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The Convicts’ Tale

The 18th-century story of a daring escape, recorded on a few pages of parchment, fascinates Senior Research Associate Dr Tim Causer.

Interview Diane Shipley Photograph Alun Callender

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“On the night of 28 March 1791, nine convicts, including Mary Bryant, her husband William and their two children, left Sydney Harbour in a stolen fishing boat that had a sail but no shelter. They were headed for West Timor.

The trip took 69 days – a real feat of seamanship and endurance. The whole tale is recounted in the more than 200-year-old Memorandoms by James Martin, which is held by UCL Special Collections and is the only first-hand account of what has become the most famous convict escape from Australia. And as an avid follower of Australian history, it’s a story that has fascinated me since my undergraduate days.

When the group arrived at West Timor, they initially passed themselves off as shipwreck survivors. When they were found out, they were shipped back to England. William Bryant, the children and three other male convicts died on the way. The five survivors arrived in June 1792 and were ordered to serve the remainder of their sentences in Newgate Prison. Biographer and lawyer James Boswell lobbied the government to release them – his argument was that they had suffered enough. Mary Bryant was released in May 1793; the four men that November.

It looks like Memorandoms was written between 1792 and 1793 when the surviving escapees were imprisoned. The original manuscript is 23 pages long and it is in three different hands, so it is possible that it was written by three of the convicts. We can’t be sure of the other two but the first bit was probably written by James Martin, an Irish stonemason who was transported for stealing metal and who was one of the escape party.

Convict narratives have usually been mediated by an editor, often a clergyman, so they take on this sense of being moral parables. Memorandoms is important because it was the first apparently unmediated attempt by convicts to talk about their experiences. It helps us to not lose sight of the individuals caught up in the system.

When I came to UCL in 2010, I knew we had Memorandoms here so I wanted to look at it and do something with it, something that is true to the historical record. We’ve made the manuscript and an annotated transcript available so people can get a sense of the document itself: the size of it, the fragility, and particularly the handwriting of the convicts. I hope people who’ve been interested in the story might find something new in it.”

The account, Memorandoms by James Martin: An Astonishing Escape from New South Wales, edited by Dr Tim Causer and published by UCL Press, is available via www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/memorandoms-of-james-martin

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