h) Culture, history and literature
Love and Freedom in Van Diemen’s Land
This article was published on the Tasmanian Times website on 29.9.09.
In fifty years time, the film Van Diemen’s Land will be remembered, not because it was the first to deal sympathetically with the escape of “convict cannibal” Alexander Pearce from Sarah island in 1822, or that some of its gruesome scenes made film-goers vomit.
It will be remembered because it was the first film ever to approach the subject of convict homosexuality.
The references are subtle.
As the group Pearce escapes with falls asleep around a camp fire, their leader, Robert Greenhill, slides a protective arm around fellow-escapee, Matthew Travers.
Later, as Travers lies dying from snake bite, begging to be killed, Greenhill kisses him on the forehead (after hovering ambiguously above his face) and walks off. Despite instigating the deaths of the other escapees, Greenhill cannot kill Travers and leaves it to Pearce.
VDL’s director and co-writer, Jonathan Auf Der Heide, clearly didn’t want his film tagged with the line “gay convict cannibals”. But he also knows any claim to represent these events honestly would be undermined if the strong bond between Greenhill and Travers was ignored.
Contemporary historians acknowledge that Greenhill and Travers were unusually close. After meeting as shepherds on the Tasmanian frontier they were inseparable. Greenhill refused to abandon an ill Travers like he did other injured or lagging escapees. In his confession, Pearce himself refers to their relationship in unusually cryptic terms, “they had a respect for each other which they often showed to each other in many ways”.
Was Pearce suggesting it was more than “respect”?
Opportunistic and power-based homo-sex was common among Australia’s transported felons, as it is in all prisons.
What is less often acknowledged today, but which infuriated colonial officials far more, were the longer-term, romantic relationships that formed between male or between female convicts; relationships in which, according to convict official, Robert Stuart, “the natural course of affection is quite distracted, and these parties manifest as much eager earnestness for the society of each other as members of the opposite sex”.
These relationships could not be snuffed out by flogging or solitary confinement. Worse, they were the basis for a kind of solidarity or confederacy between convicts that could not be undermined by informers.
From the Ring on Norfolk Island to the Flash Mob at Hobart’s Female Factory, persistent insubordination among the prisoners was blamed on the leadership of a handful of unbreakable same-sex couples.
It’s no coincidence that Australia’s first same-sex love letter was written by a man to be hanged for leading a rebellion, or that in the official reports, mutiny and sodomy are virtually synonymous.
Greenhill and Travers’ relationship fits this pattern perfectly. With Travers as his right hand man, Greenhill instigated the escape, drew on his sailor-skills to lead the absconders in the right direction, initiated the cannibalism, and directed who would die until only he, Travers and Pearce were left.
The other form of confederacy portrayed in the film – between the Irish, Gaelic-speaking escapees – collapses before the unshakeable bond between Greenhill and Travers.
Did Greenhill and Travers plan the whole affair so they would be the last men left alive? Certainly, Pearce believed he would have been the next to die, had Travers not been bitten.
Seen this way, the events Auf Der Heide describes are better understood as the story of Greenhill and Travers’ deep bond and their ill-fated defiance of their imprisonment.
Only because, by luck, Pearce survived to tell the tale, did the story become his.
Down the years this story has acquired many meanings.
For the convicts in Tasmania’s remote convict stations it was inspiring for it meant escape was possible. For anti-transportationists it was symbolic of the degradation of the convict system. For contemporary environmentalists it speaks to how ill-adapted Europeans were and are to the Tasmanian wilderness.
Auf Der Heide says Pearce’s tale is about brutality in the midst of beauty, and how ordinary people are driven to commit awful crimes: messages he may also draw from his own conflicted ethnic heritage given the way the motto of Auschwitz – “work makes you free” – is paraphrased in the opening lines of the movie.
For me, Pearce’s tale is not his at all.
It is a story about the bloody sacrifice Greenhill and Travers made to love and freedom, a sacrifice which included the brutal deaths of their comrades and eventually themselves.
But it is also the story of how their shared desire for each other and for escape was dignified by surviving all the horrors it produced.
In Van Diemen’s Land the bond between Greenhill and Travers is the escapees’ final manifestation of humanity as they descend into hell. It is the one thing this party of starving thieves has left which echoes the beauty around them.
The relationship between these two men held out great promise and created great evil. But in the end its greatest value was that it redeemed them from the horror, meaninglessness and madness that was the world of the convict cannibals.
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A wonderful article. In my life, I have never seen a man be so selfless in helping others around him to get along and get working.