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NORFOLK ISLAND 1791-2

Ralph Clarke charged himself with the building of an empire on the back of this island beast.

He was setting out the site of a new town at Charlotte’s Fields. He grew much attached to his pet project; a little too attached, toadied endlessly to Commander Ross, flattered and groveled his way into the inner circle. With a garrison this tiny, internecine politics were rampant, the ins and outs of who sat down at dinner with the Commander were the stuff of endless conversation, even affray. Clarke played his hand with the ruthless cunning of a man who thinks too much of little things, a man who has no diversion. There would never be a diversion, he feared, and hated the women all the more for that. These women were beneath contempt, compared to his wife Betsy. Kiss that picture. These women were whores.

The secret society of women convicts united against Clarke in a show of sullen compliance and thinly disguised contempt. He found it impossible to move them faster than they would go, could never halt the constant flow of insubordination and minor insurrection, faced that combined weight with the only weapon he knew. He reported and dispensed discipline when he saw fit. For all his posturing Lt. Ralph Clarke found it hard to administer punishment to the women – something held him back, not least the continual presence of these evil wretches. Flog one, you flog them all. They were a continuous thorn in his side, the two hundred and forty bitches hovered just this side of insolence, a dumb resistance thwarting his every move. It was like wading through mud. They were clever and quick behind his back as well. In the first six months of Mary’s stay, however, only a handful had been punished: she knew them all by name – everybody did. They were famous.

These women strutted on a tiny stage. There were leaders and there were led. The women who had breached discipline and been whipped were catapulted up a rung, they had tasted the lash, they were amazons; Phoebe Flattery who lived up to her name and talked her way out of half her lashes for coming into town and fucking the sailors, Mrs. Stringer, 50 lashes for leaving Smiths Farm without leave and doing the same, Catherine White for telling a lie, Elizabeth Breeze, ‘a notorious thief’, punished with 75 lashes for stealing a hen, wringing its neck and hiding it between her legs, no easy task – then the big four, flogged last month for just saying ‘No’.

Rachel Early, ‘the most abandoned woman that I ever know or heard of’ – ten lashes; Annie Carthy – ten lashes, Hannah Hawkins and Mrs. Meredith with twenty-five apiece for refusing to do what their overseer ordered them. These were the real heroes; truants and thieves, malcontents. There were the pariahs too; Mary Nash stole from her fellow prisoners, Mary Long thumped another woman heavy with child. Clarke was losing it with the lot of them. He’d been working like a dog, exploding with frustration and rage when things didn’t go to plan. The heat and humidity were a novelty to him and a curse to the convicts. Work slowed down, nearly stopped on occasion. Dodge, the overseer was having more and more trouble getting people to move. They slacked off, were found asleep at midday, gave lip to the soldiers. By December Ralph Clarke was completely exasperated, by late January he was furious.

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December 1790
Munday 5th – put a Leg Iron on Dayes a Convict Carpenter as a punishment for coming into Town from Charlotte Field without Leave – 
Thursday 9th – Gloster Convict was punishd with 50 Lashes for being impertinent to Mr. Roper .
Friday 10th – Jno. Nowland and Wisehamer the two Carpenters were punished out there for Neglecting there work – the former Received the whole of his punishment 50 Lashes but Wisehamer could only bear 8 Lashes – the Surgeon Said that he could not bear more he fainted away twice.
Saterday 11th – Nouland and Wisehamer, the two Convict Carp. which were punishd Yesterday for Neglect of duty, have not been at work Since – Reported them to Majr. Ross at my Return who orderd the Store Keeper to Issue only half allowance to them.
Friday 17th – Saml. Banner a male convict left his work at Charlotte Field today.
Saterday 18th – I complaind to Majr. Ross that Jas. Elliot, one of the convict carpenters out at Charlotte Field, had Shirked his work three different times although he had been told of it every time – and when Dayes Spoke to him about it he began to abuse him and would not be Quite when I ordered him. I brought him into Town with me and told Majr. Ross who ordered him to receive 100 Lashes and Banner the Same number for leaving his work Yesterday and this morning. Elliot could only bear 73 and Banner 79 Lashes when I ordered them both out to Charlotte Field.
Munday 20th Touso, a male Convict at Charlotte Field, left his work to day and Run into the woods because I told him I would flog him for Refusing to doe what Mr. Dodge order him. I hope he will never return again for he is a great rascal.
Wednesday 22nd Jno. Pugh, a marine, confined and put in Irons for Stealing Potatoes out of the Public Store when he was Sentinel there last night. I hope when he is Tried, which will be at Port Jackson, that he will be hanged – that is all the harm that I wish him.
Saturday 25th I wish a Merry Merry Christmas to all the world – the most poorest person in England will be better off this day than any of us here. They will be able to get Small beer with their dinner to drink, if nothing better, and there is not any of us will have anything better but cool water. This will be a dry Christmas day. Good Gorgon, come and take us away from this place!

Poor little Ralph Clark was mighty pissed off. It’s hard to care. He was just not in control, could feel it slipping away from him day by day. Organizing these convicts was like trying to manage smart sheep; they had a will of their own and found great pleasure in exercising it. They loved it when they exasperated him, when he exploded with rage, when he swore; this was their real occupation – reducing Ralph to a gibbering wreck.

January 1791
Tuesday 25th Walked out to Charlotte Field at daybreak and gave orders for a Jail to be built which is a thing that is much wanted to Confine them and their misbehavior in it – I also gave orders for a pair of Stocks to be made at the Jail door – and a neck collar for the Ladies for I never came across such a set of D…… B…… in my life. They make me Curse and Swear my Soul out. I shall order them to be locked up in the Jail every night [for] that misbehavior when the Jail is finished.

It didn’t do him much good. Within weeks he discovered that 2000 cobs of corn had been stolen from the fields while he’d been looking the other way. Nothing was going to stop the steady tide of civil disobedience. He harvested the remaining corn as it ripened, sped it away from prying hands, whipped, cursed and whimpered, but never held sway. There was just one bright note in his empire. He reports it proudly in his diary:

April Saterday 30th Have been twice out to Charlotte Field today. The Town which I have been Building was this day named, and is Called Queensborough in honor of her Majesty and the Village at Cascadyd is called Phillipsburgh after the Governor.

He’d rather it had been called ‘Clarkestown’.

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The birds came in April. More bounty from the skies. The convicts grabbed what they could as they watched the harvest of corn and potatoes disappear down the hill to the main settlement. Their lives didn’t improve. They had to steal and trade and con their way towards a meal, find ways in ways to get a bit extra. These concepts seemed familiar to Mary. She began to operate a little more: her spirits were anchored somewhere between bravado and despair. This was the worst they could do to her. She was perched on a pin-prick of land surrounded by ocean, working like a dog – what more could they do? From that she conjured up an attitude, a way of looking at the world that gave her surprising peace. She reverted back to the side-streets of London, drew on all her cunning, her intrigue. With all the elegance of the high-class shoplifter she once was she tucked ears of corn in unexpected places, disappeared potatoes, meat, anything she could find. Mary was a survivor. Then she became a sacrificial lamb.

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On the 2nd May 1791 Mary and Catherine White were caught stealing corn.

Walked out to Charlotte Field, now called Queensborough, when Mr. Doidge caught Catharen White and Mary Higgins stealing the corn out of the Public Fields – I ordered him to put them in irons and to be confined in the Jail.
 
Katy White was ten years younger than Mary but she was quite a gal. ‘A good looking woman but a great thief,’ Ralph Clarke noted in his diary. Mary and she met on the ‘Lady Juliana’, spent eighteen months together on that boat, lived through it all side by side. The two women got on like a house on fire. Mary could see a bit of herself as a young woman in Katy – she liked her fiery temper and refusal to be cowed. They were street sisters, both from the same rough world so there were no recriminations when the two of them spent a long, uncomfortable night together in Clarke’s new jail. They were both professional, copped their fair due with stoicism and a certain grandeur. They had been caught doing what they had been doing for weeks. It’s a numbers game, stealing, sooner or later you’re going to get caught. They both knew that feeling. The irons weighed their limbs down as they tried to sleep, but neither of them could achieve any more than the briefest nap. The long night was spent in whispered conversation and occasional laughter, bravado mixed with fear.

Clarke had been apoplectic when Dodge reported the breach of rules. He’d had enough. It was time for action. He’d snarled the order for the irons, found a use for his new jail and carried on quite enough to force another few hours of work out of the rest of the women before he stormed down the track to Kingston, Dodge at his side, to report this latest catastrophe to the Governor. Everything was personal to Clarke, each infringement a direct blow at his credibility. The poor tragic little sod minged and grizzled to the Governor over dinner, and between them these two great men determined an example must be made. Each congratulated the other on their strength and fortitude, joined hands in a pact of mutual self-satisfaction and retired to their beds. Mary and Katy lay in the dirt at Queensborough and waited for the dawn.

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Tuesday 3rd May: Major Ross desired, when I went out to Queensborough, to take Richardson with me [who is the man that flogs the people] and give them as many lashes as I think they deserve. I ordered Catharine White and Mary Higgins 50 each.
 
White could only bear 15 when she fainted away; the doctor then wished that I order her to be taken down – which I did. Higgins received 26 when I forgave her the remainder as being an old woman. 
 
I ordered also Mary Teut to receive 25 lashes for the same crime as the others. She only received 22 lashes when she fainted away; I ordered her to be cast loose – I hope this will be a warning to the ladies out at Queensborough.

A bucket of sea water on her back was all Mary got for her pains. She was eased down off the triangle and slid to the ground. No amount of bravado could overcome that particular pain. She slipped in and out of consciousness for a few minutes then felt her irons removed, her blouse gently placed over her shoulders and arms lifting her, pulling her away. She lay face down in her shelter feeling every stroke on her back, a thin white hot criss-cross of sharp pain that cut through rational thought; Mary never forgot that feeling, never forgave.

Now she had entered the pantheon, joined the list of those notorious women who had felt the lash. Her stakes rose accordingly. There was a subtle change in the way all of them spoke to her, a certain caution, a certain respect; Mary had been to the mountain top, felt the whip and the fear all as one. She could no longer be threatened by the prospect, she knew what that hollow threat contained. Now Mary was fearless, there was nothing more, short of death, she had left to endure. She had ample time to retrace her steps back to Fetter Lane, a lifetime to reflect on each dumb sailor she robbed and dumped, every yard of linen that found its way under her petticoats, each minute of the endless voyage across the world. She saw the faces of dead men and heard Annie cry. Mary fused into crystal, cold, hard and translucent – there was a dead look in her eye.

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© NIGEL TRIFFITT 2010
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