Most of the time, history seems far away and the people who lived before us are faceless and forgotten. Of the convicts who contributed so much to the history of Australia, Robert Hughes wrote (in The Fatal Shore): “They were statistics, absences and finally embarrassments.”
Indeed, it’s not that long ago that Tasmanians sought to have the World Heritage Listed former penal colony, Port Arthur, renamed and ignored because of its ignominious past. They did not want to be reminded of their convict roots.
So it’s amazing to be confronted with real convict faces, as is possible via the Tasmanian government archives. This is William Marsden, photo taken in 1874 by Thomas Nevin.
And it was an unexpectedly moving experience to listen to songs detailing the stories of 17 convicts and their families in the Dark Mofo event, Vandemonian Lags. It wasn’t musical theatre, exactly, it was a concert with a context. Short dramatised introductions, recreations of judicial court trials on the other side of the world, for example, set the scene for the songs with projected images and film. Most songs were about specific people who were transported here as prisoners. Some detailed what happened to their offspring, others were about the crimes that got them sent over.
The performers were legendary musicians from the Australian rock and folk scene and the songs, which were based on original convict records, were all immediately likeable. The stories and songs are available to explore on the Storylines website, which appears to have been made as part of the overall project and provides an incredible educational resource.
Husband, who is a storyteller by trade, felt that the lyrics occasionally got in the way of the story and sometimes the story wasn’t clear, but I didn’t think this detracted from the overall mood. The variety of songs created great texture and it maintained a good pace. In fact — surprisingly given the subject — it was frequently rollicking and at least once it totally rocked out.
I cried twice and tried to pretend I didn’t. Having just visited Port Arthur last weekend, I had colonial history at the forefront of my mind and I was really receptive to the emotional hardships that these people went through, as well as their physical travails.
It’s so interesting to notice how our attitudes towards the past changes, and that what is considered valuable is not fixed. History, so often written and dominated by the wealthy and powerful, is now “interpreted” (rather than told) to include and perhaps give dignity to those who were once ignored.
The songs and stories in this show were about forgotten folk, a reminder that some of the most unfortunate occupants of Van Diemen’s Land were real people too.