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Avoid Being a Convict Sent to Australia! - Meredith Costain

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Author: Meredith Costain / Paperback / 32 Pages / Book is published 2005-07-01 by Book House

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      24.08.2012 09:55
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      Engaging history book for children

      This book is part of the Danger Zone series, which aims to spark children's interest in history by getting them to imagine that they are a character in the events portrayed. (Other books in the series include Avoid being on the Titanic, Avoid living in a Wild West Town and Avoid being in a Medieval Dungeon.) The idea behind the books is to draw young readers in from the start and encourage them to empathise with the people who were around at the time and get a sense of the atmosphere that prevailed. In my experience, the events have a much bigger impact when the reader feels personally involved.

      "It's 1785 and you're the son of a farm labourer in England," says Meredith Costain at the start of the book. However, the landlord has decided to keep all the land for himself, so you no longer have a tiny strip of rented land to grow crops on. When there is no work to be found in the cities, you are driven to pickpocketing to survive. Eventually you get caught and you are sentenced to seven years' transportation to the colonies. Will you survive the long journey to the other side of the world? If you do reach your destination, what will your new life be like?

      This book provides a fascinating and quite shocking account of what happened to the convicts who set sail to Botany Bay on 13th May 1787. Giving the reader a part in this real life drama is a sure way of holding their attention.

      This is a novel way of introducing the subject of crime and punishment in the 18th century and in particular the colonisation of Australia. As the book progresses, children have the opportunity to look at the situation from different points of view. How would the convicted prisoner view things? On the one hand, you have escaped the hangman's noose, but on the other you are about to undertake a perilous voyage to another land. Would you feel lucky or not? It is astonishing to read about some of the bizarre crimes that were made hanging offences during this period of history. Impersonating an Egyptian and 'showing a sooty face on the highroad' are two that I find particularly strange.

      Whilst it seems appalling from our modern perspective that people could be so severely punished for petty crime, the book encourages the reader to look at things from the viewpoint of those living at the time. There was no official police force to restore law and order, so how would people on the receiving end of crimes feel? The prisoners were punished severely (and in public) in order to deter others. The book helps children avoid falling into the trap of judging things purely from a pampered 21st century perspective.

      I think the book encourages lots of possibilities for discussion, particularly about why people turn to crime. It becomes clear that it isn't always because people are inherently 'bad'. Sometimes they are driven to it by circumstances. This can lead to some interesting moral questions. Is it morally wrong to steal, for example, even if it is the only way you can feed your family? Who has committed the worst 'crime' here? The unemployed farm labourer who picks the pockets of the rich on their way to the theatre, or the landlord who took away the livelihood of the farm labourer's family? What right did the British have to colonise Australia anyway? What about the natives who lived there before the convicts arrived? It opens up great opportunity for debate and further study.

      The layout of the book is eye catching and designed to hold a young reader's attention. There is a good balance between text and pictures which I feel helps the reader to take in the information in a relaxed way. David Antram's striking illustrations use caricature to good effect. I find it quite an ugly style, with some characters even looking a bit scary, but there is a lot of detail in the pictures, which means that even children who are not the most competent readers can learn a lot just from looking at the illustrations. For example, they can see the costumes worn by the rich and poor in the 18th century, the crowded slums and streets of the cities, the ships of the period, etc. which are all clearly depicted.

      There is also an interesting map plotting the route taken by the ships from Portsmouth to Botany Bay, showing how long it would have taken to get to particular places on the map. This helps children to get to grips with the geography involved and to get an idea of how long such a journey would have taken in the 18th century. Some children may even have flown to Australia and think that takes a long time, but it is certainly hard to imagine being chained up in overcrowded cages on a journey lasting eight months.

      David Antram's ability to convey what a character is thinking through their facial expressions is one of his strengths as an illustrator. For example, the sheer exhaustion of the convicts as they toil in the heat, the sadistic expressions of the officers in charge, the forlorn look of a man chained up in an overcrowded, rat-ridden cell on board a hulk and the arrogant face of the governor as he hoists the Union Jack flag on the British-owned land. He also makes use of speech bubbles and thought bubbles which add a touch of dry humour to the account. "Keep moving. We'll soon sort out those sea legs!" bellows an officer at a man on the point of collapse as he gets off the ship at Sydney Cove.

      Although this is a short book of just 32 pages (including a glossary), it provides a surprising amount of detail. In addition to the main text, the 'Handy Hints' provide advice on making the best of your difficult experience. These range from, "Check your food carefully for weevils and maggots" to "Don't cry out during a flogging, because it's the code of the convicts to give the authorities the silent treatment."

      There is obviously a lot of quite gruesome detail in this book, such as people being lashed by the cat-o'-nine-tails and other nasty methods of punishment, but it never becomes a gratuitous gore fest. I liked the way the author put the experiences of the convicts into a wider context of what was happening in England at the time. For example, we discover how the Enclosure Acts drove people into the cities to find work, and how new machinery in the factories replaced the work that was traditionally done by craftspeople. We see the impact of unemployment and poverty on the crime wave and how the American War of Independence meant that English convicts could no longer be sent to the colonies of the New World. A new destination had to be found.

      I had always assumed that transporting someone to the colonies was simply a matter of passing a sentence and then setting sail. This book revealed that this was not the case. Some prisoners had to wait for years on a floating prison in the Thames before they were transported. It isn't surprising that one in five prisoners died from diseases like typhus before they even embarked on their journey to the colonies.

      The book's dry humour brings home some sobering facts. You can read the story of an escapee who disguised himself in a kangaroo-skin suit and attempted to sneak past the ferocious guard dogs at Port Arthur. Some of the illustrations are downright comical, but you are reminded just how difficult it was to escape and how desperate some of the convicts must have been to do so. Children can be asked to think about how they might try to escape. Where could they go? How would they survive if they managed to get away from the settlement? William Buckley managed to do it in 1803 and spent the next 33 years living with Aborigines. His story could well inspire children to write their own escape stories.

      I would recommend this book to children from about age 8 and upwards, particularly to accompany topic work at school. There is a useful glossary at the end of the book, which means that children can easily look up any terms they are unfamiliar with, thus encouraging them to become more independent in their learning and research skills.

      I like the fact that, despite its depressing content, the book ends on an uplifting note by referring to convicts who rose above their experiences and made successes of their lives. For instance, Francis Greenway became Australia's first qualified architect. Mollie Morgan, who was transported for stealing cloth, went on to become a wealthy businesswoman and philanthropist.

      This is an engaging read with fewer jokes than other books in this genre. The sombre mood is lightened sufficiently by the inclusion of animal characters in the illustrations. For example, two seagulls are looking at a rotting old floating prison moored on the Thames, and one says to the other, "I wouldn't like to be stuck in there, mate." The rats are characters in their own right, eyeing up the humans with an amusing look of bewilderment, as do the sheep when the convicts toil on farms in the new colony. Sometimes too many jokes and puns can be a bit distracting in a history book and could mean that the sheer awfulness of the convicts' experience would lose its impact. However, I think that you need to lighten the mood a little in order to prevent it being too upsetting for young readers. The book gets the balance about right.

      This book can be purchased new from Amazon sellers for £1.44.

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