Braniff mopped his face and wished for the thousandth time he had not come on the fetching party.
Digger Blake had tried to discourage him. “Not necessary, Colonel. Me and my boongs will find ’em for you. See Charlie there?” He had pointed to the black-skinned aboriginal squatting on the dirt, a tin cup of rum pinched between finger and thumb, pinky ludicrously extended like an auntie with a china teacup. “He may not look like much, but that boong never failed to bring one back yet.” Then Blake had grinned. “Occasionally even alive.”
Still, Braniff had insisted, and here he was. This was too important. The leader of the absconders was none other than the disgraced Royal Navy Captain Fish, and he must certainly be brought back alive. The newspapers in New South Wales were waiting. The townspeople expected a proper execution and by God he’d give them one.
New South Wales was founded in 1788 as a penal colony for Great Britain. Those convicted of capital crimes, usually some variety of petty theft, would sometimes have their death sentences commuted to “transportation.” The unfortunate felons wold be crammed aboard a ship and taken on the arduous voyage to Australia. It was a horrific place. Patrick O’Brian wrote of the colony circa 1815:
“It is squalid, dirty, formless, with ramshackle wooden huts placed without regard to anything but temporary convenience twenty years ago, dust, apathetic ragged convicts, all filthy, some in chains – the sound of chains everywhere. And turning into an unpaved, uneven kind of a square I came full upon those vile triangles and a flogging in progress, the man hanging from the apex. Flogging I have seen only too often in the Navy, but rarely more than a dozen lashes, and those laid on with a relative decency: a bystander told me that this man had already received 185 out of his 200; yet still the burly executioner stepped well back and made a double skip each time to bring his whip down with the greater force, taking off flesh at every blow. The ground was soaked with fresh blood, and there was a red darkness at the foot of the other triangles. To my astonishment the man was able to stand when he was untied: his face showed not so much suffering as utter despair. His friends led him away, and as he went the blood welled from his shoes at every step.”
Those who tried to escape, or “abscond,” as the penal government referred to it, were almost always caught. The savage landscape of the Australian outback offered little protection to a European, and the native Aboriginal people were excellent trackers who would sometimes work in exchange for rum. Once recaptured, the absconders were usually flogged to death in the public square. This spectacle was a popular diversion and usually drew a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers.
Australia is generally circumspect about its origins as a hell on earth for British criminals.