TEN ROGUES: The Unlikely Story of Convict Schemers, a Stolen Brig and an Escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile
by Peter Grose
Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest
Paperback: 222 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
One of the most picturesque, yet eerily remote, locations in Australia is the west-coast region of Tasmania. A visit to the region typically includes a cruise along the Franklin River, and a visit to the ruins of the notorious penal settlement on Sarah Island.
Barbarous and inhumane treatment of prisoners, such as described in Marcus Clarke’s classic novel, For the Term of His Natural Life, were de rigueur in this settlement. During the course of the visit, tourists’ attention is generally drawn to the fantastic tale of the escape by 10 convicts from Sarah Island on the Frederick.
Author Peter Grose, whose previous works published by Allen and Unwin include A Very Rude Awakening (previously reviewed by this reviewer), recounts the biography of James Porter, one of the 10 rogues. He notes that the primary sources for the escape are the two volumes written by Porter.
However, when recounting Porter’s life, and the role he played in the escape, Grose frequently reminds his readers of the unreliability of Porter’s accounts. Not only are there contradictions between the two volumes but many details Porter gives about his life contradict other documentary evidence – for example, official paperwork.
Born around 1800, evidence suggests that Porter began early his life of crime. His family, worried about the path he was taking, organised for him to go to sea as a crewmember on an extended voyage. Eventually, he ended up in Chile, where he married a local lady. However, becoming restless after a few years of marriage, he returned to England, only to commit theft, for which he was found guilty in 1823, and was transported to Tasmania. There, he re-offended and as a consequence was sentenced to Sarah Island.
Convicts were sent to Sarah Island only after they had committed offences in Tasmania as convicts. The prison at Sarah Island was established in such a remote location, as it was believed it would be impossible for prisoners to escape. Harsh punishment, including flogging for even the smallest indiscretion, was meted out, with the intention of breaking the convicts’ morale.
However, escape attempts there were, as Alexander Pearce proved, who made his way across the island, surviving by eating his companions one by one!
Convicts were employed in various tasks, particularly cutting down Huon pine, which was found to be one of the best timbers for shipbuilding because of its durability. Given the difficulties in transporting the timber to shipbuilding yards elsewhere in Tasmania, the decision was made to build ships at Sarah Island, supervised by a master ship builder, David Hoy.
The colonial authorities came to the conclusion that the settlement was unviable. When the settlement was abandoned, a small group was left behind to sail the last ship built on Sarah Island, the Frederick. Convicts selected to remain, such as James Porter, were chosen largely due to their shipbuilding and seafaring skills.
As the Frederick was preparing to embark early in 1834, Porter and his convict companions seized the ship, placed the soldiers, Hoy, and other personnel on land with plenty of provisions, and departed for Chile.
Their six-week voyage is a testament to their seafaring skills. Not having the best navigation equipment, their location was calculated by dead reckoning. Furthermore, they ran short of food and the Frederick soon proved to be a leaky vessel, so the escapees had to man the bilge pump almost continuously.
As they approached Chile, the escapees decided the safest course of action was to take to a rowboat, scuttle the ship, and claim they were survivors of a sinking ship. Their fear that they might be accused of piracy, then a capital offence, proved correct, as the governor of the province of Valdivia initially suspected them of being pirates. Porter’s speech convinced him that they were not, and he allowed them to live freely. Some of them married; although there is no evidence that Porter re-established contact with his wife and family.
The new governor of Valdivia decided to hand the escapees over to the British Navy. Britain and Chile were allies, with the British Pacific Naval base being in Chile. However, six of the escapees had absconded from Chile by the time Porter and another three were handed over to British authorities.
Having been returned to Britain and re-transported to Australia, James Porter and the three other escapees were charged with piracy and mutiny. Although they were quickly found guilty, while they were awaiting sentencing, a local supporter of their cause argued publicly that they could not be found guilty of either charge, as both charges involved the seizure of a registered vessel, and the Frederick had not been registered. Instead of being sentenced to death, they were sentenced to further incarceration.
Porter was eventually transferred to Norfolk Island, only to disappear from the historical record when he successfully escaped from the island in 1846. Grose speculates that he may have travelled to the United States, where he changed his name, a not uncommon occurrence in the 19th century.
Ten Rogues is a highly readable account of James Porter and the Frederick. Grose’s frequent references to primary sources, and the contrasts he makes between Porter’s version of his life and official documentation underscore the quality of the research the author undertook in writing this book.
Similarly, Grose’s portrait of Porter reveals a complexity of character. While Porter suffered harsh treatment, particularly when on Sarah Island, his criminal record and other misdemeanours suggest that he can hardly be accorded victim status. However, his risking his life to rescue others when on Norfolk Island shows an heroic side to his nature. As with Grose’s other books, Ten Rogues is recommended.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.