TimJN1 – Bradshaw Art – Bradshaw rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, taken at a site off Kalumburu Road near the King Edward River. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

How should we be human?

After surviving, this must have been one of the first questions our earliest ancestors asked themselves. It might have been asked around the same time that they wondered where they had come from and how their part of the world originated. It seems likely that the stories they evolved to explain what we generally think of as ‘creation’ also included guidelines for living together and for coexisting with the animals, plants and natural phenomena of the planet.

This consciousness may have evolved around the same time as language and the ability to shape it into narratives that could be told by one to another – and another and another, in a multi-generational chain of tellings. When writing evolved, those stories, perhaps thousands of years old by then, could be written down. They were. The earliest written works we have are tales of unknowable forces, titanic beings and tectonic configurations of earth, sky, land and sea. They are also tales of interaction between gods, monsters, demigods, heroes and, eventually, everyday mortals.[1]

Creation stories were told probably by all peoples wherever they came together into communities to get on with the business of living and dying. As well as engaging with the unknowable cosmic conundrums plumbed by all origin myths and, later, by organised religions, people needed to develop ways of getting on and getting by. This meant figuring out what worked, what did not and agreeing on the rules for living together.

How should procreation be managed? The universal human problem of ensuring a degree of separation in the gene pool was worked out and encoded in stories.

What should be done with the aged? Despatched when they could no longer contribute to the tribe, clan, or supportive group in which they had lived out their lives? Or did they have something unique to provide to the group? Wisdom, perhaps?

What is fair, equitable? What is not? Who should decide, and how?

Evil? What did that consist of and how could it be avoided or otherwise managed?

The unknowable. In deep time, pretty well everything in the natural world and beyond – including death. And then what?

These, and other fundamentals, were dealt with through narratives – myths, legends, fables, ‘fairy’ tales, as we now term them. Not only were stories like these evolved, told, written and ultimately printed around the world, they tended to be remarkably similar to each other. Mystical beings made the world. Gods – or a god – ran the afterlife. Heroes brought fire, descended to the underworld, or slew monsters, mostly to the ultimate benefit of their people. A great flood drowned the earth. Evil spirits abounded. Devils and demons had to be outwitted. Animals, places and everything else had to be named and their characteristics accounted for. People did stupid things. People did wicked things. Sometimes they were held to account and received their just desserts. Often, whether saints or sinners, the protagonists of stories were transformed. Or not. Life not only had to be lived, it had to be storied. 

These processes, at once banal and profound, have been going on in storytelling since as long as we know.[2] As well as their speech, people hold onto the tales carried within their language. Many of these are carried on the tongue rather than the page. But even where oral communication has been largely replaced by print and visual media, the same old tales continue to be told in books, films, digital games. [3]

How old are these stories? The answer to that question may be ‘as old as time’, at least human time.

Using the Gaia space telescope, astronomers studying the constellations and how they appear in various mythologies across the world have recently added further evidence for the antiquity of story. The star pattern known as the Pleiades was the object of mythmaking in many ancient cultures, many of which refer to seven stars that make it up. Today, we can only see six stars, but 100 000 years ago, seven stars would have been visible, strongly suggesting that the Australian Aboriginal Seven Sisters songline, the Greek story of the seven daughters of Atlas and similar storylines in African, Native American and Asian traditions had their origins one hundred millennia ago.[4]

Could these stories possibly be true? Do they somehow record historical, or even pre-historical, events? 

The truth that western scholars sought, and mostly still do, is an objective reality based on verifiable evidence. That version is generally given in a linear sequence, originally through chronicles, later in histories, that present a more or less coherent narrative of events through time. But this is a very European notion. Elsewhere in the world, time is not streaming from past to present and into the future. 

The Australian Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ (a western attempt to describe it), like many other indigenous mythologies and spiritualities, exists in an ‘always-ever’ form in which these neat chronological divisions do not exist. The past is here now and the future is held in the past, all of which could well be happening right now. And is. I have been told by Aboriginal people of evil night beings who lurk at a particular location. The traditional owners of what is now known as ‘Nyungar country’ in Western Australia, will not go near that place after dark. 

Nor are stories of the past necessarily told through one voice or perspective. The people who migrated south through the tenth to thirteenth centuries into what is now Mexico evolved a culturally diplomatic form of storytelling that made space for the interpretations of different, previously warring groups who were now allied through intermarriage and common interest. When the stories of these people, who we know as ‘Aztecs’, were told, different speakers could stand up and tell their version of particular, usually traumatic, events. 

In these tellings, chronology had little purchase as stories flowed between different periods, often in what western scholars perceived as confusing repetition and so, as evidence of degraded or incoherent and fragmentary forms of oral transmission. Modern scholarship has revealed that repetition was a necessary feature of Aztec historical storytelling. Their historical truth was a communal, consensual one, a composite of the various and often conflictual meanings of what had happened to them.[5]

Humankind’s body of story remains in obscure publications and vast archives around the world, many of which are not even catalogued, let alone fathomed.[6] These narrative treasures, known and still unknown, are the fundamental cultural heritage of humanity. To allow them to languish is to abandon the roots of our being and the lessons they contain for living and dying on planet earth. Confronting though it may be, this is the human condition.

Scientists also speculate that the very act of telling stories, of whatever kind, is itself essential to being human and surviving. Our brains process stories, whether ‘true’ or ‘fictional’, in ways that we find compelling as we try and understand the world and our place in it. Through telling and retelling ‘the metanarrative of human culture spins a half-real, half-fictional reality’.[7] Through this reality we achieve empathy, the state that allows us to share and comprehend the emotions of others as presented in stories that rehearse the primalities of existence. Fundamentally, these are benefits of cooperating with each other and understanding the consequences of not doing so.[8]

It seems that we instinctively respond to the deep meanings within these narratives. Anthropologist and author David Bowles recounts how his study of the Nahuatl indigenous Mexican myth brought him to a sense of self through an understanding that the Aztec, and all humanity, inhabit ‘a liminal space between creation and destruction, order and chaos’, understanding this fundamental equilibrium  is ‘A gift bequeathed by the ancients to all of us, their biological and spiritual children alike.’[9] We can’t all learn to speak Nahuatl, but we can read the stories in translation and gain something of Bowles’s insight into self and the cosmos.

In keeping with the reworking of the past to present different views, traditional stories are frequently reinterpreted by fiction writers, especially from a feminist perspective. Psychologists and others involved in various forms of therapy are drawing on ancient traditions to help patients with a range of psychological, emotional and other problems.[10]

The meanings and purposes of the tales may differ between cultures, often in ways that outsiders cannot comprehend. But the global reverberation of the same narratives told across time and space resonates of common concerns beyond specific periods, places and storytellers. Story and storying confirm the essential oneness of human beings, now scientifically proven by genetics, with any two individuals differing by a negligible measure of DNA. [11]

* Referencing Deborah Bird Rose, Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture (1992)

[1] McCarthy, J., Sebo, E., & Firth, M. (2023). ‘Parallels for cetacean trap feeding and tread-water feeding in the historical record across two millennia’. Marine Mammal Science, 1– 12.

[2] Smith, D., Schlaepfer, P., Major, K. et al. ‘Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling’. Nat Commun 8, 1853 (2017).

[3] Claudia Schwabe (ed), The Fairy Tale and Its Uses in Contemporary New Media and Popular Culture, Special Issue of Humanities 2016, 5, 81; doi:10.3390/h5040081,, accessed June 2017.

[4] Efrosyni Boutsikas, Stephen C. McCluskey and John Steele (eds), Advancing Cultural Astronomy: Studies in Honour of Clive Ruggles, Springer International Publishing, 2021.

[5] Camilla Townsend, ‘How Aztecs Told History’, Aeon, and Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, Oxford University Press, New York, 2019.

[6] A case in point is the discovery of a field collection of tales made in Germany at the time the Grimms were busy elsewhere, see Franz Xaver von Schonwerth (Author), Erika Eichenseer (Editor), Engelbert Suss (Illustrator), Maria Tatar (Translator), The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, Penguin, 2015. Many of the stories are like those collected and/or anthologised by the Grimms, yet they are given without editing and are often darkly or perplexingly different to those that have become canonical through the unbalancing influence of the heavily edited tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

[7] Le Hunte, Bem & Golembiewski, ‘Stories have the power to save us: A neurological framework for the imperative to tell stories’, Arts and Social Sciences Journal, 5(2), January 2014.

[8] Singh, Manvir. “The Sympathetic Plot, Its Psychological Origins, and Implications for the Evolution of Fiction.” OSF Preprints, 23 June 2019. Web; Manvir Singh, ‘Orphans and Their Quests’, Aeon,

[9] David Bowles, ‘Learning Nahuatl, the Flower Song, and the Poetics of Life’, Aeon,

[10] The works of Carl Jung on ‘archetypes’ and of Joseph Campbell on the hero’s journey are the most influential. For other theories of heroic narrative and its significance see Robert A Segal (ed), In Quest of the Hero, Princeton University Press, 1990 for a survey of the main theories up to the 1990s.

[11] Gaia Vince, ‘Ancient Yet Cosmopolitan’, Aeon, The lack of genetic diversity in human populations also gives the lie to any pretence that Europeans are more intelligent, moral or more evolved than any other cultures.


The Conjuror, by Hieronymus Bosch and workshop, between 1496 and 1516. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most basic, yet also the potentially most sophisticated gambling games is generally known as the shell game. The game was played in Europe from at least the fifteenth century and has been in England from at least the last half of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century the game was known as thimblerigging, under which name it was exported to America in the late eighteenth century. It was subsequently adapted by American grifters and provided the basic structure of large-scale cons like those featured in films such as The Sting and the more recent Oceans 11 and Oceans 12 movies.

thimble was eighteenth century Cant for a watch, a watchmaker’s shop being a thimble-crib. Those who stole watches were known as thimble-getters or thimble-twisters. The latter word was also used to describe a thimble player, one who played the three shell game known as the thimble rig. At this time the game was usually played with thimbles and buttons, with peas and walnut shells coming into use a little later. 

Whatever the exact implements involved, the shell game had the same basic features. Usually three thimbles were displayed on a board or table, together with a pea that was regularly covered and uncovered by one of the thimbles as the operator moved them around. The location of pea was, at first, easy to follow, inducing the player to bet. When a bet was laid, instead of leaving the pea beneath the thimble, the operator secreted the pea in his fingers and won the bet. There were many variations of surprising sophistication on this basic theme, but the shell game was basically a simple gambling diversion that, with some practice and nimble-fingers could be easily rigged. As it was generally illegal, the basic equipment was conveniently easy to hide or discard should any authorities take an undue interest in the proceedings.

By the mid-nineteenth century, thimblerigging was commonplace. In an 1862 publication, Henry Mayhew and John Binny[1] described people who lived by deceitful games of chance as being amongst the criminal classes of those ‘who live by getting what they want given to them’. These flatcatchers and charley pitchers ‘live by low gaming – as thimblerig-men.’ Flatcatchers were those who swindled flats, or ordinary people, a term that would continue to be used to describe the general public in American Carny talk. Charley pitchers were thimbleriggers who deceived country folk, or charleys, in the terminology of the time, also called, as they still are, yokels

Mayhew and Binney also noted something of the deceptive character and magician-like skills of these coarse but effective swindlers. These swindlers were known as magsmenMagging was a term generally used to cover the diversity of small-scale but effective cons perpetrated on yokels and other gullibles at fairs, shows, race-tracks, markets and wherever else people gathered to trade, gawp or enjoy themselves. The games, or swindles, included thimble-rigging, but also pitch and tossskittlesthe three card trick, the E.O. stand and the cogged dice used by charley pitchers. Victims were steered or lured into the carefully contrived web of the maggers, lulled into a false sense of security and good cheer, then ruthlessly rooked (since the sixteenth century) for all they were worth.

Well over half a century before then, if not earlier, the shell game migrated to America where it operated much as it had in England and Europe. Wherever crowds gathered, especially at festive or entertainment events, such as fairs, horseracing tracks and travelling shows, the thimbleriggers gulled the unwary into parting with their money. By the nineteenth century these operators became a common feature of road shows, usually being separate from the performers and other show workers but travelling with the troupe under a variety of nefarious income-splitting arrangements with the management. They became known as grifters in the early twentieth century and had an extensive language, or argot, of their own which reflected and supported the elaborate con that the shell game had by then become.

The main form of the game, as described by Maurer[2] from his fieldwork from the 1930s, involved the inside man or dink spieler who operated the shells, an outside man who encouraged the mark, or victim, and a number of ropers who found other likely marks in the crowd and steered them towards the game. The other essential member of the mob was a stick handler whose job was to hire a few usually young naïve men from the town where the show was playing. These gullible accomplices, or sticks, were used to keep the game warm while the thimbleriggers waited for genuine new players to be attracted or shepherded into the game. Also known as shills or boosters, the sticks, would, at the clandestine command of the stick-handler, excite the crowd, or tip, into the possibility of winning a lot of money very easily.

Also known as spreading the store, or framing the gaff, the three-shell board was now set up for the rooking routine. Relying on a well-rehearsed patter called spieling the nuts, some sleight-of-hand and surreptitious signals to his various accomplices, the inside man began the first of three, or possibly four, well-defined stages of the scam. This phase of the routine, known as the convincer, involved marking in the prat, placing him directly in front of the board to show him how the game worked. One of the shills then made a bet and won, strongly suggesting that the game was easy to win.

The runaround stage that follows is similar, except that the shill now bets and loses. This is done in such a way as to make the mark think that he can see how the pea is manipulated beneath the shells. On signals, or offices, and communications in argot or cross fire, from the inside man to the stick-handler, the shills are slipped money to place bets rapidly and warm up the crowd. At this point the outside man, making sure he is standing next to the mark, suggests to him that it looks pretty easy once you can see how it is done, so why not make a bet? The mark does – and loses. Meanwhile the sticks boost the betting action along. At this point the outside man reassures the mark that he needs only to keep a closer eye on the pea in order to win and pulls a large amount of money out of his pocket. The mark has another go and this time wins.

Now the countdown begins. The outside man bets a small note and loses, putting away his money and asking to see the shells being moved again. Claiming that he can now see which shell the pea is under, the outside man prepares to bet again, being sure to ask the mark to hold down the shell while he gets his money out again. This time the inside man says that if he thinks he is sure where the pea is, would he be prepared to bet all his cash? Confidently, the outside man throws all his money down and the inside man covers his bet with a matching amount. The mark is still holding down the shell and is now asked to turn it over. 

Of course, the pea is there and the outside man has won a very large amount of money. He asks to try once again and offers to hold the shell for the mark if he wants to make another bet. At this point the stick handler distracts the inside man long enough for the outside man to quickly lift the shell far enough to show the mark where the pea is located. No chance of losing. The inside man immediately says to the mark that he will match his bet for all the cash he has. The mark bets his long dough, the shell is turned over but the pea is not there – the outside man has copped it while showing the mark the location of the pea, or giving him a flash peek. The mark is then considered whipped and leaves poorer but no wiser. There are a number of variations and additions for over-cautious marks, but the pea will never be where the mark thinks it should be whenever he or she bets their roll.

This scam was capable of fleecing hundreds and even thousands of dollars a day from the gullible and greedy. At the end of the day the shell mob retired to the privilege car, a special vehicle kept by the show’s management for grifters, often supplying alcohol and gambling opportunities. Here the takings were divided up. The management took 60%, from which they paid 10% to the patch, one employed by the show to fix the necessary arrangements with the local authorities. The inside and outside men got 20% apiece and the stick handler received wages. As one old shell game artist told Maurer, ‘They never pay out jack to a booster, just fill them full of lemonade and popcorn and sometimes promise them a lay with one of the showgirls, but that never happens …’.

[1] Mayhew, Henry & Binny, John, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life (The Great World of London), London, 1862. 

[2] Maurer, David W, Language of the Underworld, collected and edited by A Futrell and C Wordell, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1981.

Mything in Action – The Thylacine Files

Recent research has turned up more fascinating facts and exposed a hoary myth about the last Thylacine, or ‘Tasmanian Tiger’. What the researchers had to say about their discovery of the skin of the last of these mythic beasts and the ‘bullsh..t’ that the animal was a male named ‘Benjamin’ is related at the link below. A small case study of how misinformation and myth arises and persists.


When transportation to the American colonies ceased after the War of Independence, British goals soon overflowed with prisoners. This situation soon created a new form of penal horror

To ease the pressure on prisons the government allowed old ships to be anchored in the River Thames (and at Portsmouth, Plymouth and elsewhere) to hold prisoners awaiting banishment across the seas. These ‘hulks’ were supposed to be a stopgap measure, but like many temporary arrangements they became permanent. Many prisoners would endure years aboard the rotting hulks, doing hard labour on the docks and in the naval arsenals, until they were finally transported.

The Dunkirk hulk moored at Plymouth was notorious even before the First Fleet set sail. Prisoners were sometimes without any clothing and in 1784 the abuse of the female convicts by the marine guards led to a ‘Code of Orders’ that were supposed to protect the women. Mary Bryant, later an almost successful escapee from Port Jackson, was held on the Dunkirk before sailing with the First Fleet. She became pregnant on the hulk.

Conditions aboard the Leviathan hulk at Portsmouth in the 1820s were better, but designed to strip convicts of whatever dignity they retained and subdue them into the system:

 ‘…this vessel was an ancient ’74 [1774] which, after a gallant career in carrying the flag of England over the wide oceans of the navigable world, had come at last to be used for the humiliating service of housing convicts awaiting transportation over those seas. She was stripped and denuded of all that makes for a ship’s vanity. Two masts remained to serve as clothes props, and on her deck stood a landward conceived shed which seemed to deride the shreds of dignity which even a hulk retains.’.

The prisoners were taken aboard and ‘paraded on the quarter-deck of the desecrated old hooker, mustered and received by the captain. Their prison irons were then removed and handed over to the jail authorities, who departed as the convicts were taken to the forecastle. There every man was forced to strip and take a thorough bath, after which each was handed out an outfit consisting of coarse grey jacket, waistcoat and trousers, a round-crowned, broad-brimmed felt hat, and a pair of heavily nailed shoes. The hulk’s barber then got to work shaving and cropping the polls of every mother’s son.’ Fettered and shaven prisoners were then marched below ‘where they were greeted with roars of ironic welcome from the convicts already incarcerated there’. The lower deck was a prison of wooden cells, each one holding between fifteen and twenty convicts.[i]

Edward Lilburn, a pipe-maker from Lincoln, described his experience of the Woolwich hulks around 1840:

‘I was led to think there was something dreadful in the punishment I had to undergo, but my heart sank within me on my arrival here, for almost the first thing I saw was a gang of my fellow unfortunates, chained together working like horses. I was completely horror-struck, but every hour serves now to increase my misery; I was taken to the Blacksmith and had my irons, the badge of infamy and degradation rivetted upon me, my name being registered and my person described in the books of the ship; I was taken to my berth, and here new sufferings presented themselves, as the great arrival of convicts had crowded the ship so much, that three of us have but one bed, and this the oldest prisoner claims as his own; our berth is so small, we have no room to lie at length, thus I passed a wretched, a half sleepless night, at the dawn of day we have a wretched breakfast of skilley, in which I cannot partake, and though suffering dreadfully from hunger I subsist wholly on my dinner, at present live on one meal a day!!’

Lilburn had the cheek to complain but was told that he was ‘brought here for punishment and that I must submit to my fate.’ He finished with a warning: ‘Whether I speak of my present situation in reference to daily labour, daily food, or the rigorous severity of the system under which I suffer, I can say, if there is a Hell on earth, it is a convict-ship. Let every inhabitant of the City and County of Lincoln know the Horrors of Transportation, that they may keep in the path of virtue, and happily avoid a life like mine of indescribable misery.’[ii]

After 1844 convicts were transported directly from the prisons where they were held rather than being sent first to the hulks. But the old ships still operated as gaols. By the time the journalists and social reformers Stephen Mayhew and John Binney visited the Thames hulks in the early 1860s, public outcry against the conditions and horrors of the hulks as described by Lilburn and others had already brought about reforms to the system, allegedly at least. Mayhew described conditions aboard the hospital ship Unité just a few years earlier in 1849:

‘… the great majority of the patients were infested with vermin; and their persons, in many instances, particularly their feet, begrimed with dirt. No regular supply of body-linen had been issued; so much so, that many men had been five weeks without a change; and all record had been lost of the time when the blankets had been washed; and the number of sheets was so insufficient, that the expedient had been resorted to of only a single sheet at a time, to save appearances. Neither towels nor combs were provided for the prisoners’ use, and the unwholesome odour from the imperfect and neglected state of the water-closets was almost insupportable. On the admission of new cases into the hospital, patients were directed to leave their beds and go into hammocks, and the new cases were turned into the vacated beds, without changing the sheets.’[iii]

Mayhew and Binney interviewed one of the warders who served under the previous ‘hulk regime’ who said that ‘he well remembers seeing the shirts of the prisoners, when hung out upon the rigging, so black with vermin that the linen positively appeared to have been sprinkled over with pepper…’. By the time this survey was conducted there was regular medical treatment available, a lending library, education for the man who could not read or barely so. The food provided had also improved dramatically, at least according to the regulations:

‘We now followed the chief warder below, to see the men at breakfast. “Are the messes all right ?” he called out as he reached the wards.
“Keep silence there! keep silence!” shouted the officer on duty.

The men were all ranged at their tables with a tin can full of cocoa before them, and a piece of dry bread beside them, the messmen having just poured out the cocoa from the huge tin vessel in which he received it from the cooks; and the men then proceed to eat their breakfast in silence, the munching of the dry bread by the hundreds of jaws being the only sound heard.’

Each prisoner received a breakfast of twelve ounces of bread and a pint of cocoa. For dinner they were allowed six ounces of meat, a pound of potatoes and nine ounces of bread, for supper a pint of gruel with six ounces of bread. Wednesdays, Mondays, and Fridays were ‘Soup Days’, when the dinner was a pint of soup, five ounces of meat, a pound of potatoes, and nine ounces of bread.

For punishment, the luckless convict was reduced to a pound of bread and water each day. Those on the sick list were fed a pint of gruel and nine ounces of bread for breakfast, dinner, and supper. But an enhanced diet was given to the very sick, as the master of the hospital told the journalists:

‘The man so bad, up-stairs, has 2 eggs, 2 pints of arrowroot and milk, 12 ounces of bread, 1 ounce of butter, 6 ounces of wine, 1 ounce of brandy, 2 oranges, and a sago pudding daily. Another man here is on half a sheep’s head, 1 pint of arrowroot and milk, 4 ounces of bread, 1 ounce of butter, 1 pint extra of tea, and 2 ounces of wine daily.’

The trades and occupations of convicts in the 1850s included carpenters, blacksmiths, painters, sawyers, coopers, rope makers, bookbinders, shoemakers, tailors, washers and cooks, even the occasional doctor. Convicts received ‘gratuities’ for the quality of their work and general conduct. They wore badges which indicated their duration of sentence, period in the hulks and levels of good or bad behavior, updated monthly, the details entered into the ‘character book’ of each hulk.

Mayhew also described the work performed by those whose labor was now at the control of the state.

‘The work of the hulk convicts ‘is chiefly labourers’ work, such as loading and unloading vessels, moving timber and other materials, and stores, cleaning out ships, &c., at the dockyard; whilst at the royal arsenal the prisoners are employed at jobs of a similar description, with the addition of cleaning guns and shot, and excavating ground for the engineer department.’

Mayhew saw the working parties in the dockyards:

‘… only the strongest men are selected for the coal-gang, invalids being put to stone-breaking. In the dockyard there are still military sentries attached to each gang of prisoners. We glanced at the parties working, amid the confusion of the dockyard, carrying coals, near the gigantic ribs of a skeleton ship, stacking timber, or drawing carts, like beasts of burden. Now we came upon a labouring party, near a freshly pitched gun-boat, deserted by the free labourers, who had struck for wages, and saw the well-known prison brown of the men carrying timber from the saw-mills. Here the officer called – as at the arsenal – “All right, sir!” Then there were parties testing chain cables, amid the most deafening hammering. It is hard, very hard, labour the men are performing.’

Most closely regulated of all was convict time. From the moment of waking – 5.30 in summer, half an hour later in winter – the prisoners of the hulks ate, worked, washed and prayed to a strict timetable. All were in their beds or hammocks at 9pm.

This strictly regulated world of servitude, obedience and hard labour was an essential element of the larger penal transportation system of the British empire. It lasted for centuries

Adapted from Great Convict Stories from

[i] James Tucker, (‘Giacomo Rosenberg’), The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh: A Penal Exile in Australia1825-1844.First published in 1929, though thought to have been written in the 1840s.

[ii] A Complete Exposure of the Convict System. Horrors, Hardships, and Severities, Including an Account of the Dreadful Sufferings of the Unhappy Captives. Containing an Extract from a Letter from the Hulks at Woolwich, written by Edward Lilburn, Pipe-Maker, late of Lincoln, from a broadside in the Mitchell Library (Ferguson 3238).

[iii] Henry Mayhew, John Binney and Benno Loewy, The criminal prisons of London, and scenes of prison life, London, Griffin Bohn, 1862. p. 200.


The Way to Kukuanaland, from King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Eça de Queiroz

A sturdy figure clothed in leather stumbles through the mostly unknown wilderness of southern Africa’s Transvaal in 1865.A revolver, compass, sextant, hunting knife and tin bowl dangle from the man’s belt. He cradles a double-barrelled rifle in his hands and a blanket slung over his shoulder – poorly equipment for his dangerous quest. 

Since boyhood, Karl Mauch had been fascinated with faraway places and lost kingdoms. He spent his youth studying and acquiring the skills needed to pursue a life of adventurous archaeology – languages, mapping, minerology, history. While still young, Mauch decided he was ready to find the lost city of Ophir.

He arrives by ship in South Africa in 1865. Supporting himself as best he can he explores and maps the Transvaal. In 1866, accompanied by the English elephant hunter ,Henry Hartley, Mauch visits and maps the region between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers. He also hears many tales from Hartley about ancient gold mines and lost cities. The following year, now travelling alone, the German explorer discovers a number of old gold smelting works and fields in Mashonaland. He also discovers rich gold deposits near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border.

In 1868, still following his dreams, Mauch is kidnapped by the Matabele and is lucky to survive.  He makes a brief trip in early 1869 and finds indications of gold along a tributary of the Zambezi. He has no further funds until 1870 when he travels in a leaky boat along the Vaal River in another epic journey of hardship and survival. Again, the following year he sets out to find an ancient city he believes lies beyond the Limpopo River. He is robbed by natives and left with nothing. Starving and on the verge of suicide he is rescued by another group of Africans and comes into contact with the enigmatic German American hunter, Adam Render(s).

After an adventurous life in the bush and as a soldier, Renders had deserted his family a few years earlier and was living with the Shona people. He takes Mauch in and guides him to some ruins he stumbled across in 1867. After examining the broken stones and talking with the local population, Mauch concludes that he has found the mysterious golden city of Ophir and so, King Solomon’s mines.

The city or region of Ophir is mentioned in the Bible and other early religious texts as a source of great wealth. According to the story, Ophir (various spellings) was the foundation of King Solomon’s riches. He was surrounded by an excess of gold and dispensed justice and wisdom to his people. Every three years Solomon received a shipment of silver, ivory, sandalwood, jewels and gold from Ophir, along with apes and peacocks. All these things were greatly prized in the ancient world and are the origins of what would become the legend of King Solomon’s mines.

Of course, no one knew where the mines were located. Until the early sixteenth century when a member of Vasco de Gama’s 1502 voyage to India, Tome Lopes, claimed to have found them. Lopes saw the astonishing ruins of Great Zimbabwe and decided that this must have been the region called Ophir. He wrote a report of his adventures and ideas that circulated widely in Portugal and elsewhere, popularising the idea that Ophir and therefore its wealthy mines must be in southern Africa rather than the middle east. 

The rush was on. Expeditions of hopeful treasure hunters flocked to the unknown continent. Maps appeared showing the alleged location of the treasure trove. The legend grew. By the time Karl Mauch was seduced by the golden mystery Ophir and King Solomon’s mines were perhaps the world’s best-known lost treasure legend. 

After his hard-won find, Mauch returned to Germany expecting, with some justification, to be hailed as a great adventurer, mapmaker and archaeologist. He was not. Without formal qualifications he was unable to gain an academic or museum post. He briefly took part in an expedition to Central America in 1874 but was only able to find work back in Germany as a foreman in a cement factory. His health failed and just before his thirty-eighth birthday he somehow managed to fall from his first-floor window while sleeping. He died a few days later.[i] The legend claimed yet another hopeful soul.[ii]

Karl Mauch had not found the fabled city of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, nor the King’s gold. But he had found a much greater treasure. The city of Great Zimbabwe was erected  during the 11th century and grew to be an important trading hub in the 13th century. By the time the Portuguese arrived 300 years later, the city had been abandoned. No one knows why. Another enduring mystery in its own right.

Solomon’s mines and Ophir remained in the mists of myth but the existence of Great Zimbabwe’s ancient architecture, together with the real riches being extracted from southern Africa, fuelled belief in the mines. The legend received its greatest boost with the publication of ‘the most amazing book ever written’ in 1885. H  Rider Haggard’s boys’ own adventure titled, of course, King Solomon’s Mines.

Haggard was an old Africa hand. He was familiar with the local traditions of lost treasures and Mauch’s quest, as well as the Biblical story of Ophir. Perhaps the greatest best seller of the nineteenth century, and still in print, Haggard’s romance and its many spinoffs in popular literature and movies have kept the notion of King Solomon’s mines in the public consciousness ever since. The fabled mines are regularly ‘found’ though the claims are just as regularly debunked.[iii]

But, of course, the quest continues. 

Mauch’s drawing of Great Zimbabwe

[i] C Plug, ‘Mauch, Mr Karl’ in S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science,, accessed March 2016.

[ii] ‘Karl Mauch’ in National Geographic Deutschland, accessed March 2016; F O Bernhard (ed and trans), Karl Mauch: African Explorer, C Struik, Capetown, 1971.

[iii] James D Muhly ‘Solomon the Copper King: A Twentieth Century Myth’ in Expedition, vol 29, no 2, 1987, pp. 38-47.


Map by Henry Mangles Denham (1832)

Thomas Benson was born into a substantial merchant family in Devon in 1708. He inherited some ships and resources at his father’s death and embarked on a career of legitimate trading supplemented by piracy and smuggling. By the late 1740s Benson was in a position to lease the island of Lundy, around ten miles off the Devon coast, for sixty pounds a year. This enabled him to land tobacco from America and smuggle it to the mainland, avoiding the duty payable.

Benson also obtained a government contract to transport convicts to Maryland. He had a clever scheme in mind. Instead of taking the convicts across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colony, for which the government paid him twenty pounds a head, he simply offloaded them on Lundy. Here they were forced to work on improvements to the island’s infrastructure and assist with the tobacco-smuggling operation. The convicts were boarded in the castle keep and worked around the island in chains. A group of seven or eight managed to reach the mainland in the island’s boat, vanishing into oblivion. But their unfortunate companions remained to labour on the island. 

It was a scheme of criminal genius and worked like a charm – until Benson unwisely took some house guests to Lundy, including the Sheriff of Somerset, to show off his enterprise. The Sheriff was not impressed with Benson’s claim that he was only obliged to transport convicts off mainland Britain and not all the expen­sive way to the Americas. He was prosecuted, but unsuccessfully. So imprecise and contradictory were the laws governing transportation that his feeble excuse was accepted. 

To this point Benson appeared not to have been much more scheming than many other traders of the time. But he would eventually distinguish himself as a criminal exploiter of the worst kind. His plan was devious and audacious. Deep in debt, Benson now planned a bold insurance scam. He indemnified his oldest and leakiest ship, the Nightingale, together with its cargo and crew, for as much as the insurance company would bear. Suborning his upright but needy Captain Lancey and a crew of sea-going desperadoes, Benson had them ready the Nightingale for sea in the summer of 1752. Her cargo was an unremarkable mix of salt, cloth, pewter and cutlery, along with a mysterious ‘hogshead of dry goods’. 

As well, there were twelve men and three women, all in chains, the men in pairs and the women together. Brought down from Exeter Gaol, the miserable convicts were bound for transportation to Maryland. From Bristol they sailed straight to Lundy where most of the cargo was illegally unloaded and the crew bribed to keep quiet about their part in this act and in what was to follow. 

After a couple of nights trans-shipping the cargo to the island, an operation kept concealed from the convicts, the Nightingale put to sea. About eighty kilo­metres west they encountered the Charming Nancy out of Philadelphia. After the customary exchange of pleasantries, the American ship continued on her way and Lancey initiated the next stage of the scheme. 

The ship’s boat was readied and two sailors were ordered to break open the hogshead of dried goods. It was filled with small barrels of tar and oakum soaked in tar. The black tar was spread around in the hold and a hole cut between that area and the bread room or pantry. A hole was drilled below the waterline and stopped with a marlinspike. A lighted candle was then pushed through the hole into the hold where it ignited the tar. And then the marlinspike was pulled out. The Nightingale was afire.

The crew then pretended to put out the fire, making as much noise as possible to attract the attention of the Charming Nancy. While all this was taking place, the hapless convicts remained in chains. Lancey loudly accused them of starting the fire and moved them towards the waiting ship’s boat. Everyone clambered into the lifeboat, the convicts protesting their innocence. By now the American ship had sighted the smoke and swung around to pick up the Nightingale’s boat. A few hours later another ship took them aboard and brought them all safely ashore at Clovelly. From here, Lancey was able to quickly return to Benson’s house.

Surprised by this unexpectedly early return of his co-conspirators, willing and otherwise, Benson insisted that the captain and the crew sign affidavits attesting that the fiery fate of the Nightingale was an accident. But it was in vain. One of the crew drank too much and boasted of the deed in Barnstaple one market day where plenty of eager ears heard the true story. One of Benson’s rivals bribed the sailor to confess. Lancey was arrested and the crew began to turn themselves in to the authorities. Eventually the captain and one of the sailors were examined by the Judge of the Admiralty, as was the custom then. Lancey refused to give evidence against Benson, despite being promised clemency. The two men were committed for trial.

Meanwhile, Benson attempted to ensure through various legal and financial ploys that the true story did not come out in court and so reveal the extent of his debt. None of these were successful and he was eventually judged to owe over £8,000, an enormous sum in those days. Unable to pay, his property was seized and in December he fled to Portugal where he had family business connections.

Lancey and two of the crew were tried at the Court of the Admiralty in February 1754. The unlucky captain was found guilty and sentenced to death. He seems to have accepted his fate without rancour for any of his co-conspirators, even Benson. He prayed day and night for two days leading up to his execution and ‘to his last hour, behaved with a steadiness and composure, very seldom seen on the like solemn occasion’. Lancey was hanged at Wapping on 17 June 1754. Benson soon revived his business in Portugal, courtesy of his captain’s misplaced loyalty. Threatened with extradition, he fled to Spain. But his crimes were soon forgotten as Britain went to war with France once again and Benson returned to Portugal where he lived until his death in 1772. 

The fate of the island convict colony is unknown. Research into initials carved into the walls of what is now known as ‘Benson’s Cave’, quarried into shale beneath the castle keep, provides only the barest hints of who these people were. They seem to have been transported from Exeter in two groups, the first in 1749 and the second group on the Nightingale a few years later. It is assumed the authorities arranged for the men and women to continue their interrupted voyage to Maryland to serve out whatever remained of their original sentences. 

From Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britain’s Empire


The lost folk custom of ‘tin kettling’ welcomed many newly married couples into rural communities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Tin kettling, or sometimes ‘tin tattling’, is the name by which this widespread marriage custom was known in Australia. It usually took place after the bride and groom had retired to wherever they were going to spend their first night of wedded bliss. Allowing them enough time to settle down, the rowdier youths and younger men of the area gathered near the premises equipped with kerosene tins, pots, pans, maybe a concertina or anything else that made a lot of noise. At the agreed moment they began beating on their noisemakers, catcalling and often throwing stones onto the roof of the marital residence. 

With variations, this animated custom was practiced in western Europe, Britain and America. In Germany and in the Barossa Valley it was known as ‘polterabend’, in America as a ‘tin kettle band’ or a ‘Dutch band’ and sometimes as a ‘shivaree’. It seems to have been mostly observed in rural communities and can best be thought of as a humorous welcoming of the newlyweds into what were usually small communities. A more recent, though now probably defunct, custom of tying tin cans and other decorations to the newlyweds’ car as they leave for their honeymoon may be an echo of the earlier tradition.

Reactions to the tin kettling experience varied. In some places, particularly but not exclusively where German people had settled, it was an honour to be tin kettled at your wedding and considered a mark of respect for the bride and groom as well as a sign of community approval for the union. Sometimes, the couple subjected to this rough music were expected to invite the noisy revellers into the house for a cup of tea, or perhaps something stronger. Not that the tin kettlers were likely to need much more alcohol following the earlier wedding festivities.

But not everyone enjoyed being tin kettled. According to one writer on the subject ‘performance invariably gives dire offence to the parties, whom it is intended to honour’. It could also  easily become a public as well as a personal nuisance if it were kept up for a long time, as it sometimes was. But usually, there was little point in complaining as ‘Tis a custom of the country, and therefore to be winked at by the police’, according to one observer. [i]

While the ceremony had its cosier aspects, it could also become a scene of crime, as frequently reported in newspapers from the 1850s. 

Yesterday several charges of assault were brought before the bench. The two first were Sarah Bailey v. Samuel Clift, and Sarah Bailey v. Thomas Wise. These charges arose out of the fact that a number of young men assembled opposite Mr. Bailey’s house on the 10th instant, to keep up the ancient but disagreeable practice of ushering in a wedding by unmusical noises, beating tin kettles, smacking stockwhips, etc. ; Mrs. Bailey not approving this, went out and tried to disperse them, and words proving ineffectual, she tried a whip, but was obliged to give it up, and as she retreated, she stated she was struck by some bones on the back, thrown by the young men, and by a stock-whip lash curling round her …

Clift and Bone were charged. Clift was able to provide witnesses who testified that Mrs Bailey gave at least as good as she got with her whip. He got off. His mate was charged with throwing the bones, probably marrow bones as these were often part of the custom. He was not so lucky and had to pay two shillings and sixpence in costs or go to prison for a month.[ii]

A few years later in Avoca, Victoria:

Complaints having been made to the Inspector of Police, that several persons have been insulted on the  occasion of their marriage- by a number of people calling at their dwellings, and hooting, shouting, and playing on tin kettles &c, before the said persons dwellings, very much to the annoyance of those persons and other inhabitants of the township …

Local police wasted no time in issuing a stern warning:

… this is to give notice that this is insulting behaviour, whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned, and is punishable under the 16th of Victoria, No.22, clause 5. The Inspector has given instructions to the constables of this district to arrest all such persona who may be found so offending. — Hugh Ross Barclay, Inspector Police Department, Avoca, 26th September, 1859.[iii]

Some reports from South Australia detail more serious lawbreaking. At Marrabel in 1871 four local youths set up a tin kettling of some newlyweds in the traditional manner. But things soon got out of hand. They took to breaking windows and  began destroying the window frames. The groom reported the incident and three of the offenders were brought to court. They escaped conviction with a published apology, legal expenses and twenty pound’s compensation to the complainant.

At Baker’s Swamp, New South Wales, tin kettlers made such a nuisance of themselves in 1903 that an enraged relative of the newlyweds sent them reeling with a shotgun blast.[iv] The same year a man was stabbed at a tin kettling near Bethany, South Australia, where ‘The gathering of tinkettler’s was an extremely noisy and rowdy one, and much larrikinism was in evidence’.[v] That tin kettling saw no less than 31 ‘persons’ charged with disturbing the peace.

There are frequent references to these events around the country from the mid- nineteenth century. If caught, perpetrators were usually charged with disturbing the peace and given relatively small fines, as at Casterton, Victoria, where six young boys were each fined two shillings and sixpence in default of six hours imprisonment.[vi]

It seems likely that tin kettling was disrupted by World War 1 when many young men went away to fight. In some areas it continued into the 1940s then faded away, though there are recent signs of a revival of sorts. Recalling tales of tin kettling on the Darling Downs told by her German grandparents during the 1930s and 40s, ‘Jo’ and a few mates tin kettled a friend on her birthday a couple of years ago. It was during a COVID lockdown but everyone had a great socially distanced time out on the grass in front of the surprised birthday girl’s house. She was ‘very surprised and quite touched as well’.[vii]

[i] Geoffrey H Manning A colonial experience, 1838-1910 : a woman’s story of life in Adelaide, the District of Kensington and Norwood together with reminiscences of colonial life, Gillingham Printers, Adelaide, 2001.

[ii] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 16 June 1852, p. 2.

[iii] The Age (Melbourne), 5 October 1859, p. 4.

[iv] Wellington Times, 22 January 1903, p. 4.

[v] The Advertiser (Adelaide), 11 September 1903, p. 7.

[vi] The Argus, 14 October 1903,  p. 6.

[vii] ‘Jo’, Momentous blog, National Museum of Australia,, accessed September 2022.


Little Red Riding Hood by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1911. From the book A Child’s Book of Stories. (Public domain via Wikipedia Commons)

Achille Millien (1838-1927) was a French poet with a strong interest in folklore. Around 1885 he collected ‘The Grandmother’s Story’ from the brothers Briffflaut in the central French department of Nievre. The tale they told was a rustic version of Red Riding Hood, without the hood but with the sexual and cannibalistic undertones of a folk tale rather than a fairy tale:

There was a woman who had made some bread. She said to her daughter: “Go carry this hot loaf and bottle of milk to your granny.”

So the little girl departed. At the crossway she met bzou, the werewolf, who said to her: “Where are you going?”

“I’m taking this hot loaf and bottle of milk to my granny.”

“What path are you taking.” said the werewolf, “the path of needles or the path of pins?”

“The path of needles,” the little girl said.

“All right, then I’ll take the path of pins.”

The little girl entertained herself by gathering needles.

Meanwhile the werewolf arrived at the grandmother’s house, killed her, and put some of her meat in the cupboard and a bottle of her blood on the shelf. The little girl arrived and knocked at the door. 

“Push the door,” said the werewolf, “It’s barred by a piece of wet straw.”

“Good day, granny. I’ve brought you a hot loaf of bread and a bottle of milk.”

“Put it in the cupboard, my child. Take some of the meat which is inside and the bottle of wine on the shelf.”

After she had eaten, there was a little cat which said: “Phooey!… A slut is she who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her granny.”

“Undress yourself, my child,” the werewolf said, “And come lie down beside me.”

“Where should I put my apron?”

“Throw it into the fire, my child, you won’t be needing it any more.”

And each time she asked where she should put all her other clothes, the bodice, the dress, the petticoat, the long stockings, the wolf responded:

“Throw them into the fire, my child, you won’t be needing  them anymore.”

When she laid herself down in the bed, the little girl said:

“Oh granny, how hairy you are!”

“The better to keep myself warm, my child!”

“Oh granny, what big nails you have!”

“The better to scratch me with, my child!”

“Oh granny, what big shoulders you have!”

“The better to carry the firewood, my child!”

“Oh granny, what big ears you have!”

“The better to hear you with, my child!”

“Oh granny, what big nostrils you have!”

“The better to snuff my tobacco with, my child!”

“Oh granny, what a big mouth you have!”

“The better to eat you with, my child!”

“Oh granny, I have to go badly. Let me go outside.”

“Do it in the bed, my child!”

“Oh no, granny, I want to go outside.”

“All right, but make it quick.”

The werewolf attached a woolen rope to her foot and let her go outside.

When the little girl was outside, she tied the end of the rope to a plum tree in the courtyard. The werewolf became impatient and said: “Are you making a load out there? Are you making a load?”

When he realized that nobody was answering him, he jumped out of bed and saw that the little girl had escaped. He followed her but arrived at her house just at the moment she entered.[i]

The Briffault brothers were master storytellers, as the cliff-hanging ending of this version shows.

[i] Known as ‘The Story of Grandmother’, this was published in Paul Delarue, “Les Contes marveilleux de Perrault et la tradition populaire”, Bulletin Folklorique de l’Ile-de-France 1951, 221-2. See also an Asian/African version, ‘The Wolf and the Seven Kids’, in Maria Tatar, The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism, 2nd edn. W W Norton, New York, 2017.


Japanese drawing of one of the Cyprus convicts

The stench from the ship was ‘unbearable’. But the Samurai disguised as a fisherman had no choice but to board the strange vessel that appeared near Mugi on Shikoku Island in January 1830. Japan was closed to foreign shipping and the local authorities were anxious to know what had just arrived on their shores.

The secret Samurai took careful note of what he saw and heard. The ship was crewed by a rag-tag bunch of foreigners with long noses, strange gaudy clothing and a small object they stuck in their mouths, lit and inhaled. They had a dog that the Samurai thought did not look like food and were clearly in some distress, pleading for water and firewood, though not food.[i] An alcoholic drink was offered, though the Samurai declined and went back to report to his commander. After considerable discussion, the Japanese decided that the men on the strange ship were pirates and should be destroyed.

In fact, the men were escaped convicts. They had mutinied aboard the brig Cyprus in Recherche Bay, Van Diemen’s Land, five months earlier. The overcrowded brig was carrying around thirty ironed prisoners to the dreaded Macquarie Harbour penal station but became storm bound for a week during which the convicts plotted a mutiny. Four were able to seize the ship. They unchained their fellow transports and then sent ashore any who did not want to join them, along with the soldiers, sailors and civilian passengers. Forty-four were cast away on the beach and later rescued through the bravery of one of the convicts marooned with them. One of them was a convict named William Pobjoy, who had deserted the mutineers in favour of the castaways. He would play a crucial role near the end of an epic tale.

The eighteen convicts still aboard the Cyprus sailed boldly into the Pacific Ocean for a life of piracy and plunder. Their only experienced sailor was a man who named himself for a free-flying bird, William Swallow. His real name was William Walker, though he had a long list of other criminal aliases and a colourful record. Born in 1792, Walker was transported for stealing, arriving in Van Diemen’s Land in 1829. The records describe him as nearing five foot nine inches in height with brown hair, blue eyes and a small scar across his nose and chin. He was married with three children.[ii] He escaped back to England, where he was eventually recaptured and tried under an alias, escaping a likely death sentence for returning from transportation. Back in Van Diemen’s Land, he again attempted to escape, for which crime he was being sent to Macquarie Harbour aboard the Cyprus.

Now William Swallow and his companions were praying for the Japanese to stop firing on their bedraggled vessel. They had been given a few days to leave but a lack of wind prevented their departure. This delay gave the Japanese time to confirm that the ship was British, and so, a legitimate target. Their warning ‘hail of cannon and musketoon balls’ became a fusillade of cannon balls aimed at the waterline. Two smashed into the ship. There was nothing for William Swallow and the other convicts to do but pray. Their prayers were answered when the Japanese decided to help them out with some advice about the weather and winds, allowing them to set sail and drift away to sea. After dusk the Japanese heard the strains of ‘a strange pipe and singing’ from the Cyprus as it floated away to China.[iii]

Without much experience as navigators they managed to reach China, losing only one man overboard. Three more departed the crew and in February 1830, the remaining mutineers scuttled the Cyprus and took to the ship’s boat with the aim of pretending they were shipwrecked sailors. The authorities in Canton believed their lies and the convicts scattered. Some headed for America never to be heard from again, but Swallow and three others sailed for England. 

While they were in transit, news of the mutiny on the Cyprus reached Canton and one of the convicts who had remained there confessed to the crime. A fast ship carried the news to England and when Swallow and his accomplices arrived there six days later the authorities were waiting. Swallow managed to escape but was later recaptured. Not only did Swallow tell convincing lies about how the other fugitives had forced him to sail the Cyprus, but Pobjoy was now in London and prepared to testify against them. Two of Swallow’s accomplices were hanged but he escaped the noose by convincing the court that he acted under intimidation and navigated the ship to save himself. He was found not guilty of piracy and sentenced to serve out the remainder of his sentence. For the third time, he sailed to Van Diemen’s Land and arrived at the destination of his original voyage – two years late. He died in 1834 at another notorious prison a few years after returning to penal servitude. William Walker alias, among other names, William Swallow, was laid to rest in an unmarked grave on the Isle of the Dead, the Port Arthur cemetery.

The sensational story of the mutiny and subsequent voyage of the Cyprus inspired a defiant ballad that vividly put the prisoner’s point of view and added another item to the clandestine traditions of convict underculture. 

Come all you sons of Freedom, a chorus join with me, 
I’ll sing a song of heroes, and glorious liberty. 
Some lads condemned from England sail’d to Van Diemen’s Shore, 
Their Country, friends and parents, perhaps never to see more.

Unlike the official view of the escape, the convicts knew Bill Swallow and his runaway mates had indeed made it to Japan:

… For Navigating smartly Bill Swallow was the man, 
Who laid a course out neatly to take us to Japan.

These triumphant verses of convict revenge concluded:

Then sound your golden trumpets, play on your tuneful notes, 
The Cyprus brig is sailing, how proudly now she floats. 
May fortune help the Noble lads, and keep them ever free 
From Gags, and Cats, and Chains, and Traps, and Cruel Tyranny.[iv]

Even as late as the 1960s an elderly Tasmanian could sing a version of this ballad to a visiting folklorist and it can still occasionally be heard today performed by revival folksingers. It was one of many similar ballads in the underground repertoire of convicts.

From Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britain’s Empire

Book Details

[i] They had plenty, as the Cyprus was provisioned to supply the penal station.

[ii] ‘William Swallow’, Convict records at, accessed April 2019, citing Australian Joint Copying Project. Microfilm Roll 89, Class and Piece Number HO11/6, Page Number 538.

[iii] Joshua Robertson, ‘Australian Convict Pirates in Japan: Evidence of 1830 Voyage Unearthed’, The Guardian, 28 May 2017 at, accessed August 2018.

[iv] John Mulvaney, The Axe had Never Sounded: Place, People and Heritage of Recherche BayTasmania, ANU E Press, c. 2007.