- Memorandoms by James Martin: An astonishing escape from early New South Wales ed. by Tim Causer
This edited account of Memorandoms by James Martin tells the story of the most famous convict escape from the penal colony of Australia. On the night of 29 March 1791, William Bryant, his wife Mary, their two children, as well as James Martin and six other male convicts stole the government cutter and sailed out of Sydney Harbour. Over the next 69 days the group journeyed over 5,000 kilometres along the eastern and northern coasts of the Australian continent, across the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Pacific Ocean, reaching Kupang in Timor on 9 June. All nine absconders survived squalls and storms, diminishing supplies of food and water, and hostile encounters with Indigenous peoples. After two months, the Dutch authorities discovered the group were not shipwreck survivors, as they claimed to be, but were actually escaped convicts. They were imprisoned and shipped back to England to face trial for returning from transportation, though not all survived the journey home.
While imprisoned in Newgate Gaol, the survivors wrote a narrative of their escape from the new penal colony. Memorandoms is a narrative mostly likely written not only by the titular James Martin, but several of his fellow convicts. It is the first Australian convict narrative, and the only first-hand account of the most famous escape from the penal colony. It originated from the collection of manuscripts held by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who probably collected the material as part of his anti-transportation writings to lobby the government to support his own "Panopticon" penitentiary. Three previous editions of Memorandoms have been published: by Charles Blount, in 1937, who first discovered the narrative, by Victor Crittenden in 1991, and by Tim Causer as part of the Bentham Project website in 2011.1
This new edition by Causer supercedes these earlier ones, benefitting from a superb scholarly introduction, detailed annotations, and full-colour reproductions of each page of the narrative, with transcription on the adjacent page. Being able to see the archival material so clearly brings to life the dangers the absconders faced on their voyage, whilst Causer's annotations are particularly helpful to pinpoint the exact location and nautical references made within the narrative. As an open access publication, it would be a particularly useful teaching tool for students on courses relating to maritime voyaging, European-Indigenous encounters and convict escapes.
Causer's impressive introduction contextualises the Bryants' escape—though extraordinary in some respects—within a broader timeline of convict resistance to colonial authorities. He builds on existing historiography, to show that absconding into the bush or escaping in a boat was a logical and not uncommon form of resistance in early New South Wales.2 Though the Bryant party were by no means unusual in attempting to escape, particularly during the midst of severe food shortages in the early 1790s, Causer identifies two factors that account for their success in navigating a 5,000-kilometre journey without any fatalities. These were: first, the degree of preparation, including stockpiling provisions under the Bryants' hut and the purchase of navigational tools; and second that the assemblage of skills amongst the convicts—with five convicts having varying degrees of skill in sailing, and two craftsmen to repair the ship—which enabled them to successfully navigate a long distance with no fatalities.
Causer's account is refreshingly transparent about exactly what evidence is available and what can be reasonably assumed, which serves as an important counterbalance to much "unevidenced embroidering and embellishment of the historical record" (20) in the past about the escape. This technique is also used to explain—rather than just call out—the many inaccuracies that have arisen about the Byrant party in the historical record. Causer's meticulous tracing of the convict absconders through the archives, from their conviction to their release from Newgate, is a great strength of this edition. He corrects a number of misidentifications of the convicts, demonstrating for example that it was a different Samuel Broom...