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Posted on 14 Dec 2021 in Non-Fiction |

JANET McCALMAN Vandemonians: the repressed history of colonial Victoria. Reviewed by Lucy Sussex

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Historian Janet McCalman discovers what happened to the freed convicts who settled in Victoria.

New Zealanders like to call convicts ‘Australian royalty’, omitting the inconvenient fact that boundaries and identity were hardly fixed in stone back then. A convict could simply take a new alias, cross the ditch, and reinvent themselves. Matthew Wright in his 2012 Convicts established that several thousands did just that.

The convicts in this book also crossed a sea border, Bass Strait, from the convict colony of Tasmania to Victoria, which prided itself only slightly less than Adelaide on its ‘free’ origins. They numbered in the tens of thousands, and this book examines their lives and legacies.

The basis of Vandemonians is threefold: the detailed records kept by Tasmanian authorities, so significant a resource it has been honoured by UNESCO; the Ships Project at Melbourne University; and the advances/explosion in genealogy. It is a work of prosopography, a collective biography that examines what a group of people have in common. In this case, the group were working-class criminals, who might otherwise be elided by official histories. Here McCalman strikes gold as surely as a lucky digger.

The book has a huge cast list, sometimes with substantial narratives. Convicts could be illiterate, and rarely do they speak for themselves. The emblematic figure of this book is a tiny, one-eyed woman, a buzzwinker (pickpocket). Ellen Miles was articulate and sassy in court, and a journalist transcribed her.

Many others left little record as to how they spoke or thought. McCalman’s task is to tease out history and herstory from a phone directory of case studies. As she has a persistent professional interest in ‘battlers’, the history of the working class, her story is different than, for example, the late Babette Smith’s 2021 Defiant Voices. That had a different focus, on convict women, and it celebrated ornery behaviour.

In contrast McCalman has little to celebrate, in conventional terms: her subjects began in difficult circumstances, and the voyage did not necessarily improve their lot. Genealogical research can pinpoint the troubled spots of origin: port cities figure more in sad stories than famine or enclosure transportees from Ireland and Scotland. A crucial factor was family breakdown, and in the Antipodes the convicts further lost what support they had from kindred.

Success, in McCalman’s terms, is, brutally, lineage: the Australian royalty in the family tree are validated by their descendants. She shows that many transportees left none. Mental illness, exacerbated by the convict experience, was a factor, as was physical debility, alcoholism and venereal disease. Marriage was no security in colonies with high rates of bigamy and desertion, and women on their own were vulnerable. The Vandemonians infested the slums of early Melbourne, and they and their children met untimely deaths.

This book is about a general experience, but its mini-biographies are illuminating. The canny and lucky could do well in business, hiding their origins and achieving pioneer status. Occasionally someone made enough money on the goldfields to return ‘home’ triumphant. More typically, they were condemned not only to transportation but poverty. Here recidivism was a matter of pure survival: food and shelter were free in jail.

The cumulative effect of this book is dark, and it is a deterministic read: too many had appalling childhoods leading to similar lives. Yet trauma could be transcended. Another of McCalman’s emblematic figures, Daniel Backway, was an orphaned chimney-sweep. Dickens could have written his early life, but a miner’s right in Victoria led to a settled and modest existence, too dull for sensational novelisation.

McCalman has written a valuable addition to convict literature, showing again that the villains who began White Australia were complicated and nuanced. They were, in a word, human, and that humanity was something denied to them for far too long.

Janet McCalman Vandemonians: the repressed history of colonial Victoria Miegunyah Press 352pp $39.99

Lucy Sussex is a researcher and writer of crime fiction and true crime.

You can buy Vandemonians from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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