My last blog post on ‘1788 and all that; poetry and the First Fleet’ has had some very welcome attention from two descendants of the first ‘convict’ farmer in Australia, James Ruse. Partly in response to interest from Caroline Ruse and Samantha Dimmock Ruse I’m publishing the ‘two Ruse poems’ thus far from my sequence on the penal settlement at Sydney Cove. First it’s worth knowing something about the man in question.
I’ve been writing the sequence for the past year and then along comes Jimmy McGovern to steal my thunder with his TV series Banished except he doesn’t, because he writes screen drama and I write poetry and fortunately for me he has avoided many of the key figures in the settlement, including James Ruse. Twenty three year old James Ruse (spelt ‘Roose’ ‘Ruce’ elsewhere in records) was sentenced to death at Bodmin Assizes in July 1782 for “burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Thomas Olive and stealing thereout 2 silver watches, value 5 pounds.” The sentence was transmuted to seven years transportation and in some ways the Cornish farm-hand’s story can be said to mark the beginning of European colonisation of the continent.
At that time the transportation business was running into difficulties on account of the American War of Independence. So, like many others James spent several years on a prison hulk on the Thames, five in fact. This meant that by the time the British decided to use New South Wales and he reached Botany Bay, officially he only had another year of captivity ahead of him. As far as the Governor was concerned this was a moot point.
James it is claimed was the first ashore in January 1788, carrying on his back to the beach the officers from a long boat. At the establishment of the settlement the Governor gave the former tenant farmer responsibility for ‘Cove Farm’ at the site of the present botanical gardens. It failed and starvation threatened the settlement. Ruse’s time was up but the Governor refused to provide papers for his journey home, offering him instead farmland along the Parramatta River. After fifteen months Ruse announced that he and his wife Elizabeth whom he married in 1790 were now self-sufficient in food, and their farm formed the nucleus of a small community of farmers who helped feed the settlement and while technically still convicts, enjoyed considerable freedom and later had other convicts assigned to work for them. In April 1791 he got his liberty and the deeds to his farm. The Crown apart, the first white person to own land on the continent of Australia. There is now an agricultural college in his name in Parramatta. Comments on the poems always welcome.
Susannah Ruse, Bodmin Assizes, July 29th 1782
James down there, handsome, filthy from gaol.
Caught in the silversmith’s house in the night,
two watches in his pocket, cheese in his mouth.
In front of a judge now, chin stuck out.
Married me in Lawhitton,
Lizzie already twisting in my belly.
She’s a prowling cat. Hasty James,
has an ocean of fields to teal now.
The pushed aside, eldest child is hanged,
reprieved, transported seven years.
I’ll not roar like others in the gallery, and he
no sadder than our wedding night, his lips write
wait for me. Gawky James, farmhand
with a farmer’s family to feed, I said
the silversmith would have a pistol.
One watch would have done wouldn’t it?
James Ruse face like Growan clay,
will pull a plough in his burgling clothes,
labouring right through our nights
as he crosses off his days.
James Ruse at his farm, Rose Hill, Parramatta River, December 1791
I James Ruse now of Parramatta
ten miles up-river of the famine
have harvested two hundred bushels from thirty acres,
have served my sentence.
The farm hand from Launceston
has fed convicts and marines alike,
ploughed out his life priced at two silver watches
at Bodmin Assizes.
I carried his Lieutenant to the shore,
grand and sparkling on my back,
I James Ruse, the first to face the land
dreamed of Cornwall
where the grit stone tore the skin
between my fingers till my hands
bled silver, harsher than the grasses
of the Parramatta.
One day the Governor will go
and I will continue to plant and grow.
I have my eyes on the Hawkesbury River,
on horses and hogs.