The moment we set sail from Portsmouth was the most wretched of my life. As the anchored chains rattled and the York creaked away from her berth, I slumped surrounded by other men bound in chains, set for Botany Bay. Every one of us knew that we would never see our homes or families again.
Would it ease your mind, in hearing my tale, to know that I had done wrong? Imagine that, if it helps. But if you prefer truth then you should know that all I had sought was a fair wage, and that of all the punishments that befell my group, mine was not the worst.
Once at sea we were unchained. We ate as well as a prisoner could expect, exercised on the deck, and were checked for ailments regularly by the ship’s surgeon. A goodly Presbyterian by the name of Macleod, he cared for our souls and for our minds as well as for our bodies.
“Come, Jack,” he said to me, for I went by Jack in those days. “This is your chance, laddie. Come learn your letters better, and in doing so learn the word of the Lord.”
Stubborn youth that I was, I would have none of it. I lurked in my darkened corner, refusing to come out as a deep despair settled upon me. I lived beneath a cloud far darker than any in the sky, and beneath its weight I was barely able to lift myself from hammock of a morning.
One day I heard laughter from the deck. It was the first joyful sound I had heard in many weeks, and that small thing at last drew me out onto deck. Dr Macleod looked up as I approached the group, sat around with Bibles and commentaries, many with their lips moving as their fingers crawled across the words. At least one of them I knew from jail, and he had no letters then.
“Will you join us now, Jackie?” Macleod asked. “Bill here was sharing an old Yorkshire version of the Lord’s Prayer. ‘Tis a wee bit naughty, but I dinnae think Himself will mind.”
That day I just sat with them. The next I picked up a copy of the Psalms, and managed to read a few lines. By the end of the week I spent as much time reading as I did staring blankly across the deck, unable to bear the effort of thought.
That week lifted my spirits just enough for me to fathom the depths of my despair.
I crept from my bed in the middle of the night. I knew the guards’ routines by heart, having listened to their footfalls through so many sleepless hours. Picking up a length of chain I had seen by the aft mast, I wrapped it tight around my arm. If I were to leave my miseries behind then I wanted it done quick, not to drift on the ocean waiting for an end to come.
Approaching the bow, I stared down at the white ripples of waves cresting on a night black sea. I took a deep breath and prepared to jump.
“Now, Jackie.” Macleod spoke softly as he approached. “Is this world so bleak that you must leave it?”
I shook my head.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “You showed me that. But my part in it is wretched. I can’t bear that.”
“Then dinnae make it a darker place with your death,” he said. “Open up your heart and let the world in.”
I looked at those waves dancing in the moonlight. I wished for more of that beauty, but wishing was too much when I was so far from all I held dear.
“I want to,” I whispered. “But I don’t know how.”
“Then let me help,” Macleod replied. “Me and the good word.”
A sob burst from me, heavy and ponderous as the York leaving its dock. I let the chain fall to the deck, and soon I lay beside it, sobbing while Macleod soothed me.
By the time we reached Botany Bay, I had a better knowledge of scripture than I ever had in my life. I dare say that I was a better man. Though the darkness was not gone, it lay less heavy upon me.
“Here.” As I prepared to disembark, Macleod pressed a copy of the Psalms into my hand. “To remember that God has saved you.”
“Not God, sir.” I passed the book back to him. “After all I’ve seen, I don’t think I can believe in him. But you saved me, you and the books.”
“To remember me, then,” Macleod said. “And to comfort you now I cannot.”
I had not smiled once in that whole journey from England. But as I set foot in Australia, Macleod’s Psalms in my hand, I felt my face light up.
* * *
This story was inspired by an essay by Bill Bell in a fascinating book on the history of crime and books* that I picked up in Skipton’s Oxfam shop. It seems that ships’ surgeons often taught reading and religion to the convicts being transported to Australia, contributing to a literacy rate among these men that was higher than the British average, and that probably saved the sanity of many.
And yes, we’re back to depression again, but you know what they say – write what you know.
If you enjoyed this then you might also like From a Foreign Shore, my short collection of historical and alternate history fiction, which is free today as an ebook on Amazon. From one reader’s review of the book:
‘ “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Andrew Knighton has crafted some tantalising gems in this anthology, each one a different take on that musing. He uses the short story format to give us illuminating glimpses of lost worlds and worlds that never were, and they all fire the imagination.’
* Bill Bell (2004), ‘Bound for Botany Bay; or, what did the nineteenth-century convict read?’ in Against the Law: Crime, Sharp Practice and the Control of Print, ed. Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote.