Title: The Ship That Never Was: The Greatest Escape of Australian Colonial History
Author: Adam Courtenay
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: ABC Books/HarperCollins
Published: 21st May 2018
The greatest escape story of Australian colonial history by the son of Australia’s best-loved storyteller
In 1823, cockney sailor and chancer James Porter was convicted of stealing a stack of beaver furs and transported halfway around the world to Van Diemen’s Land. After several escape attempts from the notorious penal colony, Porter, who told authorities he was a ‘beer-machine maker’, was sent to Macquarie Harbour, known in Van Diemen’s Land as hell on earth.
Many had tried to escape Macquarie Harbour; few had succeeded. But when Governor George Arthur announced that the place would be closed and its prisoners moved to the new penal station of Port Arthur, Porter, along with a motley crew of other prisoners, pulled off an audacious escape. Wresting control of the ship they’d been building to transport them to their fresh hell, the escapees instead sailed all the way to Chile. What happened next is stranger than fiction, a fitting outcome for this true-life picaresque tale.
The Ship That Never Was is the entertaining and rollicking story of what is surely the greatest escape in Australian colonial history. James Porter, whose memoirs were the inspiration for Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life, is an original Australian larrikin whose ingenuity, gift of the gab and refusal to buckle under authority make him an irresistible anti-hero who deserves a place in our history.
There are many stories within the realms of national and international history that are not known, or where there might not be as much known about them as some, usually for a variety of reasons. One of these is the escape of ten convicts from the worst convict prison in Australia in the 1830s. James Porter was transported in 1823, for stealing a sack of beaver furs. He was sent to what was then known as Van Diemen’s Land – renamed Tasmania in 1856. He made several attempts to escape from the penal colony, and as a result, was sent to the notorious Sarah Island.
It was not long until Governor George Arthur declared Sarah Island would be closing, and the inmates moved to the infamous Port Arthur prison. Porter and a band of inmates took this chance to take control of the ship they were on – the Frederick, and escaped across the seas to South America, where they lived in Chile for many years as free men, before being sent back under the authority of the British colonial government at the time.
Told in a style that is engaging, whilst dealing with the historical facts and vents of a little-known convict and mutiny, I found this interesting to read, as it expanded upon what I have previously been taught and have read about Australian history. Whilst much is known about colonial era history, there are still stories that haven’t been told about various aspects – and having access to these stories allows us to wholly understand where Australia came from in the years of penal colonies and convict arrivals from 1788 until the transports ended in 1868, though different colonies stopped their transportations at different times.
It reads as both non-fiction and fiction – not overly embellished, but still capturing the spirit of the times and adventure that Porter wrote about in his journal. The author, Adam Courtenay, writes about Porter with fascination, yet allows himself to see the flaws and exaggerations that Porter wrote of, explaining in the text that the facts found in historical records about floggings and the details of how far punishments could be taken or were taken alongside Porter’s experience. What this does is show that even first person accounts that historians rely on are not always reliable, and I felt, even though I have only read the uncorrected proof, that Courtenay took what he had from Porter with a grain of salt and compared it to other accounts, and historical records to create his book.
In doing so, Courtenay has created a work that sparks an interest in this person and era, but also shows that good research is crucial – I would be interested to see if the final copy includes a bibliography, for further reading, and to show what sources he was able to find, as I imagine a little-known story such as this might not have as many sources as stories and legends that are well-known within the national consciousness.
As someone who has studied history, I know to examine various sources and accounts, just as it appears Courtenay has done. I will be looking for more information on Porter where I can, to supplement this book and build a larger picture of this man who managed to escape from Tasmania to Chile and live for several months to at least a year or two without being sent back. An intriguing book that shows that Australian history is more complex than we are originally taught.