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BOOK REVIEW: The Ship That Never Was- The Greatest Escape Story of Australian Colonial History by Adam Courtenay

| 5 February 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Ship That Never Was- The Greatest Escape Story of Australian Colonial History by Adam Courtenay

ABC Books
May 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / History

90% Rocking

James Porter was a convict who once had two choices: a) toe the line and eventually be released or b) escape prison. In Adam Courtenay’s The Ship That Never Was we learn about how Porter took option number two. Courtenay’s tome is an engaging look at history that leaves readers overjoyed and scratching their heads at this perplexing character. James Porter was – among other things – a thief, a convict, an opportunist and a cunning manipulator.

Porter’s career as a part-sailor, part-thief had begun. Whenever those in authority were oppressive, his response was to bolt from them, steal from them or both. Porter was intelligent enough to know what he was doing – and he was well aware of the consequences of his actions, but the thrill of the game, the adventures and larks along the way, were just too attractive. Porter could not sit still. He was always about finding the next big thing. It wasn’t in his character to rest, think and plan ahead. Porter only knew the here and now.

Adam Courtenay works full-time as a journalist. He is the son of the late, beloved Australian author, Bryce Courtenay. You can see parallels between their works; both love quirky Australian stories and rouseabout larrikins. The big difference is that Bryce wrote novels while Adam writes non-fiction, even though this is one strange Australian story that could be easily mistaken for fiction.

The cockney sailor and book’s star, James Porter is an incredible character. In Courtenay’s hands this character leaps off of the page. Porter was convicted of stealing furs in 1823 and transported around the world to Van Diemen’s Land. He committed some more misdemeanours, including an earlier, thwarted prison escape. This meant that Porter was eventually sent to the remote Sarah Island, a place dubbed, “Hell on earth.”

Governor George Arthur is painted as a villainous man, especially in his ill-treatment of convicts and Aboriginal people. He closed Sarah Island and ordered its inmates be sent to Port Arthur, a then-new penal station. Porter and his fellow crew of prisoners feared the worst and used this opportunity to escape. They would seize control of the ship they had built and the one that was to transport them to their new jail. This unlikely crew were audacious and in seeking freedom, sailed off-course in order to reach Chile.

The Frederick [ship] was fast and light, but when you’re so far away from anything familiar, and with no landmarks, a small boat begins to feel lost. While Porter was an experienced seaman, in his memoir he reveals no love for any ship other than the Frederick. His relationship with this brig was unique. He had helped create her – at least in its latter stages – and she was taking him and his mates to freedom. In so many other ships he had been a prisoner; in the Frederick, neat and small as she was, he was free – but somehow the faster she flew across the waves, the more vulnerable and open to danger he felt.

Courtenay does an excellent job of painting vivid scenes for the readers. These help draw us into this page-turning adventure and leave us hungering for what’s next. One example of this is when the convict in control of this leaky vessel bids farewell to the Frederick’s former admiral.

[David] Hoy then made one final plea to the convict not to make this mistake, but again he was rebuffed. He then offered them what amounted to a blessing and his best wishes:
‘Since I found you will not give her up – I thank you all for your kindness to the whole of us, myself in particular. I know you have but little provisions to cross the expanding ocean and likewise a brig that is not seaworthy for such a voyage and may God prosper you in all your perilous undertaking.’

It is obvious from the text that Courtenay has performed lots of research. Porter penned two contradictory memoirs, and was an unreliable narrator and chameleon-like character. Porter also inspired Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. Courtenay has succeeded in teasing the fact from the fiction and drawn together information we can rely on. He offers up enough context for the period and captures the spirit of the times in this remarkable tale.

The Frederick ten weren’t exactly heroes but they were anti-heroes at the very least… Many of the newspapers simply trotted out the government line that these men had recklessly and mutinously stolen a boat. That they were pirates, thieves and mutineers. But the people saw things differently. By now it was well know that these men had acted more like Robin Hoods of the high seas than Blackbeard the pirate. They’d given the nine marooned men more food than they had kept. They had even saved the tomcat! The tale had all the most daring elements of the taking of the Cyprus and none of its less savoury aspects. The Frederick men had carried off a bloodless coup, and shown enormous largesse into the bargain.

The Ship That Never Was is being sold as the “Greatest escape story in colonial history.” This work lives up to this praise because it’s an entertaining and readable history book. Courtenay’s thorough and colourful text is a fascinating look at a brazen, ingenious, and likeable career criminal. In Courtenay’s capable hands, James Porter is the quintessential, Aussie battler – a storyteller untamed by the history books – until now.

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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