Between 1787 and 1850 over 160,000 convicts were sent from Britain to penal colonies in Australia. First Fleet tells the story of the first eleven ships that sailed from Portsmouth on a 15,000 mile voyage to establish the first British penal settlement at Sydney Cove. Drawing on the surviving journals of some of the men and women on board the prison convoy, these poems inhabits the imaginary voices of convicts, crew, marines and Aboriginal people to give intimate voice – lyrical, poignant and unsentimental – to the poverty they left behind and the terrible ‘starvation years’ they faced when they reached Australia. This is a book about history and landscape, imprisonment and environment.
Susannah Ruse, Bodmin Assizes, 29 July 1782 James in the dock, handsome, filthy from gaol. Caught in the silversmith’s house at night, two watches in his pocket, cheese in his mouth. In front of a judge now, chin stuck out. Married me in Lawhitton, Lizzie already twisting in my belly. She’s a prowling cat. Hasty James, has an ocean of fields to teal now. I’ll not roar like others in the gallery. He, no sadder than our wedding night, his lips write, Wait for me. The pushed aside, eldest son is hanged, reprieved, transported seven years. Gawky James, farmhand with a farmer’s family to feed, I said the silversmith would have a pistol. One watch would have done wouldn’t it? James Ruse, face like Growan clay, will pull a plough in his burgling clothes, labouring right through our nights as he crosses off his days.
John Hudson on the prison hulk Dunkirk, the Thames 1785 My character has been marked down as very good. Sometimes I cannot help and I am troublesome. If I am marked down good again, I could be moved up deck. James Grace will sink lower if he carries on. He swills rum like a tinker, tells me it tastes like rag water. He has tongue enough for two sets of teeth and pretends he is a man, but I know he lies down with a molly for half his ration. I have my chain off now and am too fast for them. They have brought on women, given ‘em the top deck. They whine and cry and fight - rum vixens off their hooks. The overseer says we’ll sail to Bot’ny Bay New Wales and there work onshore all day. I am finished with chimneys the soot and the sores, and too big besides. I would gladly make shoes if a master would show me. James says we will be pardoned because of our age. He can’t be believed. He is a codshead, bad at sneaks and cracks, was caught three times by Runners. We have no fever on our deck they have it below us. I will ask to be chained to another boy.
Thomas Barrett on board the Charlotte, October 1787 A catch poll nabbed my father. A maker of tools and crippled bob pieces he learned me a fob is best done on the sly. I struck out on my own still young, working sneaks on Clerkenwell Road, up to High Holborn; as servants brushed steps I gutted houses, drew the King’s picture, was plump in the pocket till the day came for my own morning drop. Sent instead on a lag-ship for America, we convicts mutinied, made easy the crew. Yet I missed my dance again, now for Botany Bay. The surgeon summons me to his cabin, bids me engrave an image of the Charlotte, on his silver kidney dish, I draw for rations and kindness, for my own quiet, for I have run out of dice. I draw a ship, anchored at night.
Governor designate Arthur Phillip lands at Botany Bay, 18 January 1788 The coast of New South Wales sighted – a dream in heavy seas emerging then receding – morning, January third. Seven thousand miles of ocean in fifty one days, then a fortnight in the vice of easterlies, southerlies, holding us all the last leagues to Botany Bay. January eighteen, late afternoon. An open boat to the shore, Ruse, a Cornish convict, carries Lieutenant Dawes on his back to the beach, sets him down. Beyond the sands: marsh and swamp, trees half submerged, not the heathland and meadows Cook mentions at all. Some distance up the strand, a party of natives have emerged armed with lances taller than a man. They are without clothing, some wear white paint. One after another they cry, Waroo, waroo. I approach, tell them my name, pull from my pocket an eye-glass, red baize, bright beads, place them on the ground. One lays his lance down, takes up the beads, another the baize, I tie some around his arm, stand amongst them. They are tranquil, unoffending. I point to my ship in the distance show them through the eye glass. They repeat Waroo waroo and leave. I place some beads in the stern of their canoe.
Jane Fitzgerald, Sydney Cove, February 1788 Just the shine off them, the blackberries of home. Bread dipped in butter, and chestnuts and eels. My mouth is sore from fancying. But I am not at sea now. I have my rations without the pleasure of marines. They are ill-tempered. Vermin won’t leave them be. One who knew me on the Charlotte struck another for two words to me. He’s to be lashed for that. Won’t know his coat from his back. After that I will go into the woods lie all night in the dews with a highway robber. A mutinous man. We make free out here, of the land and the sea, of each other. Marriage means nothing. Seven or eight die each day. There is talk of taking men to some island weeks east. So red and rocky the earth so fevered men behave. They watch the lightning off the bay, or look behind the camp up-river, to China they say.
‘Crowley’s uncompromising, spirited and highly original collection addresses issues of exile, identity, class and rebellion, incorporating meditative lyrics on personal and political themes and visionary re-imaginings of the convict colonisation of Australia, triumphantly fulfilling his “impossible ambition” of entering history to give voice to the silenced and the dead.’
‘Michael Crowley’s debut collection is as wide ranging as it is ambitious. From a vivid re-enactment of the human drama of invasion and colonisation on the shores of New South Wales to an allotment in a Pennine hill town, First Fleet closes the gaps between time and continents, public and private histories, inhabiting place and memory with a whole heart and a commitment to the power and possibilities of language and form.’
‘“Why are we not somewhere else?” inquires Crowley. And here, with these astonishing poems, we are somewhere else, and indeed someone else, not to mention some when else. First, in the sequence First Fleet, we are in Sydney Cove, c.1788, a land where 'nature has come too far'; and in the sequence Time's Signature we are back here and back now where “England crumbles at the edges.” Either way, either where, Crowley is summoning a language, a language from somewhere else.’