Tuesday, May 19, 2009

For the Term of his Natural Life – by Marcus Clarke (1846-1881)

One hundred and fifty years ago, Marcus Clarke sailed around Cape Pillar on the SE coast of Tasmania.
Last month I witnessed the same inhospitable scenery from the deck of a replica sailing ship.
Here is Clarke’s description:

The south-east coast of Van Diemen’s Land from the solitary Mewstone to the basaltic cliffs of Tasman’s Head, from Tasman’s Head to Cape Pillar, and from Cape Pillar to the rugged grandeur of Pirates’ Bay, resembles a biscuit at which rats have been nibbling…
Viewed upon the map, the fantastic fragments of island and promontory … are like the curious forms assumed by melted lead spilt into water. If the suppositions were not too extravagant, one might imagine that when the Australian continent was fused, a careless giant upset the crucible and spilt Van Diemen’s Land in the ocean.

Clarke’s novel, For the Term of his Natural Life was first published in serial form in 1870 under the title His Natural Life.
Today it is recognised as a masterpiece.
Though written as a fiction story, the book provides a detailed historical insight into the inhuman penal system at work in Van Diemen’s Land in the first half of the 19th century.

This chilling page-turner tells of Rufus Dawes, a man sentenced to transportation for life for a crime he did not commit and destined to spend the rest of his life in various prisons in Van Diemen’s Land including Port Arthur and the infamous settlement at Macquarie Harbour on the wild west coast.
Fate plays a big part in Dawes unfortunate life, from his wrongful arrest and sentence; to the sinking of the ship transporting him; to the companions he sails with; and even to his birthright.

For the Term of his Natural Life is a compelling story with a spectrum of assorted and questionable characters neatly interwoven into its pages.

It has been said that the convicts transported to the penal colony were, ‘more sinn’d against then sinning’, and for many of them, death by their own hand or that of a brother was preferable to a life of pain and suffering.

For the Term of his Natural Life is a classic historical novel, a primary piece of literary history and an indictment of the infamous British Penal Code which sent hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to suffer unbearable hardship at the hands of their evil overseers.

Quote: Chapter 13 – The topography of Van Diemen’s Land – Marcus Clarke
Pic: Cape Pillar from the deck of The Lady Nelson (read about my own voyaging on a 1789 replica ship below)
Pic: After the ravages of time and bushfires, the old penal settlement at Port Arthur is now a traquil place

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