During Australia’s convict years numerous songs were written documenting the experience of those imprisoned at the penal colony. For the first few decades these songs seemed to serve as a warning to anybody who was in danger of being caught for petty crime and sent away.
An attitude of defeat and resignation to mournfully serve out one’s sentence is present in the earliest of convict ballads. “Van Diemen’s Land” warns against the rural poor of England poaching, lest they be caught and sent to Australia. “Convict Maid”, another early ballad in which a young woman steals her master’s property to afford to marry her lover, ends with her regret and fearing she’ll die a convict.
In the decades after colonisation, countless rebellions had been put down and the majority of urban poor had been dumped in a completely foreign land with seemingly impossible terrain.
However, while the earlier songs may have seen people resigned to their fate, after the 1830’s a new type of ballad emerged. A sense of rebellion erupted into verse.
One of the major reasons for this seems to be in the rise of outlaws or bushrangers in the colony. The bushranger John “Bold Jack” Donahue spent 18 months giving the police the run around. He and his gang were seemingly untouchable.
People began to see Australia as not necessarily a bleak harsh land, but a place where an alternative life could be built, even if crime was the only feasible alternative. Needless to say John Donahue was the first of a long line of outlaws worshiped by the lower classes. A wide variety of songs have been collected about his exploits.
From the 1830’s onwards you saw the rise of what are known as “treason songs”, songs that openly speak of rebellion and would have been sung out of earshot of authorities for fear of imprisonment. Jim Jones at Botany Bay and the Donahue ballads are surely some of the earliest examples of this.
As small farmers naturally found themselves isolated and unable to organise as a mass force they sought heroes in Robin Hood type outlaws across the country. It was not until an organised working class grew and events like the Eureka Stockade and the 8-hour day struggle took place that decades of mass resentment could be channelled effectively.
By Corey Snoek
Jim Jones at Botany Bay
Oh listen for a moment lads and hear me tell my tale
How o’er the sea from England’s shore I was compelled to sail
The jury says he guilty sir and the hanging judge says he
For life Jim Jones I’m sending you across the stormy sea
And take my tip before you ship to join the iron gang
Don’t be too gay at Botany Bay or else you’ll surely hang
Or else you’ll surely hang he says and after that Jim Jones
It’s high upon the gallows tree the crows will pick your bones
You’ll have no chance for mischief there remember what I say
They’ll flog the poaching out of you out there at Botany Bay
The waves were high upon the sea the wind blew up in gales
I’d rather have drowned in misery than come to New South Wales
The winds blew high upon the sea and the pirates came along
But the soldiers on our convict ship were full five hundred strong
They opened fire and somehow drove that pirate ship away
I’d rather joined that pirate ship than come to New South Wales
For night and day the irons clang and like poor galley slaves
We toil and moil and when we die must fill dishonoured graves
But bye and bye I’ll break my chains into the bush I’ll go
And join the bold bushrangers there Jack Donahue and Co
And some dark night when everything is silent in this town
I’ll kill the tyrants one by one and shoot the floggers down
I’ll give the law a little shock remember what I say
They’ll yet regret they sent Jim Jones in chains to Botany Bay