Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below
An international & interdisciplinary conference
Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Dates: June 24-26th 2010
Ian Duffield – University of Edinburgh
The Parody of Power and the Rhetoric of English Liberty in the life of John William Lancashire
The transported convict John William Lancashire arrived in New South Wales aboard the transport Barwell on 28th May 1798, having been convicted at the Old Bailey in April 1796 of stealing cloth to the value of 39 shillings. That the jury had so cut down the prosecutor’s £25 valuation of the goods stolen owes everything to the lengthy, florid but forceful defence that Lancashire was allowed to prepare, write down and deliver in court. While his circumstances at the time of his arrest suggested an idle, thievish and dissolute life, his skills in literacy and courtroom oratory saved his neck from the noose. Little is known for certain about his prior life. He had briefly served on the 74 gun ship-of-the-line Mars as a midshipman, but had then deserted. In New South Wales he falsely claimed to have served in the immediate entourage of the commander of the Mars, Captain Charles Cotton, and so have been in line for early promotion, but that he had to leave the service because of ill health. He had some skill as an artist. Newgate records list his trade as ‘heraldic painter’. Judged by his scant surviving graphic work done in New South Wales, he hardly counts as one of the leading convict artists of early colonial Australia. His engagement in forgery in New South Wales suggests another form of graphic skill, while he also knew how to distil spirits and applied that to illicit purpose
Lancashire had the ability to charm. Astonishingly, while on remand awaiting trial at the Old Bailey, he talked his prosecutor into awarding him a small subsistence allowance on specious grounds. Aboard the convict ship Barwell, he talked its master into letting him act as master’s clerk, keeping the ship’s records. He could outwit those who, in formal terms had the whip-hand over him but was only prepared to take the trouble for limited periods and specific purposes. In and around early Sydney, he soon become notorious to his official and social superiors, for his repeated defiance of the law by repeatedly resorting to such practices as fraud and illicit distilling. His superior’s inability to make him grovel when in danger of the gallows, and his ability to turn the tables on them by spraying them with serious allegations of wrongdoing, made him dangerous enemies. Lancashire escaped the Sydney gallows twice by good luck: once because of a legal technicality, again because of an amnesty for capitally condemned convicts. However, he also continued to use his high degree of literacy and verbal fluency to construct effective self-defences from further capital charges. He had, in effect, intimidated the Sydney criminal courts into giving him access to pen, paper and ink before his repeated court appearances, so enabling him to defend himself as he had at the Old Bailey. These defences brilliantly parodied the theatricality of contemporary criminal trials, while usurping the manner of a learned gentleman of the bar, and so also breaching the existing order of power relations. Lancashire was also an able courtroom performer of the language of English liberty, heightened in NSW by accusations of scoundrelly conduct by magistrates and police. After one such outburst, Sydney’s Chief Police Magistrate felt so tarnished as to be obliged to resign.
Eventually, Lancashire was shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land, where at least, the Sydney authorities will have supposed, he would be out of their hair. Once again, the authorities’ hopes were misplaced, for all four convicts and half the free crew of the Venus piratically seized the vessel and sailed her off, first to New Zealand and eventually to Chile. It seems possible or even likely that Lancashire played a greater role in fomenting this piratical seizure than previous authors (including myself) have allowed for.
Ian Duffield, University of Edinburgh, email
Ian Duffield taught in the Department of History, University of Edinburgh, 1968-2002. Since, he has been an Honorary Fellow of Edinburgh’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology. He has published extensively on the History of the African Diaspora, especially in Britain and Australia; and on convicts transported to Australia, including on their autobiographical literature and orature. Ian Duffield and James Bradley (eds.), Representing Convicts (London, Leicester University Press, 1997), especially its introduction and first section, pioneered the application of narrative theory and related methodology to the study of transported convicts’ first person narratives. Also see Duffield’s contribution, ‘“Stated this Offence”: High Density Convict Micro-Narratives’, in the prize-winning volume, Lucy Frost and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (eds.), Chain Letters: Narrating Convict Lives (Carlton, Victoria, Melbourne University Press, 2001); and Duffield, ‘A Storm in a Teacup? Five Stories About the Trials of Priscilla’s Life and their Household Remedy, Arsenic Trioxide’, in Russell McDougall (ed.), To The Islands: Australia and the Caribbean, special issue, Australian Cultural Studies, 21 (2002). H. Maxwell-Stewart & I. Duffield, ‘Skin Deep Devotions: Religious Tattoos and Convict Transportation to Australia’, in Jane Caplan (ed.), Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History (London, Reaktion Books, & Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2000) analyses the narrative and other meanings of religious texts and graphics that convicts embedded under their own skins. Currently, a long article by Duffield drawing on the writings of Robert Stewart, a transported convict who escaped from Australia by piracy, is under consideration for publication in a special issue of the Journal of Social History.