Crimes and Punishments

Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra

Extract from "Crimes and Punishments." In Gregory Castle ed. Postcolonial Discourses. An Anthology. Blackwell, 2001. pp. 336-339 [Reprinted from Dark Side of the Dream 1991]

The history of convictism in Australia is complex and subject to theories and revisions by different historians. The process of interrogating the surviving texts, however, is continually crossed by another history, the history of the construction of the convict myth, which provides the momentum and agenda for the other histories. To give the terms of this second process in schematic terms, we can see its characteristic ambiguities and complexities as deriving from its double source from above and below. representing different experiences of different groups with different interests. For a variety of reasons, constructions from above have dominated in later versions of this piece of history. Amongst these, a decisive role has been played by Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life (1870‑2) and its abridged "novel" version, For The Term of His Natural Life (1874) which we shall read as a single composite text. But in spite of its spectacular success as the definitive convict novel, this work and its meaning were dependent on other sources and traditions which it worked over and incorporated and helped to bury from view. These came from below, from popular traditions, often in oral form, which have now become barely accessible. To reconstruct something of the dialectic between the two sources of the convict myth, we need first to be able to go some way towards recovering the buried form.

The essential feature to recognise about the popular tradition was its closeness to traditional forms of oral culture. In early periods of the settlement it performed a community sustaining role, contributing to the identity, cohesion and morale of a whole group. But the scope and richness and diversity of this cultural form has until recently been almost entirely neglected by historians and literary critics alike. The relevant texts have not survived in the prolific manner of written texts, and where they have, the reading practices of both disciplines have not been adequate to such texts and such cultural forms. Because they are now so scarce, given that they were once so widespread, a method more akin to archeology is needed, one which systematically over‑reads the few surviving texts, to compensate for the asymmetrical action of time on their distribution. In the same way, archeologists reconstruct vases from fragments, and human beings and societies from bits of bone and pottery.

Texts from the early period survive in collections of ballads and unreliable scraps of prose and song, whose provenance is often worryingly uncertain. One way of dealing with this uncertainty comes from an understanding of the dynamics of oral cultures. In oral cultures, individual texts are not tied so closely to a single author, nor to a single version. As versions circulate, they accumulate differences that are themselves significant, establishing a meaning which is irreducibly social. But the opposition between oral and literary cultural practices should not be pushed to an extreme. In ancient Greece, Homer worked with a rich set of oral sources in ways that were characteristic for oral cultures, but at the same time he produced a definitive text, as an individual, highly valued performer. In the same way, the anonymous oral convict tradition produced a single major figure, who became known as "Frank the Poet". Only a few poems can be attributed to Frank the Poet, none of them in a text that can be relied on. None is on the scale of a Homer. These are not unrecognised "masterpieces" of western culture. But Frank the Poet's importance is part of his meaning within his own culture. The connections between different versions of the works that can be included in his oeuvre give a social resonance that goes beyond the meaning of individual texts, in a way that is impossible to reconstruct from any other kind of source.

Frank the Poet has only recently begun to exist as a possible object of knowledge as the result of the effort of two historians, John Meredith and Rex Whalan (1979), who have painstakingly established a corpus of poems (sixteen only, some in several versions) and a historical identity. Their book is cheaply produced and leaves many questions unanswered, but it provides an indispensable starting point for future scholars to build on. They identify Frank the Poet as Francis MacNamara, born 1811, transported for seven years in 1832 for larceny (stealing a plaid). His biography illustrates one of the archetypal patterns of convict life. First there is his Irish nationality, which established him as part of that potent subclass of convicts. His crime is typically trivial compared to his sentence, and Meredith and Whalan cite evidence to suggest that there were political overtones to his case. On reaching the colony his fate showed one of the two outcomes of convictism: not reform and incorporation into useful membership of the new community but stubborn opposition and consistent punishment. His original seven‑year sentence grew to seventeen years. He was flogged on fourteen occasions, receiving a total of 650 strokes of the lash. He did three and a half years hard labour in irons, and three months on the treadmill. Meredith and Whalan comment on this history: "He became hardened and more abandoned after each punishment" (1979: 4). The main "crimes" that led to this savage increase in his sentence were running away and "insubordinate conduct" or "refusing to work". To a rational observer from another time it is a minor mystery why he was so foolish as to accumulate such severe penalties for so little cause. Clearly his body was used as a spectacle of punishment, and his mind remained uncorrected and unreformed.

The other aspect of his history was less typical. This is the importance of his role as "the Poet", a function that was evidently of the utmost importance to him and to his community. It had roots in Celtic tradition, in the role of the Bard in social life. Frank fulfilled this function in the new situation in Australia, where the Irish population needed cohesion and identity. Frank's poems include commemoration of heroes and great victories: his version (or versions) of the lives of the bushrangers Jack Donohoe and Martin Cash contributed to the construction of the bushranger myth. His celebration of the mutiny that led to the capture of the Cyprus helped to establish this as a symbolic triumph, an Antipodean Battleship Potemkin. The Reverend West writing in Tasmania in 1850 is quoted as acknowledging the effectiveness of this form of protest: "The prisoners who waged war with society regarded the event with exultation; and long after, a song, composed by a sympathizing poet, was propagated by oral tradition, and sung in chorus around the fires in the interior" (Meredith and Whalan 1979: 56).

Marcus Clarke adapted the Cyprus incident (and neutralised it, as we will see) in his novel. Ned Kelly incorporated an adaptation of some of Frank's most famous lines in the successful propaganda of his "Jerilderie letter" of 1879, and Dan Kelly sang a song by Frank the Poet to inspire the beleaguered gang during the siege at Glenrowan. Frank was not a participant in most of the events that he chose to celebrate.

His role was more public and almost official: to draw together and shape an alternative mythology, an alternative version of history which was not, however, his own individual creation and which was transmitted and recreated much more actively by his community than would have been the case with written texts in the dominant culture. The scale of their influence is now impossible to determine with any precision, but it clearly had an important role in constructing the images of the convict and the bushranger as potent organising principles for the Irish community, carrying this alternative version of events into the wider community. This oral tradition undoubtedly played its part in preparing the roles of both Ned Kelly and the community which sustained his act of rebellion. More importantly, its reading of those events had a powerful impact on the aftermath of the Kelly trial, and the construction of the Kelly legend itself.

Given the unreliability of the texts that have survived and the impossibility of assigning every word to the conscious hand of the individual poet, traditional literary criticism would find it hard to pronounce on the literary qualities of Frank the Poet. Nonetheless there are many qualities shared by the texts in the corpus, even between different versions of the same text, which give unity to the construction of "Frank the Poet" as a social fact, irrespective of the mechanics of authorship of individual texts. We will take as an instance one of his most famous poems, called variously "The Convict's Arrival/Lament" or "Moreton Bay".

Moreton Bay was one of the notorious penal settlements, part of the spectacle of punishment that was invoked to control the convict population. The poem includes mention of savage and unjust punishment:

For three long years I've been beastly treated,
Heavy irons each day I wore,
My poor back from flogging has been lacerated,
And oft times painted with crimson gore.

This is a description of a spectacle of punishment which had no intent to reform. But the terms of it seem slightly disappointing, if this was to be a denunciation of the brutality of a convict's life. Frank the Poet was not sent to Moreton Bay, but he did endure three and a half years (not three) on a chain gang, and his back was indeed "oft times painted with crimson gore". But there are far more vivid descriptions of floggings elsewhere: "I was to leeward of the floggers... I was two perches from them. The flesh and skin blew in my face as it shook off the cats" wrote Joseph Holt in his journal in 1800, of a savage flogging administered to two Irish convicts suspected of treason, quoted by Hughes (1987: 189).

Frank the Poet is deliberately understating the reality of brutality, and from the point of view of a convict bard it is easy to see why. A melodramatic description of flogging would do the work of the enemy, constructing and endorsing the spectacle of punishment. The quaintly colloquial "beastly treated" (complete with Irish accent) undercuts the force of the image in one way, while the poetic diction of "oft times painted" neutralises it in another. Physical suffering is thus acknowledged but not made central. The poem goes on to emphasise the "excessive tyranny" of everyday life, and the demands of "daily labour" made by these tyrants. Forced labour is presented as a major injustice, and refusal to work (under these conditions) as one of the most significant acts of resistance. And in practice, this was the cause of most of Frank's own floggings. So the poem carries the anti‑ideology of convicts, in a situation that explains and legitimates it.

The poem not only records daily life in Moreton Bay, it also recounts the death of a notorious "tyrant", Captain Logan, who was killed in an ambush by "a native black". This act of liberation is attributed to "kind Providence" not to any convict initiative, and the unproven contemporary assumption that the killer was an Aborigine is kept intact. Again we see that the poet avoids specious consolations, establishing instead a nexus of connections (between convicts, Aborigines and Providence) that is comprehensive and positive but still sufficiently loose so as not to contradict the reality of convict life.

This structure of positive and negative aspects of convict life is set in a complex frame. It begins with the singer:

I am a native of the land of Erin,
And lately banished from that lovely shore,

and traces his journey from Ireland to Sydney Harbour, "in transient storms". But on his arrival he receives a further sentence, to Moreton Bay. The singer there meets another prisoner:

Early one morning as I carelessly wandered,
By the Brisbane waters I chanced to stray,
I saw a prisoner sadly bewailing,
Whilst on the sunlit banks he lay.

After this moment of lyricism, with its echo of the Babylonian exile, the rest of the poem contains the inserted narrative of this other prisoner, who as it emerges has done his time and is about to leave Moreton Bay. The two narratives intersect, the arrival and the departure, the prospect of suffering and the fact of survival. The poem concludes on an optimistic note:

Fellow prisoners be exhilarated,
Your former sufferings you will not mind,
For it's when from bondage you are extricated,
You'll leave those tyrants far behind.

Another version has the more interesting "We'll leave" in the last line, a complex relationship of identity and difference between new and old prisoners, but both versions construct solidarity and affirmation ("exhilarated") out of the normal conditions of convict existence. The simple diction masks a complex rhetorical strategy, whose reassurance stays close to the problematic reality that it has to work over. We can see why the ballad proved so durable and inspiring.


Many thanks to Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra for permission to add this extract of their "Crimes and Punishments" chapter to the Frank the Poet commemorative website.