We see history all around us; monuments to lives lived and lives lost. Cities brimming with entrepreneurial enterprise has made them what they are and the history of their eras is in every building, every business, every museum, every suburban street and every bridge. The everyday lives of people in our collective histories are in our minds as lives of families, villages, farms and armies, punctuated by events and remarkable individuals.
It is with quite some mental adjustment to live in a state (almost like another country, in reality) where convicts formed a great part of the white man’s history. Shipped to the other side of the world for crimes as small as stealing bread to feed a child and as big as murder, men and women thrust together in gangs built the infrastructure and were the manpower involved in businesses and life in Tasmania, at the very bottom of the world.
Today a great number of its inhabitants are descended from convicts and this itself is a deep and sometimes hidden side of family history. It was recently quoted that as many as 80% of those Tasmanians descended from convicts have never been outside Tasmania, even to this day. This makes for a far different place from the rest of Australia and a place where I feel a foreigner in some regards.
My travels by foot and kayak into the depths of its beautiful environments often leaves me speechless, for more than just the scenery; cabbages loom large! Before roads could reach these areas, boats and ships plied the seas and rivers, carrying tons of logs destined for England and the British Navy who needed timber for ship building, carrying minerals mined for manufacturing the construction of life in Tasmania and in Britain and carrying convicts to do the work. Do you ever think how they fed the convicts doing this toil, stationed in the remote wilderness?
I have been on the edge of the wild, south-west Tasmania world heritage area, mesmerized by sea eagles, grebes, dolphins and seals, by mountain ranges draped in soft sheets of cloud, by forests full of the fresh scents of wild Tasmanian plant life and then I am told that where I am standing was once cleared and planted with 5,000 cabbages to feed the convicts. Further on I am told that after serving time and gaining a ticket of leave, a convict had a very successful import / export business right here, shipping out timber etc and bringing in supplies for a town that grew to 500 people, mostly convicts. All this, where I thought was pristine wilderness at the bottom of the world.
There is a group of 3 islands just off the beach at Dover. I have paddled my kayak around one of them on a glorious summer’s day, feeling the sun on my back and revelling in the joy of being out in wild, southern Tasmania. Again my head is abruptly sent spinning when I am told that here too, on the next island, thousands of cabbages were grown by and for the convicts.
I would like to learn more about feeding the gangs of convicts and about the individuals who were the gardeners and farmers; about how they chose a site, how they managed the soil and what seeds they used. Some Tasmanian families probably are still growing cabbages and other vegetables from those seeds. I’d love to meet them and hear their stories. I’d especially love to have some of the seeds, the seeds of civilisation in Tasmania, and sow them in the Cygnet community garden.