Among the vast body of manuscripts composed and collected by the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), held by UCL Library’s Special Collections, is the earliest Australian convict narrative, Memorandoms by James Martin. This document also happens to be the only extant first-hand account of the most well-known, and most mythologized, escape from Australia by transported convicts.
On the night of 28 March 1791, James Martin, William and Mary Bryant and their two infant children, and six other male convicts, stole the colony’s fishing boat and sailed out of Sydney Harbour. Within ten weeks they had reached Kupang in West Timor, having, in an amazing feat of endurance, travelled over 3,000 miles (c. 5,000) kilometres) in an open boat. There they passed themselves off as the survivors of a shipwreck, a ruse which—initially, at least—fooled their Dutch hosts.
This new edition of the Memorandoms includes full colour reproductions of the original manuscripts, making available for the first time this hugely important document, alongside a transcript with commentary describing the events and key characters. The book also features a scholarly introduction which examines their escape and early convict absconding in New South Wales more generally, and, drawing on primary records, presents new research which sheds light on the fate of the escapees after they reached Kupang. The introduction also assesses the voluminous literature on this most famous escape, and critically examines the myths and fictions created around it and the escapees, myths which have gone unchallenged for far too long. Finally, the introduction briefly discusses Jeremy Bentham’s views on convict transportation and their enduring impact.
Praise for Memorandoms of James Martin
‘A meticulous transcription ...it exposes the extent to which historians’ readings of early colonial sources are shaped and driven by questions about our present.'
Journal of Australian Studies
'...This is undoubtedly a definitive publication of the Memorandoms. Causer writes with crystal clarity. His excellent introduction is followed by a facsimile reproduction of the actual document, each page opposite his transcription and explanatory notes.
Accessible and interesting to a general reader, it will also be a valuable tool for those who teach Australian history providing, as it has always done, the attraction of an amazing escapade with heroes and a heroine....'
'This new edition by Causer supercedes... earlier ones, benefitting from a superb scholarly introduction, detailed annotations, and full-colour reproductions of each page of the narrative, with transcription on the adjacent page. Being able to see the archival material so clearly brings to life the dangers the absconders faced on their voyage, whilst Causer’s annotations are particularly helpful to pinpoint the exact location and nautical references made within the narrative. As an open access publication, it would be a particularly useful teaching tool for students on courses relating to maritime voyaging, European-Indigenous encounters and convict escapes.'
Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History
'…the strength of this edition is the quality of the sepia reproductions and the excellent introduction. The uncertain handwriting, replete with semi-literate colloquialisms and ingenuous spellings, brings us closer to its authors and deep into their story. The volume is edited by historian Tim Causer, a specialist on convict transportation and the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham. Causer’s introduction distils an impressive amount of research into short essays on the historical context of transportation, convict life in New South Wales, the lure of escape and Bentham’s hostility to the colony.'
Australian Review of Books