On English ground

by

The Argus journalist Marcus Clarke reports on the passage through Melbourne of French Communard prisoners en route to New Caledonia, 24 April 1873:

The arrangements for the safe-keeping of prisoners on board [the French steamer] the Orne are already known. Seringue says that he was treated with great kindness. A strange notion, however, was in his mind. He thought that any man who ‘touched English soil’ was at that moment free, and when the vessel reached Melbourne determined to escape.

[…]

At 9.30 he judged that the hour for his last effort had arrived… The night was dark, there was no moon, and it rained. When about 300 yards from the vessel he heard a cry, and thinking the alarm had been given, he loosed his hold of the boat and struck out in the direction of the lights on the Sandridge shore…

About half-an-hour’s swim brought him aground, nearly opposite the sugar factory. Wading ashore, waist-deep in water, he met some fishermen, and – firmly believing in his notion that he was now free – he accosted them, and endeavoured to explain who and what he was. Whether they understood him or not is uncertain, but with rough and kindly laughter they shook his hands, and pointed towards the town.

He went on, still firm in his belief that he was a free man, and entered Sandridge.

[…]

By and bye he found an empty shed, and shiveringly crawling in slept till morning. At sunrise he went down to the beach, dried himself, and then, having rested placidly until midday, walked calmly along the road to Melbourne.

A French gentleman, who had visited the Orne, was crossing the Falls-bridge about 1 o’clock, when he was hailed. He stopped. ‘Do you not remember me? You spoke to me yesterday on board the Orne!’ ‘Yes! But what do you do here?’ ‘I? – Oh, I am free,’ was the reply. ‘I am on English ground!’ ‘Are you indeed!’ cried the Frenchman, who had, like M. Taine, studied much the customs of Albion, ‘you had better say nothing and follow me.’

Hobsons Bay railway pier, c. 1870

The Argus also published, ‘for what they are worth’, three letters which ‘the Communist prisoners on board the Orne‘ had contrived to smuggle ashore while moored in Hobsons Bay.

They described the abominable conditions on board the ship, including 419 cases of scurvy among 550 prisoners – the latter caged, according to other reports, in a ‘human menagerie’:

Gentlemen Editors, – Confiding in the generous sentiments of great humanity which characterise the large English nation, some unhappy Frenchmen political prisoners, come to beg you to give publicity by the way of your newspaper to the facts which are next after…

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