In 1782 at the age of twenty-three, farm labourer James Ruse was sentenced to hang for stealing two silver watches in the village of South Petherwin, Cornwall. He was reprieved and sentenced instead to transportation to one of his Majesty’s settlements on the coast of Africa for the term of seven years. He wasn’t taken to Africa because the convict settlement was almost immediately doomed by climate and disease. He was sent instead to a prison hulk off Devonport and then four years later to Sydney Cove, New South Wales. Ruse acquired some prominence in the history of transported convicts and that of his adopted country by being awarded the first land grant on the continent. He is Australia’s first self-sufficient farmer. But it does not end there for he was at the cusp of several significant moments of the infant colony, to such an extent that it appears almost strange.
He was reputedly the first ashore in 1788 at Botany Bay, ferrying the officers up on the beach on his back. He was among the first emancipated. As well as being given the first land grant at Parramatta he went and laid claim to plot number one on the Hawkesbury River, placing him at the apex of a conflict with indigenous Australians that at the Hawkesbury escalated to a war. His wife, convict Elizabeth Perry was the first woman emancipated. The description of Ruse’s process of composting and fertilising the soil in Watkin Tench’s memoir 1788, is apparently the first ever written record of such a process. Captain Tench who was uninterested and generally unsympathetic to convicts, devotes more than a page of prose to Ruse and singles him out for praise.
I am not aware of any historian suggesting an explanation for the repeated cameo roles that Ruse performed, for I suspect there is no research out there to be found. Let’s face it, European settlement was at its very beginning so it is hardly surprising that an individual, anyone that survived long enough, could be at the forefront of one endeavour after another. Yet even as we begin to look more closely, at one poetic moment: Ruse carrying the officers on his back up the beach, we learn that he had rowed the longboat from the ship Supply, a ship that officially carried no convicts, a ship that carried only marines including the Commodore, the future Governor of Australia. Why was he on board?
It is left to fiction to explain, to the art of story to tell us why. The James Ruse story needs the causality of plot and likewise historical fiction has an ongoing vacancy for the story of James Ruse. For another feature of this man’s life, are the pendulous changes of fortune, his long physical struggle against man and nature, and against man’s nature itself, including his own.
Those that know his story, including his many descendants, will each have their own James Ruse, constructed upon what biographical facts we can be sure of. His character is formed in Cornwall, that we know. In all probability brought up on a farm. But my James, the twenty three-year old that steals the silver watches is not a farmer, he is a landless labourer, a cottager dependant on common land fast becoming enclosed. He might even be a squatter on the edge of woodland living in a hovel he has built himself. He knows how to eke out a living, a food supply from a narrow strip of land, a kitchen garden, the few livestock he has on commons pasture. He is near the bottom of an economic system that dates back to the Norman Conquest, some say the Roman invasion. An agricultural system and an agricultural community that was taken apart at the end of the eighteenth century, as England went from a country of commons and common fields to a land of individualist agriculture and large enclosed farms. He is someone who dreams of establishing himself as a farmer, of securing a tenancy, of following his father. It is this ambition to escape common land farming that drives my James to steal the watches and it is also his cottager’s ability to live off scraps of land that enables him to succeed at Parramatta.
That he is chosen for a place on the Supply, and for a chance to prove himself self sufficient at Experiment Farm, I have put down to the humanity of Watkin Tench, and to the notion that Ruse convinced Tench that he had been a farmer with acres of his own back in Cornwall. Tench wrote out his life in memoirs particularly his early adventures but there are five years missing. Some say he was, for part of that time at least, captain of a prison hulk off Devonport, the Dunkirk where James Ruse was held. An unglamorous experience he chose not to write about. The Watkin Tench in my story is there, driving a plot forward if not the ship.
Until now Ruse has not had the attention of novelists or dramatists. He is perhaps seen as a little too pedestrian. The dogged farmer, clearing the bush, clod-moulding the earth. He didn’t escape, he didn’t try to, he never became a bushwhacker, and he wasn’t a highwayman to begin with. But he was a man always on the edge of calamity, his life and endeavours bound up with the very existence of the penal colony in New South Wales. He faced starvation, flooding at the Hawkesbury, losing land, beginning over, time after time, years of perilous sealing including a mysteriously ill-fated mission on the Speedwell. His story is epic because his deeds were quietly heroic. It is also an Everyman story of redemption and I have given my James a spiritual life as a Methodist. The James of us all we know became a Catholic in the end, shortly before he died.
Whenever I visit a stately home in England the guide will tell me that the property ‘was built by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1720’. Somehow I’m never able to imagine the earl with a trowel. I look at the marble, who carved that? Who built the walls, cut the stone pillars? What were they like, how much were they paid? Or as Bertolt Brecht put it, Caesar defeated the Gauls/Did he not even have cook with him? So it is with Ruse, barely known to many Australians. Though he has a school named after him he is for me still too much on the margins of history, perhaps because of his class, his unromantic occupation. He was also someone, one among many, who tore his limbs and bent his back making farm after farm to feed the colony, to feed himself and his family, to begin the making of modern Australia.
My novel The Stony Ground, The Remembered Life of Convict James Ruse is published by Waterside Press and is now available.
Forthcoming book launches Australia
June 23rd, Cambelltown and Airds Historical Society see here
July 8th, Hawkesbury Regional Museum see here
June 30th, Experiment Farm Cottage, Parramatta, see below.
July 1st. The descendants of James Ruse. Private function.