A Gentleman’s Tale of Betrayal Down Under
It seems my fellow men can make a hell out of heaven, wherever we set ourselves down in the South Seas. Take Norfolk Island. What is this tropical paradise now? A rat-infested, plague-ridden hell-hole of a prison, in which every kind of vice can flourish and no virtue goes unpunished.
Or Van Diemen’s land, my recent home, scene of every cruelty a man can imagine and every degradation a woman can suffer. For a gentleman such as I, abandoned in that cess-pit with pickpockets, ruffians, cut-throats and murderers – what hope was there? It is a world turned upside down. Here the wicked and the low-born rule, overseers are rewarded for cruelty and soldiers are paid in grog while revelling in disorder. I have paid heavily for one crooked land deal, caught between the rivalry of two aristocrats. Twelve years in the colonies to reform my ways. How I have survived this far, God only knows.
Yet I have escaped – though that too has taken a turn for the worse, as everything in Australia does.
I kept my head down for six long years. Yes, sir, no sir, whatever you say, sir. It earned me some privileges and a transfer to New South Wales, a halfway house to freedom. But two days out of Hobart the Irish boys struck, with O’Donnell the ringleader, a desperate man being sent to Sydney to swing from a rope.
They took the ship and forced the crew to set course for Tahiti. Every moment I feared for my life, as they raided the soldier’s pay chest and drank themselves insensible.
Then, on the east wind, we heard them. The most beautiful female voices I’d ever heard. Clearly I was not alone in that judgement. For those Irish ruffians lost their heads and changed course. But beauty strikes the soul of the evil-hearted in wicked ways. Their coarse anticipation of a night of lust fuelled their madness. They shot the captain, as he warned them against what finally befell us – we hit the reef, still several miles from landfall.
Me? I was already hiding in the longboat. I cut it loose as the ship split in two and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I remember little more until I was washed up on this shore.
As I write this, I have been here some 8 days. I have seen the women too, the sirens who drew us here. Polynesians for sure – and fierce with it. I will bide my time before trying to make their acquaintance a second time!
* * *
It is now some 20 years later, and my journal has been returned to me. I will complete my tale.
It was on that eighth day on the island that I heard the ladies sing again.
I guessed they meant to lure others ashore, and steal from the wreckage as before.
The following day, I saw a Yankee ship anchored in deeper water, and a longboat with a sole oarsman rowing towards me. I was on my guard. Yankees in these waters mean mischief or banditry, alongside whaling and trade. Keeping my cutlass by my side, I helped him pull his boat up on the beach.
A jovial fellow, I offered him rum and a share of the fish I was roasting. Then he hooked me with his fine tale.
“We are on our way home to San Francisco. Via Lima, that is, home to the finest Spanish whores in all the Pacific. Then yesterday, we heard your ladies calling to us. But our captain has sailed these oceans twenty years, and knows all their games. We saw the wreckage out there. Then we saw your fire on the beach. I’ve come to offer you safe passage out of here, to Peru or all the way to Frisco Bay. ” My longing for home overcame the main lesson I had learned – never trust anyone in these parts.
What a welcome awaited me on the Yankee ship! There stood the Yankee captain, one Seamus McBride, a proud son of County Cork. And beside him that accursed O’Donnell.
‘Clap that devious murderin’ mutinous son of a bitch in irons,’ said McBride, ‘and convene the court in twenty minutes.’
O’Donnell led the attack on me. How I had treated the convicts as an overseer in Van Diemen’s land, bullying and cheating them all. How I took any woman I wanted. How I instigated the mutiny on the ship, them left them there to die as I escaped with gold and rum. How I myself had shot the English captain. ‘Playing one side off against the other, as always, like the worst of English scum.’
‘It’s not true!’ I protested. ‘It was every man for himself, and I left you all alive.’
‘I survived, but not my brothers,’ said O’Donnell. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll leave you alive, though you’ll soon wish you weren’t.’
They had their revenge with days of unspeakable brutality. Then McBride sold me, beaten senseless, for a reward to a Royal Navy ship in Tahiti. They took me to Norfolk Island, to start over at the bottom of the convict system. Now those days are gone, but here I remain.
In my dreams I still hear the sirens’ song on the wind. A missionary told me the meaning:
“There is a band of covetous ones going by
They have stolen my things
Let them bring them to me, as is proper to do;
Let them never get firm footing on land
Let them perish at sea … “
And I hear myself say, ‘If only I had’.