Who’s up for a little history lesson? Okay, I guessed you’d say that. No-one. Well l did say ‘little history lesson’. Honestly, it’s quite quick and it’ll be over before you know it.
Perhaps some of you already know that Australia was discovered by Captain James Cook. Wrong! As is the case with the United States, the person attributed to discovering this beautiful sunburnt country was not the first European to step foot on it. If you want to split hairs and get all pernickety, you’d have to acknowledge that the Australian Aborigines discovered Australia, arriving here around 60, 000 years ago. There can certainly be no dispute about that. As for Europeans, the first group to arrive on Terra Australis were the Dutch, followed shortly by the French and British. To further complicate the matter, there is evidence to suggest the Chinese landed in Australia up to 350 years before Captain Cook, and that the Indonesians regularly traded with the Aboriginal tribes in northern Australia.
Unlike the United States, Australia was founded as a penal settlement. The quote on the Statue of Liberty states “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses….” If Australia had its own statue, it would read “Give me your crims, thugs and other assorted riff raff”. Nice. So how did it come about that Australia was to be used as a dumping ground for England’s undesirables? Well, since even the pettiest of crimes in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries resulted in a prison sentence, the prisons were soon filled to overflowing. The immediate solution was to turn decommissioned ships into prisons, known as prison hulks, but soon these were splitting at the sides with apple-stealers, knicker-pinchers and pickpockets.
Someone, no doubt a politician with nothing better to do, but still cashing a pay cheque, had the brilliant notion of sending this oversupply of deplorables to the colonies – at first to the colonies in America, and then, after the War of Independence when America refused to take any more, to Australia. And why not? It was surrounded by water and not within swimming distance of England. Perfect. The journey aboard the sailing ships was treacherous and often took several months. Many convicts became ill and many others kicked the bucket.
After reading about life on board these ships, which, incidentally, not only transported convicts, but also supplies, and free settlers looking for a better life, I began to wonder, if not outright fantasize, if any of the convicts turned to each other for comfort. You know the sort I mean. In truth, the conditions below decks were so disgusting that, I imagine, any desire for love or sex was probably short-lived as the struggle to survive became paramount. Nevertheless, I couldn’t get the idea of two men becoming close and developing an intimate relationship out of my mind. Part of me didn’t think such a thing would ever have happened because life on board must have been hellish. I’m thinking here of the disease, the malnutrition, rats, lice and the ever-present stench of human waste. Not to mention morning breath that lasted well into the afternoon. A passion-killer if ever there was. But another part of me thought why not? Why couldn’t it have happened? Not everyone would have been sick and weak, and being in such close quarters with each other must have led to relationships of one sort or another forming. Besides, the convicts would have soon become so accustomed to the over-abundance of morning-breath, it probably wouldn’t have factored in.
The whole idea struck me as being an interesting and exciting premise for a novel, and so I sat down and began my preparations. I wanted the story to be as authentic as possible and, therefore, did quite a lot of reading and research. Even with a good twenty-five or so years between me and my high school graduation, I still had a general idea of the story of the colonisation of Australia, although there were many details to be filled in, dates to check and certain technical terms related to sailing ships and colonial life to acquaint myself with.
In the midst of my research, I discovered all sorts of interesting and not-very-useful facts. For instance, life for some convicts was relatively easy. Convicts with skills were able to work within their area of expertise. A carpenter, for instance, would have been busier than the hind leg of a dog riddled with fleas. Furthermore, he’d probably have had a better standard of living in the colony than he would’ve had in old Blighty. Another fun fact was initially there was no need for money. There was nothing to buy and the essentials were provided and allocated by the governor. After a while, there did become a need for money and since there was none, someone came up with the idea of using rum. That’s right. Rum. The rum trade was controlled by the military, who therefore wielded quite a lot of power. And probably had a hell of a lot of hangovers.
Finally, fully equipped with the facts, tweaked just a little here and there for literary purposes, I began writing. The end result is a historical romance describing the way I thought a shipboard romance between two convicts would go.
In brief, it goes a little something like this blurb:
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, twenty-two-year-old Jacob Tomkins is sentenced to seven years’ labour in the fledgling colony of Sydney Town, Australia. His crime? Stealing a handful of apples to feed his starving family. The voyage across the sea is long and arduous. He is travelling with thirty-one other men. Most, like him, have been convicted of petty crimes. However, there are some fairly rough characters sharing the prison deck with him; some of whom would like to use him for their pleasure.
Fortunately, he meets Peter Hawthorne, who befriends him and together they find moments of pleasure amid the drudgery of the nightmarish voyage. They share their hopes and dreams, and finally declare their love for each other upon the eve of their arrival in Sydney Town – a place where the currency is rum, distilled and controlled by the powerful military.
But what will happen once they disembark? Jacob has been told that any convict with a skill will likely end up working in the area of their expertise. Other convicts will be chosen by free settlers for back-breaking manual labour on farms. Those remaining will become ‘government men’, worked hard by harsh overseers, building roads and constructing houses, and public buildings. Therefore, the chances of him and Peter remaining together look extremely slim. Peter is a solidly built man, fit for hard labour and farming. Jacob is slender and wiry. His only work experience has been in a factory, of which there are none in Sydney Town. On his first night in the new colony, in the midst of his despair, he and Peter share one final, intimate moment in the darkness of their barracks.
The following morning, Jacob’s worst fears are realised. He watches as Peter is led away, along with three other men. He remembers his promise to Peter – to wait for their seven-year-sentences to conclude. To wait until they can be together again. Forever. But a lot can happen in seven years, especially when Jacob’s new master takes a liking to him. Is their love strong enough to survive the ravages of time? Can they even survive the rigors of their sentences? In a wild and untamed country, nothing is certain.
What happens next? Ah, that is the question. Find out immediately by purchasing the e-book, or if you are more old-fashioned, like me, and prefer something you can touch and hold and smell, wait for the paperback edition of “Across the Sea” by Wayne Mansfield to come out on January 31, 2017.
For other amazing, interesting, wonderful books (too much??) by Wayne Mansfield visit his website: http://mansfield82.wixsite.com/wayne-mansfield-