Three pieces from ‘Black Convicts’ (a poetic exploration of the poet’s two African American ancestors, John Martin and John Randall, who, along with nine other ex-slaves, were convicts on the First Fleet).
Newgate is poisoned with the effluvia of the sick, the stench of faeces. My readers may judge
the malignity of the place when I assure them…that the leaves of my memorandum book
were so tainted I could not use it before spreading it an hour or two in front of the fire.
– John Howard, pamphleteer and social reformer, 1786
If you are flush you can bribe the warder to conjure
the luxurious stench of the very top floor: a
bare five-hundred unwashed funnelled into a prison
designed for one fifth of that number. If you are flush
you purchase pegs for the nose. You will not often swoon
from the smell in the yard. You will have coal for heating
brooms for sweeping out shit. And a candle for light. If
you are flush you can gamble. Drive down busy pox street
by way of cock alley. Woman or man. No one is
immune to the any-old-hole-will-do-at-a-pinch
-and-a-poke. The spirits flow if you can manage to
ante an asset or two. A gold tooth or the plain
battered sin of your body. The least grubby lobe from
the pitiful lungs of your soul. If you are somewhat
less plumply attired with cash you still may acquire
a patch on the oaked middle-floor. Then splash out on some
fallings of sun under which you may open your mouth
to receive the Lord’s vinegar tumbled from a locked
and barred Heaven above. If you are without means and
have nothing to sell then you lie in the hell of stone-
hold underground. With no daylight the cold freezes raw
flesh to the hardness of floor. You are not even swine
as swine generally speaking have straw. The weight of your
crimes in the cut of your irons will not be reduced or
ever removed. Your pathetic lot is a three ha’-
penny loaf and a smidgen of maggoty meat. No
doctors attend. Yet you may find a friend in the treat-
ment Mr John Howard doles out to this evil place.
He has found what we’ve known all along. That above and
beyond the clean beautiful cure of the lowest
scribe’s pen defeating the savage’s sword the brute force
of Newgate’s more mighty than all. Paying no more real
attention to his words on the page than it does to
our blood scribbled onto its miserable walls.
Governor Philip at length determined to select from the convicts, a certain number of persons
who were meant to be of the fairest character for the purpose of forming a nightly watch
for the preservation of public and private property.
–Watkin Tench, Sept 1789
I John Martin dark skin deemed fair character do most
solemnly swear to take the poisoned chalice of my
good behaviour and drink. I resolve to all night long
instead of sink into a well-earned dream visit such
places as deemed necessary to apprehend those
I discover on the brink of a felony or
trespass or other misdemeanor. When I catch said
culprits or glean a modicum of suspicious-like
habits at labour I resolve to turn inside-out
the pockets of that behaviour. I’ll give attention
to entering private dwellings patting down the prone
length of those lawless intentions by way of any
lawful and equitable measures aformentioned.
I shall fulfill these duties despite detestation
and being reviled by my fellow convicts. Indeed
the degree to which I am spat on or sworn at as
a traitor and kiss mine arse sycophant. The greater
extent to which I am hated resented exiled
by my own kind the more assiduous the Powers
That Be will see me attending the chore. So therefore
I relinquish all large and small convenience which
the camaraderie of my fellow convicts was once
so apt to provide. I shall expect (and receive) no
reward financial or otherwise. No privileges
extra rations minor comforts compensations for
my social checkmate. Just the sense of serving the state
of New South Wales within the province of the Greater
Good to tide me over when the frosty poker of
loathing’s jammed up my back side. My award may or may
not reside in Heaven. Meantime I am stuck with my
lot knowing due diligence won’t mean I may slot in-
to the ranks of respectable men of the Corp. Just
that negligence whilst employed in this duty shall find
me swiftly punished to the utmost rigour of the law.
On 29th November 1792, John Martin, finally pronounced free three years after his sentence had technically expired, received a land grant of 50 acres at Northern Boundary Farm, near Parramatta.
This is the measure of what an emancipated
convict is given. Fifty acres of spine-snapping
bush. Eucalypts that scratch the throat of the sky and are
apt to ignite leafy tongues in the heat. Spear grass which
shallow-scythes bare legs to shreds. The fast fangs of venomed
snakes in the closed-up injection of each hollow log.
Those who take up land grants are awarded one single
tomahawk two pigs ;one hatchet two spades one shovel.
Expectations of being off all stores in eighteen
months. That first dry summer rain fell in the shape of birds
arrested by death in mid-flight. It was that hot. One
hundred and fifteen degrees in the shadows. The ground
like the base of a pot suspended over a fire.
The west wind simmered and smoked with its lid halfway on.
And then flames came across the parched Sydney Town basin
and knocked the top of hell off. Flares galloped through trees with
a million dirty hooves gorged on the leaves then shit black
ash on our heads burped up flares that reached halfway to the
sun its knotted-vein belly hung over us twitching.
We beat fire’s hot breath back from the door and covered all
of the windows with damp canvas. Somehow it leapt right
over us. Unbridled unsaddled unreined. Ann and
I stared at each other pulled back from the furnace by
luck and I knew that I was enslaved again. It owned
me. I did not own it. Fifty acres of this harsh
wild-eyed ravenous mane-burnt-to-a-crisp country hard
champing at the bit.
Judy Johnson has published four full length collections, a verse novel and two chapbooks. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Award and the Wesley Michel Wright prize, twice and was shortlisted for this year’s WA Premier’s Award. Her new project centres around her African American First Fleeter convict ancestors, John Martin and John Randall.