You remember my name Henry: Boden Patchet. I pulled teeth for a living, a sort of dentist you might say until incarcerated for burning down the outhouse of a gentleman; one by the name of Claude Baxter. Promised me a silver coin he did for removing his tooth. Begged me, as he wept in pain. I removed the tooth but after he drank some of my finest rum and promised me a stick of gin, he went back on his word. A man's word is his word Henry but for setting light to Baxter’s outhouse you were the one who requisitioned I be transported for life in this Swan River settlement and I swear to you Henry, to this day, I never knew Baxter was in the outhouse.
So, when I heard you were sailing to the Antipodes Henry, I planned to be there watching you suffer and eventually perish in this vacuous land void of spirit and soul. A far away land beyond the seas where so called convict men exist while chained, lashed, humiliated and worked near to death. You will know the heartache when you leave behind your life, your home in England and come to this wasteland; where the birds and animals are melancholy and cockatoos screech and squawk, angry at the hot dry winds that blow dead wood and spinifex over a languid earth charred by the constant heat of each day. Here where dusky-red-dawn skies drape heavy above the land where primal creatures roam, some with a gnarled spiky integument protecting them from other viperous desert foe. Creatures slink over the sandy red desert lurking beside the Bungarra with its long-spotted legs as it moves slowly, foraging amongst the rocks. The Bungarra stops briefly revealing a red snake-like tongue, unhurried and leery it sluggishly retreats to a burrow within the darkness of a dank sandy hideaway.
All around packs of kangaroo unnerved by whispers from within the bush bound away in hurry-fright. Their powerful hind legs in full charge exhibit a grey-brown splendour leaving behind the sound of an intractable thud on earth cracked and dried from a hostile sun. The kangaroo grazes by day, standing tall and docile in readiness, claws hang from strong upper limbs and ears twitch upright, waiting, like those chained and lashed, for impending danger.
In this place, the dusk rolls into a large fireball and the sun falls from the earth disappearing beyond the ocean, leaving behind a gradual moon in a black sky. Below the Eucalypt, Banksia and Wattle trees sway ghost-like amongst prickly, parched bush. There is no hue and barely a flicker of light.
I will welcome you Henry to this place where the piercing sound of insects nestling deep within the Mallee click and buzz amid the earthy waft of dry blue desert daisies and evil swarms around.
It was 1865 in old England, when the poorest of humanity struggled for dignity under a strict, cruel government that didn’t care less about families on the precipice of survival. Cold, unrelenting winters revealed increased insanity. Babes born from skin and bone to a nadir of despair passed through life with barely a whimper, clinging to a nipple offering little more than dry comfort.
For some, illegal gain, immoral wrongdoing or murder were all judged the same, all crimes against England. Prisoners judged by a ruthless penal system of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Courts executed punishment within prison hellholes and transported others to each side of the earth including ‘the Antipodes.’ Chained and worked near to death, men and women served life in the worst of penal servitude.
If prisoners, under the rubric of ‘convict,’ survived years of lashings and hard labour, their reward was a ticket-of-leave. This reward ensured a battle through the following years in a nascent land, struggling daily for the rest of their life.
In May, the end of a cold winter and Warden Henry Passmore’s body pained with frustration as he battled oppression within Dartmoor Prison, where inmates languished on pigswill and were clothed only in thin fusion garments year-round. Where condensation on granite walls turned to ice and their bodies froze.
Prisoners died of pneumonia or disease and some for no reason at all. Dragged to confinement cells daily then left for months to decompose alone in the blackness. Few remained sane, from lack of food and water and most developed weeping boils from the chains that cut deep into wrists and ankles. The black hole repulsed Henry, as he knew well that men lived in Dartmoor but prayed to die.
This day presented white clouds with a fierce chilled wind that swept through windows and corridors, pervading an icy numbness into the depths of every soul. Henry’s eyes burned red with cold. He called for help to remove another body frozen to death in the cells. ‘Here, C50 and another in 65.’
Guards arrived and moved quickly to their job dragging the dead from their cell to the morgue. Henry’s eyes drifted from the bodies as he walked, each step with a solid duty of service, yet everything about his body was exhausted. He scratched his beard either side contemplating, then with sturdy hands rubbed his body briskly to stir the flow of blood. The itch that covered his body seemed to worsen as he walked shoulders slumped, through the corridor hearing the sound of his own footsteps through the pleading and suffering.
Reflux in his stomach created a slight diversion, reminding him of the paltry serving of potato soup he had consumed the night before.
Henry’s work had prevented him from returning home for a week and now approaching the door, preparing to leave, a smile appeared. He imagined the warmth of Mary-Ellis and a well-cooked breakfast. The smell of hot boiled oats, bacon or if the hens had laid he would indeed be fortunate but for sure, there would be freshly baked bread and dripping.
His pace increased toward the heavy wooden doors of Dartmoor and he smiled reminding himself of the two days he would spend away from the prison.
Henry tried not to listen to the raw groaning behind him and increased his pace towards the outside as the bolts shot back with a vibrating bang, sending one immense iron door slightly open inviting a rush of cold fresh air. His only thought now; to leave behind the memory of past nights where scampering rats scurried and squealed, as they cased the weeping psoriasis, their chewing waking one prisoner then another from a restless sleep.
Cold air leapt through the corridors, whistling with ghouls long gone as Henry stepped back to adjust his coat. Tin plates clanged against iron bars like a bell tower’s call of death. The acrid smell of morning gruel slopped from brutal heavy spoons, pungent in the morning air, churned his stomach, partly with hunger but also with a strong sense of pity.
‘My heart is heavy with discontent yet dare I speak my piece?’
His step quickened again, in haste to be shut on the outside stopping only to allow the large door to open enough for him to pass. As the door opened slowly, it crunched on the stone floor and stopped. Keys rattled behind him then the thump of heavy copper-toed boots approached. A forceful hand gripped his shoulder and Henry stopped to the sound of a burly voice.
‘Warden Passmore Sir, there be a shortage of guards in the prison and orders put forth you are to remain on duty.’
The tors and bogs surrounding Dartmoor with their grey foreboding seized Henry’s attention as he stood still at the doorway, loath to turn back. Tired and hindered by a dark cloud hanging over him, he considered for a moment ignoring the voice and continuing. Breathing in the fresh air Henry’s deep sense of duty held him; he turned and looked into the vacuous eyes, gave a nod and walked back into the abyss.
Governor Buckton of Dartmoor Prison and two other dignitaries of the crown, summonsed Henry to a meeting two weeks later. All three men wore tailored jackets and the dignitaries removed their top hat before introducing themselves. They shook hands but said no more to Henry during the meeting. Only the Governor spoke and opened the discussion with information of the Antipodes before asking Henry about his knowledge of the Swan River Colony Settlement in the western part of Australia. Henry’s knowledge was vast as he had served in the Royal Navy during the Crimean War and many others that fought alongside him had an interest in the development of the Antipodes.
Buckton and the dignitaries nodded to one another impressed, after which the Governor continued to explain their reason for the meeting.
The request was simple; Queen Victoria ordered the transportation of more prisoners to assist with the development of the Swan River Colony and due to Henry's engineering knowledge and skills, the Governor requested Henry migrate with his family. He would be elevated to a senior position, managing gangs of prisoners building roads and bridges throughout the colony. If he agreed, Henry and his family would sail on the ship, Racehorse, to Fremantle in two weeks. On board Henry would take charge of the 300 prisoners with another twenty wardens and fifty pensioner guards sailing with their families.
Henry was interested. Stroking his beard, he considered the many opportunities, his improved rank and he had engineering knowledge he could implement in the developing colony. A new beginning for his family in a place with much-improved weather, across the seas where he could rid himself of the depressing grind and harshness of the Dartmoor heaths, where told, the headless horseman skylarked around the prison at night.
After leaving the meeting, he began to think. Could he expose his young family to such a journey, four months sailing across thousands of miles of ocean on a ship with 300 prisoners? These thoughts began to hinder his enthusiasm. How could he request Mary-Ellis resettle their three young children, the youngest a babe in arms? What possible dangers would beset them on this wild, raw island named Australia? He had heard of battles with native savages and people dying from the hot climate. They say white men cannot live in a black man’s country. His confidence waned. He was not sure he could reach a decision within two weeks when the ship would depart from Plymouth en route to Fremantle.
That evening, Henry reached the front door of his home as the heavens opened with a rumble and sheets of rain fell hard across the pebbles gathering into small rivers under the wild primrose bushes on either side of the pathway.
The rain increased and Henry pushed the door open rubbing his hands together; a smile drifted across his face with the expectancy of home, then broadened when inside, where the wood crackled in the hearth and Mary-Ellis held Minnie to her breast.
He kissed Mary-Ellis and inhaled the smell of musk and rose water then gently stroked the baby’s head. Harry ran to his father with Annie close behind; she screamed and demanded he throw her high into the air, until he did so. Henry spoke gently to the children about their day, questioning Harry as to how he had been of help to his mother. All the time Henry spoke to the children, he gazed with a warm intensity at Mary-Ellis. The burning fire reflecting on her cheeks and her wide brown eyes soft, yet strong, like everything about her, he thought. The pink in her cheeks deepened and she returned a slight smile before lowering her eyes.
‘How has it been for you Henry?’
He kissed her gently on the cheek and replied simply, ‘It was enough and now I’m glad to be home.’
When they were alone, Henry told Mary-Ellis of his day and his meeting with the Governor requesting him to accompany prisoners to the Antipodes. He spoke of endless opportunities in this far away land of sunshine surrounded by a crystal blue sea, also explaining the new position offered to him at the Convict Establishment in the Port of Fremantle, which would become their new home.
She listened attentively to every word as the rain clattered onto the roof and windows. Then suddenly her eyes filled with tears and flooded down her cheeks. She remained quiet, twisting a handkerchief. Through the tears, her voice was soft yet unwavering.
‘Oh, dear Henry, you ask such a great deal of me.…I’m, I’m sorry’ she stuttered for words. Thunder clapped in the sky and the force of the rain increased. Henry moved a log onto the fire.
‘I just cannot,’ she continued shaking her head, ‘abide the idea of sailing for months on board a ship to end up in a place barely inhabited. Surviving the journey would be an ordeal in itself and the children could perish.’ Her deep brown eyes soaked with tears as their discussion turned to a bold disagreement that continued throughout the night. Her tears and position were unrelenting yet Mary-Ellis sobbed quietly within the unease of Henry’s enthusiasm. The hours passed until it was time for bed but Mary-Ellis remained unpersuaded.
When the sun had risen the following morning, Henry pulled on his thick woollen socks and attempted to hold Mary-Ellis in his arms. She pulled away abruptly and he stood empty.
On his return to Dartmoor across the moors, the temperature -5deg, he thought about Australia, where the sun shone all year round and imagined his family thriving and hoped his decision, in the end, would be the right decision.
Later that day, when he returned to a meeting, his thoughts were divided. He wanted to leave Dartmoor where he had no authority but if he did have authority, he would allow prisoners to exercise out of their cells daily and he would improve food rations. The suffering in the prison sickened him and he would find a way to make changes. The memories of brutality he had witnessed while serving in the Crimean War still haunted him and he also wanted to help those prisoners transported, some for military crimes. His thoughts turned to Mary-Ellis and her concerns for the children; how could he make a decision so clearly against her wishes?
He slowly and carefully deliberated his position over the next few hours until the Governor returned to meet with Henry and further explain how the Swan River settlement was stagnating, due to a vital need for skilled settlers to develop the colony.
‘Men like you Henry,’ the Governor said, ‘with engineering skills to build roads and bridges are in high demand.’ The Governor continued and Henry listened to all he had to say but refused to give his decision. He knew he could indeed make a difference in that young, unripe colony though he hesitated, remembering his wife’s strong opposition during their discussion the night before. Henry thanked the Governor for his offer and turned to leave, saying he needed more time. He walked along wondering if he could move Mary-Ellis on her ideas or what the consequences would be should he make a decision against her will.
Lash Me Fair front cover
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