part remaining save the head, feet and entrails. Their search and the subsequent enquiry proved utterly fruitless, although both were conducted with cunning, amply exemplifying the accuracy of the old proverb, “Set a thief to catch a thief.” And Rashleigh, with his comrades in this act of spoliation, fared sumptuously, though of course very stealthily, for several days upon the meat, if that might be called so which had once formed part of the carcase of an unfortunate animal attenuated by famine to the last stage of his miserable existence, so that, in comparison with him, the leanest of the lean kine seen in the dream of Egypt’s Pharaoh might have been the very alderman of oxen.

Amid all the scenes of oppression, woe and starvation that were of constant recurrence at this Ultima Thule of the moral world, it may perhaps by some readers be wondered that the men did not break out into open and actual mutiny, and rather bravely earn death at once than endure so many prolonged evils, which in countless cases seemed only to be avenues of approach for the grim tyrant, in some one of his many most fearful shapes, at last.

The reasons why they did not, in short,

Take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them

may probably have been that at the limeburners they were too much broken in spirit by their complicated sufferings to attempt anything beyond the stealthy murder of some poor wretch for his pittance of food, and at the settlement of Newcastle each man feared the other, for Ralph very quickly found out the untruth of the proverb that “there is honour among thieves”. So far from this being the case, those who made the loudest professions of their staunch manhood as being incapable of betraying a comrade, were often found to concert schemes of escape or robbery, and in the hour of need, to turn abruptly round and denounce, or even prosecute to conviction, those whom they had themselves most probably induced to join in such enterprises, with the offence of committing or at times, of only meditating them.

Thus each prisoner stood in awe of the other, and as traitors like those above spoken of were always rewarded with some trifling post of comparative ease and idleness, no man dared to trust his fellow, and all were thus held in subjection far more by their own fears than by the numerical strength of their guards or the physical power of their superiors.


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