Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: Boswell and the Girl from Botany Bay by Frederick A. Pottle

Boswell and the Girl from Botany Bay by Frederick A. Pottle appears to be the first published narrative of the story of Mary BRYANT nee BROAD and her cohorts (including her two infant children), who escaped the penal colony at Sydney Cove on 28 March 1791 in a small boat and sailed about 5,000 kilometres to the island of Timor. A summary appears in several places including here.

The episode itself has subsequently been covered several times in published books - I first came across the story in a book I purchased and was extremely disappointed to discover was a fictionalized account - a romaticized novel based on the facts, rather than an accurate discussion of details. Frustrated, I turned to the earliest title I could identify on the story, by Frederick Pottle, a Boswell expert at Yale University.

Pottle's account is outstanding in its focus and simplicity. It is in fact the published form (Viking Press, NY 1937) of a Presidential Address given at the Elizabethan Club of Yale University by Pottle in 1932. The first print run was of only 500 (numbered), giving some sense of the relatively minor read interest in the topic, presumably partly because it was published in the United States. The book is structured into three parts, the first introducing Boswell and citing his mysterious support of a woman named Mary Broad in Cornwall, the second explaining to the American 1930s audience the settlement of Australia by the British and the journey of the First Fleet, and the third outlining Boswell's correspondence and diary entries relating to Mary.

James Boswell was a Scottish lawyer and diarist, living in London in the early 1790s. Pottle explains that when Boswell's correspondence was being transcribed, a letter written in 1794 shortly before Boswell's death outlines some financial instructions, including "…and put into the Banking Shop of Mr Devaynes & Co five pounds from me to the account of the Rev. Mr. Baron at Lestwithiel, Cornwall, and write to him that you have done so. He takes charge of paying the gratuity to Mary Broad". Transcribed in the 1920s, it was not known then who Mary was, or why Boswell would be supporting her financially. Pottle examined Boswell's records to show Mary was one of the escaped convicts from Botany Bay, and that Boswell advocated for the survivors arrested at at Timor and brought back to England. Ultimately the escaped convicts were granted clemency.

Pottle's description of the establishment of New South Wales is given (with an apology to Australians and Britons who might be more familiar with that tale), and he then turns to the escape of the convicts.

Pottle states that he had two sources to draw on when recounting the escape and journey. First, an account published in a newspaper by a reporter over a year later (cited are the London Chronicle, June 30 - July 3, 1792, published at the time the absconders were examined in court on their delivery in England). The second is the published journal of Watkin Tench, who had been to Botany Bay with the First Fleet on the same ship as Broad/Bryant, and was returning on England on the 'Gorgon' which picked up the Mary and the other survivors and carried them to England. Tench's journal recounts some details he obtained from the survivors. Pottle quotes directly from these sources in order to avoid the 'temptation to sentimentalize the story'.

What Pottle (in Connecticut) could not know is that a third source existed for the journey. In the archives of University College London was and is a folder entitled 'Journal (original) of J. Martin who in company with 12 others escaped from Botany Bay—on 20th March, 1791'. The document, commonly called 'Martin's Memorandoms', after the convict James Martin who identifies himself at the beginning of the text, describes the escape up to the point when the absconders arrived in England. Bentham had acquired the document, presumably as part of his opposition to the penal colony system. The memorandums were first published in the same year as Pottle's work (C. Blount, Memorandoms by James Martin, Cambridge, 1937), and have recently been re-transcribed with an excellent and lengthy foreword by Tim Causer (Memorandoms by James Martin, The Bentham Project, University College London, 2014).

Pottle makes the interesting point that three open-ocean voyages of such a vast distance  were made at that time: Bligh had arrived in Timor in the same manner two years earlier, and Edwards arrived shortly after Broad's party. Bligh (Bounty) and Edwards (Pandora) received great praise for their virtuous (and legal) journeys, whereas Broad's party achieved the same feat with little nautical training and two infants aboard the boat, to little modern recognition. Pottle suggests this disparity of recognition is due to the ability of the naval leaders to submit and publish their story in written form, whereas he asserts it is unlikely that any of the absconders could write.

While little to nothing is known of Mary BROAD and the other convicts following their release, Pottle shows that Boswell was forwarding money to Mary via the parish priest at her home village in Cornwall. It is remarkable that Pottle's research has not been greatly added to, insofar as facts related to the absconders and their fate is concerned. That Pottle was thorough is clear - he had  Vicars at a number of parishes in Cornwall search the registers for any sign of Mary after 1793.

Mary's fate is still unknown, and the work leaves mysteries that still remain unanswered. For example, Pottle notes that at their final farewell, Boswell wrote two pages of Mary's account of her escape, and these sheets had not yet been identified by Boswellian researchers. Included in the book is a picture of 'Leaves from Botany Bay used as tea' discovered in Boswell's collection as part of the search for documents relating to the escape. Two of these were later donated to an Australian collection.

Partly by being the first, partly because the work was first delivered in speech form, and partly by being outside the sphere of influence of Australian historical circles, Pottle's work is clear, well-structured, and gives an excellent factual summary of the events as they relate to Mary BROAD and Boswell's assistance in gaining her freedom. Pottle cleared a path than many of others have followed without greatly adding to.

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