Tuesday 20 March 2018

Life in the Time of Van Diemen’s Land by Johanna Craven #History #Australia @JohannaCraven

Life in the Time of Van Diemen’s Land
 by Johanna Craven

It’s 1820 and London’s east end is dirty, overcrowded and crawling with disease. Neither you nor your family have eaten in days. Desperate, you make your way to Leadenhall Market and stuff a loaf of bread beneath your coat. You think no one has seen you. But you are wrong.

Your punishment for this petty crime? Seven years’ transportation to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land, Australia; a place too remote, too distant to comprehend.

For six months you sit below deck of the convict ship, chained to the sorry souls beside you. You dream of the family you left behind in England. A family you’ll likely never see again. Once a week you are brought above for exercise. There is nothing to see but ocean.

 When at last the ship arrives in Hobart Town you are assigned as a worker to a wealthy free settler. But you were not made for a life of servitude. You break your overseer’s jaw with the shovel he gave you to dig up his vegetables.

Soon you are back at sea. Chained again and shivering in shirtsleeves as the ship plunges and water seeps into the lightless hold.

You land in a place unlike anything you have ever seen. The sea is wild, the bush impenetrable. Purple mountains disappear into the mist. The men and women around you are wild and angry, the guards unforgiving. This, you learn, is to be your new home. Your task? Take to the monstrous pine trees with an axe and haul the wood back to the settlement. No horses here, you learn. No oxen. All the work to be done by men.

Sketch of Macquarie Harbour by Thomas Lempriere 1830, Utas.edu.au

This desolate place is Sarah Island Penitentiary at Macquarie Harbour on the rugged west coast of Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania). A place of secondary punishment, it was the most feared of all Australia’s penal settlements. “You must find work and labour,” the Lieutenant-Governor wrote to the settlement’s commandant, “even if it consists of opening cavities and filling them up again … Prisoners on trial declared they would rather suffer death than be sent back to Macquarie Harbour.” [1]

Remains of Sarah Island Penitentiary ~ Photographed by Scott Davis en.wikipedia.org
Despite the horrific conditions, there were few escape attempts from Macquarie Harbour. Even today, the surrounding bush and mountains are almost inaccessible. In the 1800’s, it took an average of five weeks of ploughing through rough seas and extreme weather to reach the harbour from Hobart Town— a distance of less than 200 miles as the crow flies. 

But on the 20th of September 1822, eight convicts took their chance. They leapt into a boat left unattended by coal miners and planned to make their way back to Hobart Town. But when the miners found the boat missing, they raised the alarm; lighting signal fires on the shores to alert the settlement of escapees. Forced to escape on foot, the men disappeared into the bush carrying food stolen from the miner’s camp— along with a solitary axe.

The fate of these men? You’ll find that out in my latest novel; Forgotten Places; a work of fiction interwoven with these true events. Suffice to say, the story of these eight bolters remains one of the most horrific in Australia’s history. 

[1] Standing Orders from Lt-Gov William Sorrell to Lt John Cutherberston. 8th Dec 1821

Johanna Craven

Johanna Craven is an historical fiction writer, pianist and film composer. After living in Melbourne and Los Angeles, she now divides her time between London and the Australian bush. She loves ghost-hunting, cooking (and eating) and plays the Celtic fiddle very badly.

Johanna released her first novel Music From Standing Waves in 2015 before signing with Endeavour Media for her second novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.  

Forgotten Places

Van Diemen's Land, Australia. 1833. 

English settler Grace Ashwell flees an abusive lover in Hobart Town, with six-year-old Violet in tow. In her head, escape is easy: find work in the northern settlements and earn enough for passage home to London. But the terrain beyond the settled districts is wilder than Grace could ever have imagined. She and Violet find themselves lost in a beautiful but deadly land where rain thunders down mountains, the earth drops away without warning and night brings impenetrable darkness. 

Deep in the wilderness, they find a crude hut inhabited by Alexander Dalton, an escaped convict long presumed dead. Hiding from civilisation in an attempt to forget his horrifying past, Alexander struggles to let Grace into his world. 

When Violet disappears, Grace's fragile trust in Alexander is put to the test. And while she searches for answers, he will do anything to keep his secrets inside. 

Inspired by the true story of the Macquarie Harbour bolters; one of the most horrifying events from Colonial Australia's bloody history.


  1. Such a terrible place. Thank you for sharing. I LOVED Forgotten Places, fabulous story.

  2. One can only imagine the horrors of Macquarie Harbour.

  3. How terrible Macquarie Harbour must have been for prisoners to declare that they would rather die then go back there.


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