Book Review / Dark Convicts by Judy Johnson

“Not many people know that in the first fleet there were 11 black men; most of them had been convicted for petty crimes.” Beatriz Copello reviews Judy Johnson’s Dark Convicts, an insightful book of historic poetry based on Johnson’s own ancestry.

Reading Dark Convicts by Judy Johnson immerses you in Australian history. It vividly displays the racism that was prevalent at the time of the first fleet and the creation of the first colony. Not many people know that in the first fleet there were 11 black men; most of them had been convicted for petty crimes. Johnson tells us that two of those ex-American slaves were her ancestors, they are John Randall and John Martin. Johnson says: “The descendants of Martin and Randall, black on both sides (as I am) as well as black on the singular Randall side, now number some 25,000. Many of them probably do not know of their slavery ancestry.”

Although this book is full of historical facts it is not a historical document, it is poetic narrative, where the writer includes, written in italics, quotes from the journals and books the writer consulted. Also preceding the poems there are small gems of background information to place the reader into the issue or situation.

The suffering, the pain and the struggle for survival of Johnson’s ancestors are portrayed through elegant poetry, each line containing thirteen spoken-syllables. By utilising this style the poet gives her poetry a conversational tone and a rhythmic sense of time.

The writer varies the length of the stanzas and split words for effect, like in Lieutenant William Bradley’s Dark Thoughts:

” Let’s say    as an officer of the crown      Bradley’s clear
cut in his rendering.  Let’s say    the natives were not
merely curious    about the black convict    but in

stead unaware of the difference     between themselves and
him.  Let’s say    they turned a blind eye to his prison garb.
Ignored the stink of elsewhere on him.  Let’s say    they were

deaf    to the cold warning chink    in the chain link of his
Incarceration.  How    in that trumped-up Colonial
game    white always conquers black. Let’s say    for a fact that

Lieutenant Bradley is no hypocrite    on race or
creed.  Indeed    let’s say    he concedes no contrast    slight or
profound    between pale officers and pale convicts.”

This interesting poem, which continues in the same vein, refers to one of the first encounters of one of the black convicts with the Eora tribe.

Some of the poems have better rhythm than others; On the Pleasures of Exploration is one of the best. This poem read aloud has a beautiful cadence. The following are the first three stanzas:

“The Governor’s officers come out to play.  Leaving
their supper and leaving their sleep    they come zealously
into (as we do not yet have a street) these brand new

woods in the colony    darkish and deep.  They come with
a whoop and they come with a call. They come with good will
or else no will at all.  A bit of salt Beef and a

bite of salt Pork.  Some Bisket.  Plum pudding from home and
I trust    a bottle or two of O be Joyful thrust
into our snapsacks    and onto our backs.”

Johnson has done an incredible amount of research to enable her to write this impressive book of poetry. The writer covers many areas/topics in the history of the penal colony, from racism to illnesses, from debauchery to problems, relationships and punishments.  It is remarkable the ability of the poet to present some of the cruel experiences of the prisoners without any sentimentality but with such talent that she is able to evoke emotions.  Dark Convicts is a very well written and interesting book making learning about the beginnings of the colony a pleasure.

Judy Johnson is an award-winning poet and her talents are well demonstrated in Dark Convicts. I highly recommend it.

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