I have been researching and writing Harriet’s story for some time now. I knew it would not be easy, but the more I do, the more I need to do, to actually to do justice to the project. I have tried to ‘block- out’ the story, and arrange research to build the story in chunks.
In recent weeks I have been concentrating on researching and writing about Harriett’s sea voyages. Progress has been slow, but rewarding.
To my knowledge, in a time-span of thirty years, Harriet made four journeys by sea.
- The first, London to Port Jackson in 1790 as a ‘free’ woman on the convict ship Neptune with a voyage of nearly 7 months.
- The second, from Sydney to Norfolk Island in 1800, a voyage of several days.
- The third, from Norfolk Island back to Sydney in 1805, also taking several days.
- The fourth, from Sydney to Port Dalrymple in northern Tasmania in 1819, also taking about two weeks.
Each of these voyages would have been a very different experience for Harriet. I need to take many things into account, as I ponder and write her story.
For instance, let us take the first voyage. I believe it is not enough to just say she got on board in London in 1789 and arrived in Port Jackson, several months later on 28 June 1790. There are no documents with Harriet’s name on it. In fact, there are very few surviving documents about the voyage of the Second Fleet, even official ones.
How can I write up her ‘experience’ of the voyage itself? It may be fiction, but it needs to be credible fiction.
From the few scant reports of the voyage at the time, we know it was a horrendous journey, which led to much death and sickness.
When the news finally filtered back to authorities in England, the captains and ship’s officers were blamed for the carnage. However was this really the case, or was there much more to the story?
To answer some of these questions I need to track down every one of those surviving documents. I need to study the providence and assess the motivation for the creating of such documents.
I also need to consider, if there may have been documents, that for some reason have not survived. What might these reasons be?
Firstly, I needed to research the ships and boats of the era. How they were made, the parts thereof, and how the ‘systems’ on board worked, involving the officers and crew.
Life on board ships was by necessity, very ordered. Everyone was under strict instructions and a rigid routine. It was not a holiday in any sense of the word, even for those ‘free’ passengers.
The Neptune was a large very crowded ship of nearly 800 tons. It has been difficult to clearly establish how many people were on-board when she left England, but it is believed it totaled about six hundred and twenty. There was also a large number of stores, both for the voyage, as well as for the colony.
Thomas Gilbert had been appointed the captain, as he had had experience, being captain of the Charlotte in the First Fleet. However, after the Macarthur fiasco, he was replaced by Donald Trail. Trail an experienced navy captain, and later in transporting slaves, had originally been appointed to the Surprize.
John Marshall was captain of the Scarborough. He had also been her master on the voyage of the First Fleet.
How was the voyage in the Second Fleet, so different to cause so much trouble, with horrendous consequences?
How did Harriet get that free passage in the first place? Where did she sleep on board and who were her friends?
It takes a lot of work to put together a possible story. Who, how, when, where, and why are always the questions I need to ask before setting down my thoughts.
I then need to visualize each section of the story as I put it down on paper. Here is a little taste of the first draft of the story, as Harriet sets out on her sea voyage in 1790.
Harriet lay awkwardly in the narrow bunk and watched the gimbal swing gently to and fro, making ghoulish shadows on the wall. She felt the slight warmth of the child huddled beside her, as it convulsed with heartbreaking sobs, even as it drifted off to a troubled sleep.
It had been a long and exhausting day and now stretched into a cold and numbing night, but sleep would not come to Harriet.
All around her there were unseen souls, coughing, snoring, groaning and crying, but it was difficult to place sounds in the shadowy darkness. Then there were the ship’s groans and creaks as it rocked on the rising tide. The occasional bell and muffled cry, somewhere out there in the moonless night.
Harriet still stared at the wall. Was it really little more than a day, since she had prepared for her daring adventure? As she contemplated what may lay ahead, her heart quickened and she began to feel fear rising in her stomach. Were fear and regret now stealing her heart as had been foretold?
She shut her eyes tight, covered her ears and willed herself to feel the warm sunshine, smell the scented meadows, and hear the twittering birds, with her beloved Tom beside her, in the Staffordshire countryside, far away. She was successful for just a brief moment, and then her fears engulfed her again. What if her ruse was discovered, her dreams dashed, and worst of all, actual imprisonment.
She clenched her jaw and pushed away those dark thoughts again. She finally began to relax and calm herself.
She gently stroked the brow of the sleeping child beside her and thought of the many times she had comforted the little ones, as terrifying nightmares had overtaken them while they slept in their tiny attic room. Someone else would have that duty now.
Her heart started to pound again as her thoughts drifted back to the daring plan Elizabeth and Ann had convinced her could be achieved.
On the docks this morning the damp sea air had smelt of salt and freedom, but tonight in the ship, it only smelt of fetid breath, coal tar, cheap wine, and other more complicated smells.
There was still time to turn back. Tomorrow she could leave the ship and return to John, Ann, and the little ones. They would be angry with her, but she could go back to her former life. A miserable life with no promise. A lonely existence, with her Tom, long gone to the other side of the world. With such difficult times, she now had no prospects of marriage. Only a slow creeping imprisonment, by family and society, in cold dark London.
She had had a home, true, but for how long? John and Ann, who were kin, had reluctantly taken her into their household some years ago, to help with their young children. It was just after her Tom had been sentenced to death. She could still recall in stark detail, that horrible day in the Staffordshire Court.
His sentence had later been changed to transportation and he had been sent to the hulks in Portsmouth Harbour. He had been working as a blacksmith on the harbour works. There had been some hope that he would complete his sentence on the hulks, and then return home. She could wait. However his petitions had been pushed aside, and he was to be transported to New South Wales. He was innocent, but that made no difference to those Judges! He was to be gone!
She looked across at the indistinct mound in the berth opposite, where Elizabeth lay with her youngest child. Was she having doubts too? No, thought Harriet, Elizabeth was resigned to her fate long ago. To go with her husband to faraway New South Wales. Harriet’s dream was only hours old, and still very fragile.
Harriet’s story is a different kind of writing to what I have done before in writing up our family history. Certainly, a challenge and a steep learning curve, if I’m to be anyway successful. I still have to have an outline of facts to base the story on but have to know so much more about the life of those far-off times, to put together the story. I still have a long way to go, but day by day, I progress slowly.