Scholastic Booktalk

Sentenced to hang at nineteen, then sent to Australia as part of the first group to settle the prison colony of Botany Bay, Mary Bryant refused to become a model prisoner, deciding instead to find a way to escape, no matter how difficult or how dangerous.

My name is Mary Bryant, and this is my story, just as I told it, not written down, because I have no schooling and want none. It was 1786, and I was nineteen, when I was sentenced to be hanged. I was from Cornwall, and there was little food or work to be had, and I had a family of four to support. So two of my friends, Catherine and Mary, and I became highwaywomen, living in the woods, and stopping travelers to relieve them of their money. But our career was over before it had half started, when we tried to rob a rich woman who didn’t give up her belongings easily. I grabbed her bonnet and purse, and we got away, but with the fog so thick, we walked straight into town, instead of back into the woods. I can still hear the judge’s words, ringing over and over in my head, “Hanged by the neck until dead.”

But as luck would have it, I wasn’t hanged. All three of us were commuted, sentenced to emigrate to Botany Bay, in Australia. But first we spent months on a prison ship, chained between decks. That was when I met my Mr. Tench. He was one of the marines guarding us, but he was kind to me, and gave me food and clothing, and in return, I was available to him whenever he wanted me. This didn’t last, however, because when we were transferred to The Charlotte, the ship that was to take us to Australia, he was closely watched, and was unable to help me, even after he found out that I was pregnant. I was fortunate, and both my daughter and I survived the birthing. Mr. Tench advised me to marry, and another prisoner, Will Bryant, a boy I had seen once years before, and noticed since we’d been on the ship, agreed to marry me when we arrived in Botany Bay.

The voyage was endless, and we were kept chained in filth and darkness the whole way. When we were in port, stocking up on supplies, we could smell the flowers, hear the noises of people and animals, but see none of it where we lay chained. We weren’t permitted baths or clean clothes. We lived with rats and lice, and some died with them as well. And none of us knew what waited for us at the end of our journey. We were part of England’s great experiment to colonize the world. But what kind of a world were we going to?

It wasn’t paradise, but at first it seemed like it, after the darkness and filth of our journey. There were just over 600 of us, and we set about to build a colony. But even as glad as I was to be off the ship, I wanted to get away from Botany Bay. And the day I married Will, I realized that we had committed ourselves to two partnerships. We were bound for life by colony law, but we were also bound in a partnership of escape. We would not spend our lives as prisoners, as criminals, but as the free man and woman that we truly were. We did not know how we would escape, but we knew we would, somehow. And we did.

This Booktalk was written by librarian and booktalking expert Joni R. Bodart