In 50 years’ time, the film Van Diemen’s Land will be remembered, not because it was the first to deal sympathetically with the escape of “convict cannibal” Alexander Pearce from Sarah Island in 1822, or that some of its gruesome scenes made film-goers vomit.
It will be remembered because it was the first film ever to approach the subject of convict homosexuality.
The references are subtle. As the group Pearce escapes with falls asleep around a camp fire, their leader, Robert Greenhill, slides a protective arm around fellow-escapee, Matthew Travers.
Later, as Travers lies dying from snake bite, begging to be killed, Greenhill kisses him on the forehead (after hovering ambiguously above his face) and walks off. Despite instigating the deaths of the other escapees, Greenhill cannot kill Travers and leaves it to Pearce.
VDL’s director and co-writer, Jonathan Auf Der Heide, clearly didn’t want his film tagged with the line “gay convict cannibals”. But he also knows any claim to represent these events honestly would be undermined if the strong bond between Greenhill and Travers was ignored.
Contemporary historians acknowledge that Greenhill and Travers were unusually close. After meeting as shepherds on the Tasmanian frontier they were inseparable. Greenhill refused to abandon an ill Travers like he did other injured or lagging escapees. In his confession, Pearce himself refers to their relationship in unusually cryptic terms, “they had a respect for each other which they often showed to each other in many ways”.
Was Pearce suggesting it was more than “respect”?
Opportunistic and power-based homo-sex was common among Australia’s transported felons, as it is in all prisons.
What is less often acknowledged today, but which infuriated colonial officials far more, were the longer-term, romantic relationships that formed between male or between female convicts; relationships in which, according to convict official, Robert Stuart, “the natural course of affection is quite distracted, and these parties manifest as much eager earnestness for the society of each other as members of the opposite sex”.
These relationships could not be snuffed out by flogging or solitary confinement. Worse, they were the basis for a kind of solidarity or confederacy between convicts that could not be undermined by informers.
From the Ring on Norfolk Island to the Flash Mob at Hobart’s Female Factory, persistent insubordination among the prisoners was blamed on the leadership of a handful of unbreakable same-sex couples.
It’s no coincidence that Australia’s first same-sex love letter was written by a man to be hanged for leading a rebellion, or that in the official reports, mutiny and sodomy are virtually synonymous.
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