My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove
Publisher: Scholastic Australia
Buy: Scholastic Australia
“ROSE HILL. SATURDAY 3rd April, 1790
Yesterday was Good Friday. Master Henry Dodd gathered his servants together to read “the Lord’s Prayer”. He made us repeat it after him. Sarah says to never tell anyone that I know my letters. She fears that if the officers hear that I can read and write, they might decide to send me elsewhere, and that this would separate us.”
1790 Yesterday was Good Friday. Master Henry Dodd gathered his servants together to read “the Lord’s Prayer”. He made us repeat it after him. Sarah says to never tell anyone that I know my letters. She fears that if the officers hear that I can read and write, they might decide to send me elsewhere, and that this would separate us.”
Lizzie Harvey, a convict transported to Sydney Cove, is starving and overworked.
She has to fetch the water, please her master, do all the housework, and look after sickly Emily, and tiptoe around moody Winston. She can barely find time to dream about the way things used to be, much less write in her diary.
BRIEF OUTLINE OF STORY
ELIZABETH (LIZZIE) HARVEY was convicted of stealing a linen gown and a silk bonnet worth 7 shillings and transported to Australia on the First Fleet.
After swapping two onions for a journal, her diary begins in 1790 when she is thirteen and working as a domestic on Henry Dodd’s farm at Rose Hill. Lizzie intends to post this diary to her younger brother Edward who lives in the Cotswolds in England. Because they have been parted these last four years, the entries interweave how she came to be in Botany Bay and present day happenings.
Orphaned at nine, Lizzie went to London to be an apprentice where she was unjustly accused of theft and sent to Newgate Prison. There she was befriended by Sarah Burke who became her staunch ‘protector’. Lizzie describes her life in the hulks, the 252 day voyage on the Lady Penrhyn, the landing in Botany Bay and working as a domestic for Surgeon James Russell, his son Winston and little asthmatic Emily. Plus her first contact with the Aborigines.
Lizzy’s account of life in the new colony takes place over 2 months during the very worst of the ‘starving years’. It opens just before the foundering of the flagship Sirius (5th April 1790) and ends with the arrival of the 2nd Fleet. (June 3rd 1790)
FICTIONALIZING HISTORY FOR YOUNG READERS
Goldie Alexander (pub Viewpoint Spring 2000)
The first My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove (2000) is set in 1790. This is one of a number of diaries published by Scholastics, (and now published in the UK as My Story: Transported.) Like their American counterpart, these are intended to bring Australian history to life. When I began researching this novel, I found that I knew very little about our first European settlers. The more I read, the more I was struck by the difficulties the First Fleet suffered. Conditions in 18th century English jails and hulks, on board the convict ships and the early days of New South Wales, were appalling. I was particularly interested in that period of total isolation between April when the Sirius foundered off Norfolk Island and the coming of the 2nd Fleet in June.
“We… in Rosehill (Parramatta)… ‘ are a long day’s walk from Sydney Cove. Any news is slow to arrive. However we now know that the flagship Sirius, which was coming from Capetown with food and other supplies has been wrecked on a reef at Norfolk Island.
‘Have you anything else to report?’ Sarah demanded of the sailor who came to deliver this sad news.”
My research took me to many different sources, in particular Watkin Tench’s diaries, and Captain Phillip’s letters. The language might be archaic, but the contents struck a very modern note. Phillip’s reasoning for sending Lieutenant Ross to Norfolk Island are not dissimilar from a contemporary CEO sending his difficult 2IC to an inaccessible branch of that same business. Watkin Tench could rarely remark on any person or incident without adding some sardonic comment of his own. They talk of ‘Opened up a elderly convict’s belly and found it empty.’ ‘Convicts refusing to share cooking pots.’ ‘A woman dying of over eating by consuming all her rations in one meal.’ Provisions were running out and their first attempts at farming had failed. Governor Phillip had placed everyone – freeman and convict alike – on starvation rations. What they desperately craved was what they perceived as ‘real food’: that is pickled pork, mutton, and ships biscuits. With too few muskets to go around, fishing boats or lines, or a willingness to learn from the local ‘indians’, hunger prevailed. Meanwhile, as the historian Alan Frost points out, they were surrounded by a profusion of seafood, wild game, and Vitamin C iron-rich wild spinach and sarsaparilla. Perhaps this helped them survive. The evidence lies in the astonishing number of women that became pregnant. To become pregnant they had to be menstruating. It is also interesting to note that significantly fewer children died than if they had stayed in England’s appalling 18th Century cities.
My challenge was to get this down in a palatable form for young readers as well as create ‘a good read’. In a way it was those awful conditions that wrote its own story. Briefly: In 1790, Sydney is a convict colony. Elizabeth Harvey is sent there for stealing clothes worth seven shillings. Her diary revealed her struggles as she copes with starvation, disease, brutal punishment, isolation and drunkenness. Lizzie talks about tackling simple domestic tasks, homesickness, looking after the doctor’s sick daughter Emily, her ‘sparring’ friendship with Winston, and defending Simple Sam from an avenging mob. Her diary, though imaginary, was partly based on the real life story of Elizabeth Hayward, the youngest female convict shipped to Botany Bay.
I perceived Lizzie as brave, curious and somewhat rebellious, part of the new colony’s emerging spirit. She says,
‘Sarah says that the Governor think Master Dodd the most trustworthy man in all Port Jackson. Though she also adds that my Master puts too much faith in God – and not enough in hard work- to get us out of our misery. But it seems to me that if all my Master says about God is true, and if God were listening, then our poor lives would not be as sad. Yet, I would never dare say this aloud, as surely I would be flogged for blasphemy.”
The writing had to be simple, yet sound authentic. No way could I use the complex and melodramatic language of the 18th Century. I kept sentences short and avoided contractions. Lizzie says to Winston, “Excuse me, sir. That book. Is it something I can write in?” Also, because this was a diary, I had to tell the action instead of showing it. She writes, “Sydney Cove is full of murderers & thieves.” Plus I had to do something that was foreign to all my writerly impulses, and that was to tell the action instead of showing it.
However where possible, I used dialogue to show what was happening:
“My Master said, ‘Many folk may not survive. It is hard to collect food when we have so little shot and only two fishing boats.’
At this such a gloom fell over us I was almost sorry that I am still alive…”
There’s an automatic pruning in historical novels written for younger readers. Anything that doesn’t move the story along must be eradicated. The historical background can only exist as an unconscious framework. The characters must live solidly in their world to make them credible. They must keep their feet firmly placed in their own reality. At the same time there was so much information I wanted to get across. If the reader is ‘historically unsophisticated’, the novel had to contain enough information to make sense of the story. My solution was for Lizzie to fill her brother in on everything that had happened to her since they were last together.
She says, “Though it is four long years since we last were together… I plan to use it (the diary) to describe my present life, and a little of how I came to be here…”
However certain frustrations ensued. So many facts that I had painfully researched couldn’t be used – for example, a true account of the sexual misdemeanors of the 1st fleet, as that might have been a little too ‘real’ for many young readers. Also, I tried to make my convicts sound like cockneys by dropping letters and messing up their grammar. But my editor was worried that my readers might have problems with this, and she fixed it all up…
First Fleet Resources on the Internet
- First Fleet 1788 #1
- First Fleet 1788 # 2
- Women Convict Assignments
- Convicts from Lincolnshire (on line list – database)
- Papers of Sir Joseph Banks
- Gondwana to Gold
- The Provisions Carried by the First Fleet
- Activities for Students and other links to the First Fleet Data
- First Fleet Fellowship – Ships and Voyage, Pictures and history of the ships of the First Fleet, and how to become a member if your ancestors arrived on the First Fleet
- The First Fleet Home Page List of Marines and database of convicts on the First Fleet
- Australian Facts
HISTORICAL NOTE: See the back of the book for more detail.
.This book is one of the books in the My Australian Story series, which is an Australian version of Dear America, featuring the fictional diaries of young people during different events in Australian history.
The year is 1790, in colonial Sydney, Australia. Elizabeth Harvey, or Lizzie as she is called, is a young girl sent to Sydney Cove as a convict. Wrongly convicted of stealing from her employer, Lizzie was forced to leave behind her beloved brother in England and was transported to Sydney, where she lives in servitude. Life is very difficult in the colony, and food is scarce. Will Lizzie survive to ever see her brother and home again?
Written in the form of Lizzie’s diary, this book brought to life the early days of colonial Australia through the eyes of young convict girl. The book describes the injustices faced by the lower class in early England and the hardships of settling a new land. I recommend this book to young readers who enjoy historical fiction written in diary form and who enjoyed other books in the My Story series.
25,000 copies of this novel have now been published!