James Ruse: the first white Australian settler.

My last blog post on ‘1788 and all that; poetry and the First Fleet’ has had some very welcome attention from two descendants of the first ‘convict’ farmer in Australia, James Ruse. Partly in response to interest from Caroline Ruse and Samantha Dimmock Ruse I’m publishing the ‘two Ruse poems’ thus far from my sequence on the penal settlement at Sydney Cove. First it’s worth knowing something about the man in question.

I’ve been writing the sequence for the past year and then along comes Jimmy McGovern to steal my thunder with his TV series Banished except he doesn’t, because he writes screen drama and I write poetry and fortunately for me he has avoided many of the key figures in the settlement, including James Ruse. Twenty three year old James Ruse (spelt ‘Roose’ ‘Ruce’ elsewhere in records) was sentenced to death at Bodmin Assizes in July 1782 for “burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Thomas Olive and stealing thereout 2 silver watches, value 5 pounds.” The sentence was transmuted to seven years transportation and in some ways the Cornish farm-hand’s story can be said to mark the beginning of European colonisation of the continent.

At that time the transportation business was running into difficulties on account of the American War of Independence. So, like many others James spent several years on a prison hulk on the Thames, five in fact. This meant that by the time the British decided to use New South Wales and he reached Botany Bay, officially he only had another year of captivity ahead of him. As far as the Governor was concerned this was a moot point.

James it is claimed was the first ashore in January 1788, carrying on his back to the beach the officers from a long boat. At the establishment of the settlement the Governor gave the former tenant farmer responsibility for ‘Cove Farm’ at the site of the present botanical gardens. It failed and starvation threatened the settlement. Ruse’s time was up but the Governor refused to provide papers for his journey home, offering him instead farmland along the Parramatta River. After fifteen months Ruse announced that he and his wife Elizabeth whom he married in 1790 were now self-sufficient in food, and their farm formed the nucleus of a small community of farmers who helped feed the settlement and while technically still convicts, enjoyed considerable freedom and later had other convicts assigned to work for them. In April 1791 he got his liberty and the deeds to his farm. The Crown apart, the first white person to own land on the continent of Australia. There is now an agricultural college in his name in Parramatta. Comments on the poems always welcome.

Fated
Susannah Ruse, Bodmin Assizes, July 29th 1782

James down there, handsome, filthy from gaol.
Caught in the silversmith’s house in the night,
two watches in his pocket, cheese in his mouth.
In front of a judge now, chin stuck out.

Married me in Lawhitton,
Lizzie already twisting in my belly.
She’s a prowling cat. Hasty James,
has an ocean of fields to teal now.

The pushed aside, eldest child is hanged,
reprieved, transported seven years.
I’ll not roar like others in the gallery, and he
no sadder than our wedding night, his lips write

wait for me. Gawky James, farmhand
with a farmer’s family to feed, I said
the silversmith would have a pistol.
One watch would have done wouldn’t it?

James Ruse face like Growan clay,
will pull a plough in his burgling clothes,
labouring right through our nights
as he crosses off his days.

Redemption
James Ruse at his farm, Rose Hill, Parramatta River, December 1791

I James Ruse now of Parramatta
ten miles up-river of the famine
have harvested two hundred bushels from thirty acres,
have served my sentence.

The farm hand from Launceston
has fed convicts and marines alike,
ploughed out his life priced at two silver watches
at Bodmin Assizes.

I carried his Lieutenant to the shore,
grand and sparkling on my back,
I James Ruse, the first to face the land
dreamed of Cornwall

where the grit stone tore the skin
between my fingers till my hands
bled silver, harsher than the grasses
of the Parramatta.

One day the Governor will go
and I will continue to plant and grow.
I have my eyes on the Hawkesbury River,
on horses and hogs.

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1788 And All That: Poetry and the First Fleet.

ff blogBanished 2

In December last year I made an application to Arts Council England to write a collection of poetry, concerned in the main with the first convict settlement in Australia in 1788. It paid off; I got the grant, which just leaves the writing part. In the application I promised a blog to all and sundry, so here is an early glimpse of a few poems and an invitation to leave a comment on the work and the concept of re-telling that historic endeavour through imagined poetic voices.

I began writing the poems last May when I was in Sydney. I’d read Robert Hughes’s ‘The Fatal Shore’ and Tom Keneally’s ‘The Commonwealth of Thieves’. After Hughes one wonders what there is left to say on the subject but what Keneally does is spotlight the first two years, ‘the starvation years’ of the settlement and in particular, the uncertain lives of individual convicts, marines, officers and Aboriginal people who make up this absorbing drama that isn’t the story many believe it to be. But Keneally only goes as far as a historian dares and I wanted to see the characters actualised and more than anything, I needed to hear them. In some cases that was not difficult to do. The transported Cornish watch thief turned settlement farmer James Ruse soon began to boast of his achievement to me having, fed convicts and marines alike/ploughed out my life priced at two silver watches/at Bodmin Assizes.

Initially I set out to tell the history of the first years of the settlement with quite a cast. I’d read every journal by officers and surgeons, noted their diet, the Aboriginal tribes encountered, the climate and the soil. A sequence of six was published in the last issue of Prole Journal which has been encouraging. What I have subsequently realised is that I also must go deeper rather than wider, to fewer characters about whom we know less or little. So, I strive to tell their mostly imagined stories through several rather than a dozen or more imagined voices. That way we may still get a picture of the wider experience in what was called New Holland. If I only achieve a sense of the personal experience of long ago extinguished voices that will be enough. Arts Council England have also funded a very patient mentor in poet and teacher Sarah Corbett who reminds me that the master I am writing for is poetry not history. This week sees the first instalment of Jimmy McGovern’s BBC television First Fleet drama Banished. Likewise he will no doubt do his job and serve his audience well. I only hope that his drama makes it more likely that people will want to read poetry concerned with 1788 and all that. Below, meet seventeen year old Jane Fitzgerald, a west country convict, seaman Jacob Nagle and Bennelong, the indigenous Australian who came to London when the first Governor returned.

Badlands
Jane Fitzgerald, Sydney Cove February 1788

Just the shine off them, the blackberries of home.
Bread dipped in butter, and chestnuts and eels.
My mouth is sore from fancying.

But I am not at sea now. I have my rations
without the pleasure of marines. They are ill-tempered.
Vermin won’t leave them be.

One who knew me on the Charlotte
struck another for two words to me.
He’s to be lashed for that. Won’t know his coat from his back.

After that I will go into the woods
lie all night in the dews with a highway robber.
A mutinous man.

We make free out here, of the land and the sea,
of each other. Marriage means nothing.
Seven or eight die each day.

There is talk of taking men to some island
weeks east. So red and rocky the earth
so fevered men behave.

They watch the lightning off the bay,
or look behind the camp up-river,
to China they say.

Healing
Jane Fitzgerald receives twenty five lashes for disobedience, March 1789. 

I only talked with him. We like to talk with each other;
our corner in the shade. But Bloodworth the brick-master,
the henhouse sneak, has folk flogged now, easy as the Major.

William went to plead but mister Tench said
I have written the sentence down. William said,
count every second stroke Jane.

I couldn’t count after five. I pressed my face
into the tree like it was my mother’s skirts,
Bloodworth shouting damned bitch from the crowd.

I cried so I saw my daughters in Bristol.
The girls are taller, waist high to their father.
Their faces are clean, their hair shines, their mouths shut bravely tight.
When it stops we walk to my hut. My eldest holds my hand.

Women are separate from the men now.
We have our own fires and places.
But William is allowed, he nurses me.
His narrow fingers, soft as water make me sleep.
I dread the flies that’s all. Their footsteps along my wounds,
the shiver of their eggs.

William is no soldier. His uniform hangs off his shoulders,
he is young, taunted and ordered by all others.
But he brings me the healing leaves,
sets down his musket, reaches for me.
I will sew his torn sleeves.

 

Mercy
Seaman Jacob Nagle on board the Sirius, October 1788

Seamen are not convicts.
The way the continent has it
positons are ice islands, ebbing, slipping.

Convict, marine, Governor, seaman
are false landfalls
crawled upon, starved, whipped.

A native sits at the Governor’s table
while we are taken with scurvy
scudding the Horn in search of supplies.

Behind us every ghost lives a week
on five pounds of flour, four of pork
two pints of pease.

Whales are about us soaking the deck.
In the watch we have but thirteen left,
that with the carpenter’s crew.

Tied below the third lieutenant screams
Tip all nines and we’ll see
if she rises for a set of dammed rascals.

We saw land but three miles off.
The captain brought his charts on deck.
He overhauled them. We saw surf,

trees, hills there were, brush and woods.
A man died in sight of it.
Then it vanished. The Cape Flyaway.

I have my ring, my buckles.
If we reach Table Bay I’ll trade my seamanship,
return no more to Sydney Cove.

Bennelong in London
Bennelong after the death of his friend Yemmerawanne, Eltham May 1794

Father you stole me, tied me,
made my tongue turn like yours.

While our words mixed like colours Be-anga,
another man took my woman across the shore.

I paid you back with the spear, I had to.
Your forgiveness carried me across the black seas to here.

I have not met your King, I have met your Isabella
who has nursed me, tried to save my friend

Yemmerawanne. I made a ceremony alone for him.
I am invisible now, lazy as the moon.

There are men under bridges who cannot read the stars.
Some will come home on ships, some strangled where they are.

Once we were like long ago, when all
had been made, yet all was in darkness.

I shall be home when the Emu is in the sky.
Then I will leave my English clothes for good,
but keep a handkerchief.