The Thief Fleet James Talbot

Perihelion Imprint, pp.554, $29.95, ISBN: 9781469914824

Captain Arthur Phillip, Australia’s first governor, has always had a respected place in Australian history, but has remained something of a cardboard figure in the popular imagination.

In this powerful new novel of the voyage of the First Fleet, James Talbot brings Phillip to life as a man of heroic stature, contending with every possible disadvantage: leaky ships sinking under him, a disloyal subordinate, almost complete ignorance of the fleet’s destination, and a workforce of petty criminals he must make into farmers, shipwrights and industrious builders. It is the best historical novel of Australia’s first settlement I have read, and gives Australia’s founder some overdue praise.

Talbot also brings to light a forgotten fact of history. Phillip, the founder of Australia, was probably half-Jewish, son of a poor German Jew, and had risen to this command through ability rather than wealth or patronage, establishing a tradition of Jews in high and distinguished command that would be carried on by Monash and others (Monash being the first Jew to command an army in perhaps more than 1,000 years).

Phillip was given unusual powers for a colonial governor. According to Talbot, there was a definite reason for this. His command was far more important than it appears. Emptying the Thames prison hulks of a couple of weeks’ produce from the courts of convicted felons to carry them to the ends of the earth at astronomical expense is, Phillip is told, only a cover operation. The real purpose is to establish a fortress and naval base in the Eastern seas to protect the China trade in the next war with France: the American war has left both Britain and France broke and the first to get its economy in order will win the next round of the world war. There are the reports of Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook to go on for information — nothing else.

Phillip is shown as a fully human character, shouldering colossal responsibilities, high on a lonely pinnacle of command but knowing in himself his own weaknesses. An experienced secret service agent, a great seaman (some of the sea scenes are worthy of C.S. Forester), a diplomat who must obtain supplies for his ‘thief fleet’ at unfriendly ports around the world, he is a leader who must encourage his men in the face of despair, but is at the same time haunted by his own doubts (he sometimes lapses into Yiddish in moments of stress).

The power struggles of the officers are ironically juxtaposed with those of the convicts — the arsonist Joe Cribb, Leafy and Catherine Brandon — who, unbeknownst to themselves, will find in the new colony not the golden cities they have dreamed of, but still success and fortune.

This book brings home to the reader what a colossal, dramatic and unprecedented task the voyage of the First Fleet was, and its geopolitical importance. In organisational requirements and courage it could be compared to the first moonshot but little else. In London there are intrigues within intrigues, the heights of power and privilege touching the depths of the underworld. We are reminded that today we are only a very few generations from a time when men and women were burned in Britain for counterfeiting

James Talbot has explained his inspiration for the book as coming from seeing
a portrait of Phillip painted before he set out: he is looking at a plan of a Vauban fort. Someone had talked about the real purpose of the convict voyage.

While the details of Phillip’s character, including his probable German-
Jewish parentage and secret service work (he had posed as a naturalist, studying barnacles in a French Naval dockyard), are factual, there is another leading Jewish character among the convicts — this one fictional: Levy (‘Leafy’), a wandering hedge-physician who cures scurvy and whose advice helps the convicts survive
the voyage. There were in fact at least 14 Jewish convicts among the First Fleet. The reader is spared very little of the gritty details of survival (or frequently non-survival) in the London underworld, Newgate and the prison hulks.

From this minutely-drawn portrait of life in the 18th century underworld (Talbot has mastered its language and customs), and the tale of the bureaucratic and administrative nightmare Phillip had to navigate before the voyage could begin, the story builds to a desperate, dramatically visualised race through the Roaring Forties to get to Botany Bay in a rotten ship before the larger and better-equipped French expedition of La Pérouse beats them and claims the new continent first.

The final race to Botany Bay through a storm in a sinking ship is a smashing climax: after surviving the dreadful London gaols and prison hulks, months at sea and storms, the convicts arrive at last at Botany Bay (‘Bottomy’), maddened by dreams of great jewelled temples and streets paved with gold, to find it is… nothing at all. They crowd on deck, eyes hungry for the sight of land and the great wealthy city of Bottomy. The author’s delicate, painterly selection of the details of what they see highlights their unspoken horror, though so far, faced with something impossible and beyond understanding, they can admit to no more than ‘deepening unease’. Things cannot be what they seem, though there is also, for the reader, a hint of unspoilt, Eden-like beauty that may be seen as a symbolic ray of hope.

A flocks of gaudy parakeets screeched overhead as the barque ghosted onward. Pelicans floated past on the light breeze. A ripple of baitfish dashed for cover, outpacing dark, shadowy things below. Cribb swapped a puzzled, angry look with Thorpe, then shot another at Levy. ‘Oy! They’ve got it wrong. This’s not Bottomy…’ The bower anchor plunged, shattering forever the ancient peace of coastal forest and mangrove hip-deep in limpid blue water.

The Thief Fleet is the first of a planned series. It is already a major achievement as a piece of historical research, a study of characters, and a powerful and sometimes overwhelming piece of descriptive writing.

Hal G.P. Colebatch’s latest book is The Modest Member: The Life and Times of Bert Kelly.