Australia Day Excerpt: Memorandoms of James Martin: An Astonishing Escape from Early New South Wales

By Alison Fox, on 26 January 2018

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from Memorandoms of James Martin: An Astonishing Escape from Early New South Wales, to celebrate Australia Day. Download it free here

At dawn on Sunday 13 May 1787 an unusual convoy of 11 ships departed from Portsmouth. Within a few hours they had sailed into the Channel, intending to run down the western coasts of France and Spain, and to then head out into the Atlantic. The convoy’s final destination had long been a mirage in the European imagination, a land so odd that the ancient Greeks (only half-jokingly) believed its inhabitants walked on their hands. The First Fleet, as it became known, reached Tenerife on 3 June 1787, then sailed on to Rio de Janeiro. It arrived there in early August and remained for a month to take on supplies, reaching the Cape of Good Hope on 13 October 1787, five months to the day after leaving England.

However, when it departed from the Cape a month later the Fleet and its passengers headed out into the unknown. There would be nothing to see for weeks on end but the emptiness of the Indian and Southern Oceans, until the ships rounded the southern tip of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and continued north, up the eastern coast of the Australian continent, until they reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. Eight days later the Fleet relocated to Sydney Cove in Port Jackson – described by Governor Arthur Phillip as ‘the finest harbour in the world’ – and began to disembark its cargo of people. Among these people were officials, headed by Phillip, a force of marines and approximately 750 to 775 male and female prisoners, sent to serve out their sentences on an unfamiliar shore. The indigenous people of the region, the Eora, had seen European ships come and go, but now boat-loads of myall – strangers – had landed in their Country and remained. The initial encounters between the Eora and this fresh group of incomers were often marked by mutual ‘goodwill and friendliness’ and fascination, though the violence and killing would come soon enough.

A number of the First Fleet’s officers kept journals or wrote and published accounts of the penal colony’s first few years. However, no narrative written by a convict transported by the First Fleet is known to be extant.

Nothing, that is, save for a few pages in the archive of one of Britain’s great philosophers, Jeremy Bentham, one of the earliest and most implacable enemies of transportation to New South Wales and the colony itself. Somewhat incongruously, amid the philosophical treatises in the voluminous Bentham Papers in UCL Library’s Special Collections, is the earliest Australian convict narrative, Memorandoms by James Martin. This document also happens to be the only first-hand account of the most famous, and most mythologised, escape from Australia by transported convicts.

Want to find out more? Download Memorandoms of James Martin: An Asrtonishing Escape from Early New South Wales free here