The hardship and savagery of convict Australia were highlighted by the novel For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke, in which he detailed the cruelties of the guards and torment of the convicts to a level rarely seen in those days. I especially liked the chapter in which nine convicts escape and are lost in the wilds of South West Tasmania. Starving, they eat a dead companion. Then, when that meat goes off, they kill the weakest of them and so on until there are only three and its dinnertime again and the weakest knows he is doomed and then the last two sit, facing each other, each waiting for the other to fall asleep and provide breakfast... The story was absolutely true, even if the sole survivor was not believed when, having been recaptured, he confessed to the cannibalism. Returned to Port Macquarie, soon other convicts approached him. They knew he would escape again and asked if they could go with him since he obviously knew the secret of survival in such impenetrable terrain, and he said: sure...
Often dramatised, the film was a very early Australian feature film, remade in 1926. For all his success, Clarke was always broke. He married an actress to ensure he stayed that way, leading a gaudy bohemian life that rendered him bankrupt. He was honoured with a job at the National Library but his lifestyle soon got him fired. He burned out and died in poverty in 1881, at the age of 35.
Then one morning, when this circle of brutality had lulled into predictability, the bearded monster took it into his head to add a more topical element to his class. Instead of handing out the green covered Everyman editions of the English classics, he passed around randomly a batch of slim variously coloured booklets: these were copies of the Current Affairs Bulletin, a publication issued by the government to advise anyone who happened to be interested on the background to many and various matters considered to be of national importance. Each member of the class received a different issue, which would be read under the normal obligatory conditions and then, in the subsequent class, would have to write an essay on that particular subject. I looked at mine—INSURGENTS IN INDO-CHINA it said. My dismay could not have been more complete.
To begin with, I had not the foggiest idea what the word insurgents meant—although I did seem to remember it being mentioned on television. Yes, soap-powders—that was it. They had something called insurgent power. Indo-China, I rightly assessed, was the name of a country which, the name so obviously implied, must have been located somewhere between India and China. I supposed it was in the geographical position that actually belongs to Nepal or Tibet. There, I knew from the efforts of Hilary and Tenzing, lay the Himalayas. And so, by means of simple deduction, I arrived at the conclusion that I was about to read of the laundry habits of the people of those mountain regions. Glancing sideways, I saw the next boy was set Advances in Nuclear Science, over the shoulder ahead of me was The Development of Aviation since World War II—eminently more palatable matters. I felt betrayed, thrown to the dogs, but there was no disputing the matter. Mr Demetre had turned his first page and so, grimly, the class did the same.