They’re All Just Boys

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.

 

What Pegman Saw: Tasmania

 

Historical Note:

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.

15 thoughts on “They’re All Just Boys

  1. A particular grim bit of history, but then, history is full of those. Love the voices on these two convicts-turned-guards. And yes, I can well believe that they treated the “boys” terribly, just for their amusement.

    I was especially proud of myself that I knew what all the archaic terms / jargon was this time. That’s uncommon for your stories, you frequently stump me. But then, that’s a bonus of reading widely: expanding my vocabulary!

      1. It’s a bit grim for me for a whole novel, but then I know a lot of readers eat that up: can’t get it too dark no matter how you try. It would take a lot of research, but you’re great at that — always giving us an interesting history lesson as a side dish to the story.

  2. I’m glad I read yours before starting mine coz I was gonna go down the same road. Now I shall take the left fork and go down another ;-)

    Well done, sir!

    1. For what it’s worth, I think there’s room for plenty of tellings of the same bit of history, but look forward to whatever story you want to share with us, Dale!

  3. So odd when you see convict photographs and realise how young some of the deportees were and as you say, for what crimes they were sent away for. Petty theft was often the cause – extraordinarily harsh considering how poor some of them were, how in need. Some of them made a good fist of it, astonishingly, once released. some of them even came all the way home to England once their sentences were through. As you say, Josh, a rich vein of story from which to hew a novel. Great writing as always

    1. I was thinking sort of a YA cross between Escape from Alcatraz and Papillon. I’m doing some research now. Pretty interesting stuff. Three boys did manage to escape, but many more died in the attempt.

  4. As above said, a grim history. But I can’t help but add a note on the conditions that ultimately delivered the boys here.
    The industrialisation of weaving and spinning tore the guts out of what had been a cottage industry. Unable to survive on tiny small-holdings, the disenfranchised weavers and their spinster-wives sought employment in the towns. Lucky (???) those who gained employment in the new mills. Most, unemployed were set to work for the parish penny. Typhus ran wild, and other plagues. Parents died. A four year old might be left to fend for itself. The girls sold their bodies, and soon died of syphilis. The boys thieved. One might say lucky the boys who were caught and sent to the colonies. For there they stood a chance. They stood none whatsoever in Britain.

Don't just stand there.