Saturday, February 16, 2013

'A First Fleet Family', by Louis Becke & Walter Jeffery

I've just read this page-turner at one sitting, when I should have been attending to other matters. It was marvellous to turn the pages of this dusty little first edition of 1896, lent to me by a collector.

It set me thinking – did William Dew really keep the journal mentioned in the book’s preface? A quick Google search located countless references to the book, and a more specific search named Dew as a member of Watkin Tench’s company of First Fleet marines. But my catalogue search found nothing to corroborate the existence of Dew’s papers in the National Library of Australia, the Mitchell Library, State Records NSW, the British Library and the Public Record Office at Kew in England – all were silent on the matter. If Dew’s papers exist, where are they? I'd love to know.

With no joy in that direction, I then looked for a review of the book. Thanks to that marvellous Trove website, I found the following:

From Unwin's Colonial Library we have "A First Fleet Family," by Louis Becke and Walter Jeffrey. The book professes to be compiled from the papers of Sergeant William Dew, of the Marines, who accompanied the first vessel despatched for Botany Bay with convicts for passengers. As a story it may be said at once that love plays a strong part throughout, but suffering is the main theme. Yet the interest is sustained from preface to finish.

The review then published long excerpts from the book’s preface before concluding:

With such an introduction the book becomes interesting at once. It is written in the first person, and Sergeant Dew's story bears the impress of actual experience. One gets an idea of the first landing in Port Jackson such as does not come from the reading of historical records in the rough, while the life story of Will Bryant and Mary Broad gives point to the extract we have given from the editor's introduction. We can heartily commend "A First Fleet Family" to the perusal of everybody who takes an interest in the early days, while the inveterate novel reader will not be disappointed of the excitement his soul loves. (Brisbane Courier, Mon 15 Feb 1897, p 6, col d)

It all became clear – this is purely a novel, a romance novel, most of its plot cleverly woven around events involving the Royal Marines during their period of attachment to the First Fleet’s expedition to New South Wales, 1787-1791. Further enlightenment was offered by the following newspaper item:

Mr. Louis Becke, in collaboration with Mr. Walter Jeffery, has been the first to utilize real Australian history for the purposes of romance— paradoxical as that may seem. The authors have been satisfied to take circumstances as they occurred, without even the assignment of fictitious names, dates, and places. The conversation and detailed action set out by them may not have actually occurred, but they are perfectly natural. In the volume entitled 'A First Fleet Family' is given an attractive and apparently faithful account of the deportation to New South Wales of the first batch of convicts, and of their treatment and experiences in that colony; but much of the book is devoted to the story of the wonderful voyage in an open boat of Will Bryant, his wife, their child, and some companion fugitives from Sydney to Coupang, in the Dutch East Indies. That perilous adventure is well known to students of Australian history, and the authors recognised that there was no necessity to throw over it any glamour of imaginative fiction. It held in itself all the essentials of a simple and pathetic story. (South Australian Register, Saturday 14 January 1899, p 4, col g)

During my quick read I'd noticed, but forgiven, certain discrepancies between my own understanding of Sydney's early history and what was in the book. These misgivings were confirmed when I found a description of the book as ‘a narrative novel’, which ‘contains much embellishment of the story of Bryant's boat voyage and that is not history’. (Sydney Morning Herald, Fri 5 Sep 1947, p 16, col d)

Like Kate Grenville's recent novels, it may not be pure 'history' but this book offers just as gripping a read, using the creativity of story-telling to bring Sydney's early history to life. Becke and Jeffery wrote this important book as the nineteenth century’s reading public digested Marcus Clarke's novel For the Term of His Natural Life, wherein the convicts were the victims and the officials were the villains:

To most thoughtful minds "A First Fleet family" will come like a breadth of sunshine after Marcus Clarke's "His Natural Life"; and its value will be found in giving the round of truth of which Clarke's story was but the half. (The Queenslander, Sat 28 Oct 1899, p 855, col d)

Becke and Jeffery's book presented a different image, of everyone struggling to survive and everyone suffering, and pointed to the lack of recognition given to Governor Phillip's regime:

It may appear strange to English readers that while there is more than one statue of Cook in Sydney, it is scarcely known to the majority of the Australian people that Phillip was the man who founded their country and that Cook was never inside the Heads of Port Jackson

The school histories of the colony are beneath notice, and the few men who have written anything of the country's early days, such as Bonwick, Bennett, and Barton, are never read. It is safe to say that not one man in a thousand has the remotest idea of the early history of New South Wales, beyond the fact that a number of convicts were transported there something over a hundred years ago. Great injustice has been done to the early founders of the Colony, by forgetting them; greater injustice still is too often done to them when they are remembered.

For what has hitherto been written and read about the very early days has been, with few exceptions, stories depicting the cruelties of the punishments inflicted upon the convicts. The felons have always been the heroes and the authorities the villains of the piece. Nearly everyone who has written has followed the lead of Marcus Clarke.

The results that his powerful novel, and true enough picture of one side of the case – His Natural Life - has been the only point of view most readers are acquainted with. As a consequence, the men have been mistakenly blamed for the errors of the system, and no allowance has been made for the times in which the events described took place.

A maudlin sympathy with the convicts has become the only impression too many people have of the times; they have no thought for such men as Phillip and King, whose great hearts conquered the prejudices of their times and strove to look upon their duties as less those of gaolers than reformers.(Brisbane Courier, Mon 15 Feb 1897, p 6, col d)

To my mind, more than a century after Becke and Jeffery wrote their book, we still fail to give due recognition to Governor Phillip. We need to reverse this neglect of his sterling character and his amazing achievements against incredible odds.

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