‘Story of 1797 mutiny is a work in search of an identity’, Honest History, 13 May 2019 updated
Steve Flora reviews Elsbeth Hardie’s The Passage of the Damned: What Happened to the Men and Women of the Lady Shore Mutiny
In early April 1797, a vessel named the Lady Shore left England. It would be the forty-fifth vessel since 1788 to voyage to the relatively new colony of New South Wales. The ship never arrived at Port Jackson, however, due to an onboard mutiny instigated by French prisoners of war drafted as guards and unwilling recruits into the New South Wales Corps. This nugget is perhaps the most surprising aspect presented in this work.
Needless to say (though we will), the recruiting ploy was never tried again. One wonders at the sanity of the British administrators who gave life to the idea in the first place. The ship and most of its crew wound up in South America (at least temporarily) rather than Australia.
This reviewer cannot recall being previously aware of the story of the aborted and abbreviated voyage of the Lady Shore, and so looked forward to discovering more about it. Unfortunately, the book disappointed on a number of levels; it is a work in search of an identity. Perhaps there is an analogy with the Frenchmen who found themselves captured by the British, then were declared to be members of the New South Wales Corps, who then mutinied to regain their identity (as well as to profit from the sale of a war prize).
Elsbeth Hardie is a journalist who has turned to the writing of historical works. This is her second book in that vein. Given the author’s history, I was hoping that this volume would be along the lines of The Anatomist: a True Story of Gray’s Anatomy (2009) by Bill Hayes, also a work which focusses on the late 18th through the 19th century. Hayes, also a reporter, was gripped with finding out who wrote the first complete book of anatomy. His research led him on a journey (mentally and physically), taking the reader through a fascinating narrative of research and personal discovery which was as much mystery as informative history.
In contrast, The Passage of the Damned, though telling what should be a very interesting and informative story closely related to the early foundation days of the colony of New South Wales, is wooden, and the reader finds it very hard to connect with any of the multitude of personalities detailed in the book. I had thought that the writer would bring a feeling of immediacy, of drama, to the story. That anticipation was indicated by the rather melodramatic title and cover reproduction of an 1821 painting showing the dramatic moment when the ship’s captain was bayoneted and thrown down the main hatch of the Lady Shore. The first section of the book, which goes into details from a recently ‘refound’ manuscript written by a sailor on the voyage (George Drinkald) seems to be setting the scene for such an effort.
A great deal of information is presented is this relatively short (244 pages, 171 pages of text) book. Unfortunately, those 171 pages can seem more numerous than that. The lives of many of the 66 convict women on board, both before sailing, during the brief voyage, and after the diversion to Brazil, are detailed, along with the lives of many of the Captain, crew, prisoners of war and other New South Wales Corps recruits.
Hardie not only introduced me to ‘Major’ James George Semple, but she presents facts new to me regarding the 18th century English court and sentencing system, the recruitment process of the New South Wales Corps, and life on board ships of the day. Without doubt a lot of research was done for this work. The book itself is unusual, however, in not being laid out in formal chapters, but instead presented as a series of ‘sections’ with highlighted titles.
Another distracting feature: the too numerous typographical, grammatical errors that slipped through the editing process. Seeing slips like that makes the reader wonder if there are any similar weaknesses on the research side of things.
As Hardie admits, much of the arduous task of researching the minutiae of these lives from over 220 years ago fell to others, in particular, Argentinian authors Joseph M. Massini Ezcurra and Juan M. Mendez Avellaneda (whom the author credits). Avellaneda spent 20 years researching the lives of various passengers and crew members after their landing in Brazil.
There is thus a striking disconnect between the individual writing the book, and the people who had the initial interest and did the bulk of the research. No underlying fascination, or enthusiasm for the story, is apparent in the voice of the narrator. A lot of details, interesting as they are, become wearing when presented in what at times feels like a relentless stream, with a lack of attachment to the saga.
Semple, 1799. The added word ‘Lisle’ was an invention (Wikipedia)
This disconnect is not because the history or the people involved don’t merit connection. Interesting personalities abound in the story. The tracks of particular convict women, many of whom were extremely resilient and who recreated themselves in South America, are followed from British, Spanish and Portuguese archives. One of the few English male prisoners on board was the celebrated professional conman ‘Major’ Semple. Semple’s life and career were detailed in three books written by 1840 about his activities. His story alone would have been engrossing in an updated presentation.
In conclusion, this work has multiple ‘personalities’. But it is torn between being a collection of brief, detailed biographies; a dramatic tale of a unique aborted 18th century convict ship voyage; a brief history of colonial Brazil; and a research guide related to the Lady Shore’s voyage. It has snippets and aspects of each.
There is a very interesting and untold tale of persistence and research that enabled Hardie to write this book. The interweaving of that research process with the other information presented would have added a whole new dimension and, in this reader’s view, lent the work the ‘heart’ that it lacks. And it could very well have been a most touching story of numerous lives impacted and changed for good or ill by the fact that fate had them on board the Lady Shore on 7 April 1797.