Monday 15 April 2019

Fled by Meg Keneally

It’s an odd thing about historical fiction – the most outrageous, outlandish elements of a story are often the ones which are based on fact.
There’s the Flying Pieman, who dispensed philosophy along with his pies and engaged in “feats of pedestrianism” including outrunning the mail coach between Sydney and Windsor. The political prisoner who nearly managed to escape on a whaler sent to Van Dieman’s Land especially for him from America. The newspaper editor continually arrested for criminal libel, who calmly edited his paper from prison.
The people who inspired the characters actually existed, and I have gleefully fictionalised all of them. Yet as extraordinary as they are, none of them have anything on First Fleet convict Mary Bryant, the woman behind one of history’s greatest escapes.
It’s my first non-crime novel, but in a way it’s all about crime – the crimes which propelled 1,500 people, convicts and their guards, to an impossibly distant, unknown shore in one of history’s largest mass migrations.
It’s a cliché, in Australia at least, to talk about convicts who stole food for starving families. But it’s also the truth – the vast majority of crimes committed by convicts sent to Australia (including my great-great grandmother, who stole clothing in Limerick) were survival crimes.
Mary’s case, though, was a little more interesting. With two other girls, she robbed and assaulted a woman who was walking from the Plymouth ferry.
In other words, she was a highwaywoman.
She found herself transported alongside a range of other convicts, from those convicted of petty theft to embezzlers, prostitutes, smugglers and animal rustlers.
Mary eventually became part of a group of convicts who stole the governor’s cutter. She sailed it with her husband, children and nine other convicts from Sydney to West Timor, passing herself off as a shipwreck survivor before her luck ran out and her identity was revealed.
I first heard Mary’s story from my father, on long road trips in the days before iPads. I assumed he was making it up. Dead-of-night escapes? Sea chases? Survival against impossible odds? Surely such things didn’t happen.
But when I returned to the story as an adult, I was amazed to find he’d actually been quite restrained.
Mary’s story (and that of Jenny Trelawney, her fictional counterpart in Fled) contains so many twists and coincidences (lucky and unlucky), so many poignant and painful moments, that any writer who made it up out of whole cloth would be accused of melodrama. 
Her tale reads like fiction. 
A female highway robber, living in the forest and bailing people up while dressed in breeches, sent for her crime to the other side of the world.
An almost impossible voyage in a small, stolen open boat, over 5,000 kilometres, with the last 2,000 or so in uncharted waters, gripping onto two young children while facing monstrous seas and the constant threat of capsize, starvation and death from thirst.
Salvation, betrayal, recapture, and eventually a possible affair with one of the most famous men of the age, James Boswell.
One of the focal points of Mary’s tale, and of the novel, is of course the escape itself. But so many stars needed to align for it to happen at all.
Mary and the other escapees needed knowledge of the local conditions, tides and currents. This they got from Bennelong and other Aboriginals with whom they were friendly, with Mary’s husband Will taking Bennelong’s family out to fish in government boats.
They needed a destination, and a means of navigating there. Fortunately for them, Governor Arthur Phillip had a blazing row with a visiting Dutch sea captain, Detmer Smit. The Bryants befriended Smit, and eventually learned from him of the Dutch colony of Coepang (Kupang, West Timor). Crucially, he also gave them a quadrant and a chart. If he had not visited Sydney Cove, or if he had been on better terms with Phillip, the convicts would have had nowhere to go.
And they needed darkness. They got this on the night of March 28, 1791 – a new moon. That day, Detmer Smit’s ship had left, and the last remaining English ship had recently been sent to Batavia for provisions. Suddenly, there was no ship capable of pursuing them, just when the sky was at its blackest.
But while the details of Mary’s story are fascinating, the main reason she refused to leave me alone until I wrote about her was her character – her resourcefulness, her courage, and her refusal to be cowed. Since childhood, I’ve been captivated by the tale of a woman (and a convict at that) who navigated her way through a male-dominated world, and dragged her children to safety (at least for a while) across an angry sea.  

Fled by Meg Keneally (published by Zaffre Books) £7.99

She will do anything for freedom, but at what cost? Jenny Trelawney is no ordinary thief. Forced by poverty to live in the Devon forest, she becomes a successful highwaywoman - until her luck runs out. Transported to Australia, Jenny must tackle new challenges and growing responsibilities. And when famine hits the new colony, Jenny becomes convinced that those she most cares about will not survive. She becomes the leader in a grand plot of escape, but is survival any more certain in a small open boat on an unknown ocean?

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