McRoy rapped the bedstead with his cosh. “Rouse up, Jens. New lot’s arrived.”
Jens, never a sprightly waker, emerged from his sleep like a man wading ashore. He rubbed his eyes. “What o’clock?”
McRoy tugged out his watch and flipped it open. “Half six. Royal Navy starts early.”
They walked to the quay where a pair of longboats was in process of disgorging their cargo of dazed and frowsty convicts, red-clad Royal Marines standing with rifles at port arms.
“Jesus,” said Jens. “Blighters get younger every year. Look at that snotty. Can’t be more than ten.”
McRoy spat. “Hardest case of the lot, I’d wager. London brings ’em up rough.” He tapped his cosh against his hard palm. “We’ll see soon enough.”
The knot of boys stood pale and glaring on the stone pier, their slim wrists made ridiculous by the massive shackles.
Jens held up his ring of keys and began the speech he had given so many times before.
The prison settlement on Point Puer in Port Arthur, Tasmania was established in 1834 to cater to boys sentenced to penal servitude by the courts of England. The ostensible goal was to train them in some useful trade “to reform them into useful citizens.” There is little reason to believe that the boys who were transported to Point Puer were different in temperament to any similar group of boys today – the differences lay in their living conditions. Many were victims of the appalling poverty of British slums or the worse poverty of British farm labor.
The misdemeanors for which many of the boys were transported seem trivial by today’s standards, but sentences of the period reflect the attitude of the day when punishment was meted out to the full weight of the law. Indeed, punishment was at the core of the regime, the more severe the better. Many of the overseers were “ticket of leave” men (convicts who had completed their sentences), so violence was easily organized. The most serious crime in Point Puer’s history occurred on 1 July 1843 when an overseer was murdered by two of the boys at the prison.
Despite its idyllic surroundings, Point Puer was a literal hell on earth where the strong triumphed over the weak and callous brutality was the only means of survival.