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On August 7th 1790 they sighted land – the end of their journey, a tiny full-stop in a vast ocean.   Finally, after a dreadful week at sea, the ‘Surprize’ anchored off the coast of Norfolk Island. They swayed within sight of the settlement on shore, waiting for that blue flag with a yellow cross, the signal they could begin to land.

The misery of it all just hit Mary Higgins; that interminable voyage around the world; those poor dead men in Sydney; her baby – she’d been in a blur since Annie died. She’d seen her thrown in a hole and buried with barely a prayer, been pushed back on board another bloody boat and pitched back over the horizon – to this, this dot.

No one could rouse her. They just let her be. When a boat arrived from shore the next day she didn’t even lift her head. There was strict order of priority to the disembarkation. Provisions and Stores first, then the convicts. She stayed and swayed and waited for three more days. She was angry. She didn’t know they were starving on shore; it certainly wasn’t Mary they were cheering for, it was the food.


After four days the seas became so rough the ship had to leave Sydney Bay and head off to the other side of the island. Mary glanced up and saw more of the same; cliffs, reef, rocks, spray. At Cascade Bay there was a break in the coastline, a beach, some shelter and she curdled as she watched some of the women put ashore the following day. But it wasn’t Mary’s turn. She waited in hope but the next day, and the next was too rough to even think of a landing. Even Mary knew that. She sat and swayed.

Sunday prayers were cancelled on board as the ‘Surprize’ bobbed around. Everybody was just waiting to arrive. It seemed endless. When the weather cleared Mary came back on deck and stared at the coastline.  All she could see were crashing waves and the giant curve of Mt. Pitt through the mist. The sun was going down to meet her spirits. Mary couldn’t see the pink light behind the evening clouds, couldn’t feel the anticipation of the other women, couldn’t share in their gossip or plans. She was lost. The hollow woman looked over the side, saw the waves splashing against the planking of the ship, the ripples of trapped air curving their way down and, for a moment, was right down there with them, curling into blackness, a place with no pain.

She broke away with a start and watched as the sailors began to stir. There was action all around her with the change in the wind and she was pushed aside, dumbly heading below decks for another night in this stinking ship.

The next morning at first light the sails were unfurled and, in a gentle breeze, the ship headed back to Sydney Bay. There, flying proudly from a tall flagpole was the blue and yellow cross. There were already boats out waiting when she came to anchor, anxious not to waste the day. Whatever was nearest at hand was unloaded and piled onto the boats from shore. Mary was wide awake. She dressed rapidly, took everything she owned and headed up on deck. She watched. She waited.

All day Monday she stood in anticipation, talking to nobody, attention focused on every movement of stores, every departure, hoping there might be space but still her hopes were dashed. Then, when she’d turned away to feed herself and lost her place in the line, a boatload of passengers was suddenly taken off as the wind swept up and only just made it to shore. The blue and yellow flag was taken down and the ‘Surprize’ fell quiet for the night.


Mary got her wish the next day; Tuesday 17th August 1790; she was stood to, clasping a bundle of clothes in a shawl until it was her turn to clamber about the landing craft and head towards shore. She didn’t know it but luck was on her side. Soaked and spirited, as if some switch had been pulled, she set foot on the island that would trap her, she thought, for the rest of her life.

Her first footsteps on her new home weren’t very dignified at all. On a shout from the sailors she jumped off the side as the tide and swell moved the longboat towards the shore. The water was almost waist deep when she landed, then her possessions were passed to her and she began to wade towards the land. Holding the bundle above her head in futile attempt to keep it dry she was caught by the next wave and pushed towards the rocks, fell forward into the surf and emerged, spluttering, just in time to rescue her belongings before they beat a retreat with the surge back to Port Jackson.

Mary waded out of the water and on to the sand with a brief surge of elation. Everything she owned, everything she was wearing was soaked. Finally, for good or bad, she had arrived. Sea water drained from her clothes as she stood, breathless, watching as the longboat turned and headed back to the ship. Everybody was busy around her, there seemed to be hundreds of people milling about but not one of them could tell her what to do so she gathered her things, wandered away from the sea until she found a mound she could sit on, and sat. She wasn’t going anywhere. Unravelling her shawl she spread her few belongings out in the sun to dry and squatted calmly, waiting for whatever was to happen next. In the corner of her eye she saw the most extraordinary bird, bright red and yellow, with a huge hooked beak swoop down from those strange trees and disappear over the rise, then looked down to see a centipede crawling over her shawl.

Mary had never seen such a thing before. She was entranced by the blissful regularity of the undulating legs, the twists and turns it made as it gently glided over her clothes, didn’t stop to think it might bite or sting or kill. As she looked closer she saw a tiny skink run from one rock to another, dive into a hole in a hyperactive twitch. There were ants. Mary was a city girl. She only knew of rats and cockroaches, cobblestone and gutter, not this whole new natural world.

The sea was the enemy. Not just this particularly windy, rough piece of sea in front of her, but the whole world of oceans, all of which served as pathway and prison simultaneously. Practically none of her fellow convicts had ever even been in the sea. The concept of swimming in it, for fun, was quite beyond the lot of them; not that one of them could swim anyway. This stretch of sand that Mary sat on was the first beach she had ever sat on in her life, that unexpected dunking the only time she had even been in the ocean. She’d sailed on it for twelve months but never, in her wildest dreams, did Mary ever consider getting in it. 


To believe the historians the women were just breeding stock and harlot rolled into one but nothing about these women’s histories indicates they willingly adopted the role of ‘limp victim’ – quite the reverse. Offend one and you offend them all – these girls were ferocious, they had was a sisterhood borne of years of shared hardship. Some of these girls had been together for at least five years by the time the Juliana hit town; they’d shared cells and ships, lives, lovers and deaths, seen each other give birth, seen their friends die; been transported, escaped, captured, sentenced to death, reprieved, been seasick together, laughed and cried, faced hunger together, been wildly, raucously drunk together. This was no shipment of soft, yielding females – as Ralph Clark discovered, yet again, to his cost. 


There was little divide between the soldiers and the convicts. Men, women, children and the garrison mixed regularly with each other – hunger and poverty, need and isolation made a mockery of the traditional roles. They were all in this dreadful situation together – the idiocy of escape was so glaringly apparent there was no need for a guard; if all parties more or less stayed within the rules there was no desire to maintain the letter of the law. This within the ranks – somewhat higher up the food chain was Dodge, the overseer and his soldiers, and higher still, the increasingly shrill and frustrated Lt. Ralph Clarke, just the kind of man you would run a hundred miles to avoid under any circumstances. No wonder several of them did a bolt for the hills, preferring their chances in the bush to another day with the good Lieutenant. 

Ralph was a nightmare. Pious, self centered, the little martinet was given to dispensing the lash with an abandon directly in line with his sexual frustration. He was only 32 years old, married to his beloved Betsy back in Blighty, with a child. He carried on his back every prejudice of the late 18th Century middle classes, every piety wrapped in the threat of self-righteous violence, each slight an insult not just to himself, but to the whole sacred institution of marriage and dear, distant Betsy, each cackling whore a blight on the face of Mother England. Each Sunday night, in an intricate ceremony, he removed the glass from his wife’s picture and kissed the miniature tenderly. Then, slowly he touched the hair of his child in the locket, just once, conjuring up the son he barely saw, then replaced the frame and set it on the makeshift table beside his bed. As his time wore on he took to fornicating with one of the convicts as well, but she does not feature in his diaries, nor does the child she bore him. Strange that. Lieutenant Clark had an eye to the future as well.



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