June 23, 2022

Keen for an escape?

Convicts who escaped British penal colonies in Australia achieved some astounding feats of navigation, bravery and endurance.

In 1834, a group of ten convicts seized control of a boat from Sarah Island in south-west Tasmania and managed to sail all the way to South America, passing themselves off as shipwrecked sailors on arrival.

The expression ‘Buckley’s Chance’ came from the escape of a convict from Sorrento in Victoria, who was presumed dead for over 30 years until a white-skinned man living with Aborigines identified himself as William Buckley.

Then, there is the story of convicts who escaped Sydney and would have passed by what is now Cape Byron in April 1791. The group was led by Mary and William Bryant who made the months-long trip with seven other convict men and their two children; Charlotte, aged 3, and Emmanuel, aged 1.

The group had sailing and fishing skills as well as stolen navigation instruments. They also had a journey of over 5,000 kilometres and two very young children on board.

It’s almost impossible to imagine how the group survived. Author, Meg Keneally, created the near-impossible by fictionalised the story in her book Fled.

Meg has said that she chose to fictionalise Mary Bryant’s story (her main character is named Jenny Trelawney) because she didn’t want to ascribe feelings, thoughts, beliefs or specific actions of a real person. This decision then allowed her to make minor changes to what was already a compelling adventure for the benefit of the narrative.

In both fiction and history, the group of escapees managed to pass as shipwreck survivors before being found out and, ultimately, sent back to Britain for trial.

So, next time you’re feeling in need of an ‘escape’, remember that this word had a very different meaning in times past…

Vivienne Pearson is a freelance writer whose writing lives at viviennepearson.com


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