The Ship Thieves by Siân Rees

A true tale of derring-do that finds itself adrift on the high seas
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The Independent Culture

Life in Macquarrie Harbour, Tasmania, was not a pretty spectacle in the 1830s. This was the most brutal penal colony in a colonial society itself founded as a brutal penal colony.

Tasmania - Van Diemen's Land - was the destination of choice for the bag-snatchers and other pilferers who formed the cracked mirror to industrialising British society. For those who continued in lives of rebellion and crime, many years' hard labour awaited at Macquarrie. Life was so bad that some men would stick an axe into another's head just to be able to be shipped to Hobart and die at the gallows. One of the few to escape, Alexander Pierce, ate six of his companions in the process.

In this book, Siân Rees uses the backdrop of Macquarrie to elicit the narrative of James Porter, a chipper crook from the East End, who, by way of a shotgun marriage in Chile and a murder in Peru, landed up in trouble in London and was shipped to Tasmania. He became a serial fugitive at Macquarrie; rather than submit to the oppression of the captive existence, Porter and nine others managed to hijack a brig, sail her across the Pacific, and land in Chile, where six eventually escaped to freedom.

Porter's is an engaging tale, and Rees is a skilled narrator of the travails of a group of pirates on the high seas. She produces an artful reconstruction, in spite of the limitations of the available material. By far the principal source for the adventure is an account left by Porter; Rees is aware of the potential biases of such an account, but nevertheless it leads her to make Porter the hero and chief protagonist.

The main problem with The Ship Thieves is that Rees's decision to pare down her narrative to a representation of Porter's account lays herself open to the charge of historical naiveté. Little of the wider historical context filters through into the narrative. Nothing is said of Tasmania's relationship to the Sydney colony or the reasons why Tasmanian society evolved differently to that of New South Wales. Tasmania and Chile - the two principal locations - both experienced tragic conflicts between colonial powers and indigenous peoples, yet little of this is mentioned.

Rees unconsciously presents the world as the oyster of the British in which wider complexities are irrelevant. This may make for a more easily digested tale, but not for good history. Porter's adventures are left isolated and somewhat marooned, like the pirates, on the high sea.