Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Judy Johnson
Paperback, Feb 2017, Paperback, 144 pages, ISBN: 9781742589183
Dark Convicts is based on the true story of the eleven African American convicts who arrived in Australia on the First Fleet in 1788. These men were freed after fighting for the British in the US War of Independence, ended up committing a petty crime in the difficult environment of post-war London, received the death penalty for their crime, and then were transported to Australia as a kind of pardon. Two of those convicts, John Martin and John Randall, were Judy Johnson’s ancestors, and she’s created a rather extraordinary account of their lives through the hardship of their incarceration in London, transportation from England to Australia, their arrival in Sydney and their eventual freedom after incarceration.
The work is as enlightening and educational as any work of nonfiction, presenting a linear narrative from “George Washington’s Lost Slave Villanelle” in 1775, in which Washington utters a prayer for American freedom while decrying his slaves own desire for human rights, through London life for the slaves in 1782, incarceration and transportation in 1787, arrival in New South Wales in 1788, the privations and struggle of colony life, and finally freedom and marriage in the late 1790s and early 1800s. The story itself is a fascinating one with themes very relevant to modern readers: the impact of colonisation, racism, cruelty and social inequality, as well as love, hunger, and the desire for meaning and self-actualisation. Johnson is a natural storyteller, providing narrative context in between each of the poems. However the real heart of the collection is the poetry, which goes deeper than scholarship would otherwise allow. Johnson puts the reader right into the moment of experience, using language that is both harrowing and wry:
Welcome below decks to this manacled oven. You
wish to become a baked loaf of the Crown? Take note how
the boards above radiate down a sickening heat.
No fresh air so we share. One living man breathes in one
dying man’s leavings. You find yourself chained to live flesh
or a corpse. Dough hereby constrained at His Majesty’s Plesaure is equally noble when kneaded to fit. (“Thirst”)
The poems are condensed and powerful, covering a lot of ground in few words. Johnson uses a range of poetic techniques like repetition, selective rhyming, dialogue, parataxis, a range of voices, and structural spacing and shaping of the words to create a very dramatic impact. One of the most powerful and devastating poems in the collection is “John Martin’s Twenty Five Lashes”, which is written in the voice of John Martin as he is being whipped. The poem is almost entirely non-emotive in its language, and yet, through the repetition of words like knots, bites, and gore, the staccato of the poems gaps which come across as desperate breaths, and through the drum like rhythm and the slowness of it’s progress, the poem is agonisingly visceral:
The drum beats. The lash bites. I feel the long-hot bitter
flow. The flogger clears the gore with his fingertips to
ensure the full hell of those knots can dig all the way
Though Dark Convicts is full of oppression and darkness, the book is also blackly humorous, using compilations of statements real accounts of the characters that populate the book, such as “Eleven Black Scoundrels Bound for the First Fleet” written to be sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: “smart thinking jinxed Randall/winking watch-chains and transportation for seven years.” Puns abound, such as the extensive chicken jokes throughout “The Governer Addresses his Fowl Yard of Convicts”:
Governer Arthur Phillip born Cockney chief cock of
the walk of the brand new Colony of Ne South Wales
preens and ruffles Navy-issue feathers ticks the clock
There is also a muted humour in the hypocrisy of those in power, such as in “The Outraged Morals of Lieutenant Ralph Clarke”, a man who made much of his devotion to his missing wife Betsy, kissing her picture and decrying the poor morality of the convict women while visiting their tents:
He kisses dear wife’s picture through and hopes it seems a
mark to show he saves himself for her alone. But Oh
Both Martin and Randall suffer through the book, but they have it relatively easy compared to some of the other convicts, who don’t survive to experience freedom or to leave ancestors like Johnson. There are other characters in the books like the ever hungry Black Caesar or the two young convicts Samuel Peyton and Edward Corbet who were hung for minor crimes (theft and an attempt at escape respectively):
We watched the two of them led to sure death at that tree.
Particularly Peyton barely twenty years old
He gave his speech looking up through the stark Colony’s
branches that seemed to rig the sail of the sky but sailed
nowhere near home nor heaven. He in no way struggled (“Death Tree”)
The poetry is full of historical detail: the terrible conditions of London’s Newgate prison: “cold freezes raw flesh to the hard graft of floor”, the pain of Typhus “My piss is blood. My body racked.”, the first meetings between the convicts and the aborigines and the way that John Randall gave them a stocking each “a firm desire to know that the limb be dressed just the same”, food eaten, stolen, or desired, the local weather, hunting, the many types of punishment, the pain of death and loss, and even love – it’s all here – and subtly, beautifully, and terribly depicted from multiple perspectives and with a kind of deep-seated sense of reverence. Dark Convicts is an extraordinary book that changes the whole notion of what history is. The book is powerfully written in a way that goes far beyond what happened in the past, into what it felt like, what it meant, and what it continues to mean.