UNDER SOUTHERN SOIL or Equal Under Southern Skies
© Tom McIlveen
Winner 2017 Nandewar Poetry Competition, Narrabri, NSW; Winner 2017 Boree Log Award Eastwood/Hills FAW, NSW (titled Equal Under Southern Skies).
When the Captain Arthur Phillip came aboard that afternoon,
he had checked his charts in readiness for sea.
He had timed the tides to synchronise with sun and stars and moon,
from his vantage point just south of Camber Quay.
With eleven ships to care for and a thousand mouths to feed,
he was bellowing and making quite a fuss.
He appeared to be preoccupied and paid us little heed…
and was hardly keen to greet the likes of us!
We were all convicted prisoners, selected by the Crown
to be banished to some God forsaken shore.
We were ragamuffin rejects from the slums of London Town
and as far afield as Dublin and Tramore.
Some were manacled and shackled, others hobbled, yoked and tied
by the ropes and chains that hung from neck to knees.
There were many sick and feeble, and a few had even died
from the scourge of malnutrition and disease.
We were herded in like cattle… single file and two abreast
into holding pens they’d built for keeping stock.
I could see the Captain’s officers were clearly unimpressed
to be sharing ship with such a sinful flock.
I was told to board The Scarborough, the largest in the fleet,
and as fine a ship as I had ever seen.
She was poetry in motion and was rolling with the beat
of the drummer from His Majesty’s Marine.
As we drifted through the Channel I could see the Isle of Wight,
and with heavy heart I bid her Fare-thee-well.
My beloved Mother England – almost gone and out of sight ̶
to be swallowed by the North Atlantic swell.
I could feel the ocean churning, smell its salted, pungent breath,
as it wept for me from wells of wasted tears.
It exuded sheer magnificence and cold impending death,
in a frightful world of unimagined fears.
I could hear the Captain howling…‘Pull the jib and trim the sails!
There’s a squall approaching somewhere from astern.
There’ll be wind enough to blow us all the way to New South Wales,
and then home again if e’er we should return!’
We had sailed on down to Santa Cruz and Rio in Brazil,
through the doldrums which delayed us for a while.
Then a trade wind blew and soon our sagging sails began to fill,
as The Scarborough unfurled with grace and style.
She was racing ever eastward through the warm Pacific Sea,
to a shoreline bleached by pearly shells and sand.
I could feel a strange vibration stirring deep inside of me…
that was primitive and hard to understand.
I could smell and taste the freedom of this isolated place,
that no king or queen had ever tyrannised.
Where a man could simply up and disappear without a trace
and be never seen again or recognised.
I will serve my time in New South Wales with all my convict chums
and the redcoats who control our daily toil.
But I swear by all that’s holy…when the day of judgement comes,
we will all be equal ̶ under southern soil!
By the time I reach the Pearly Gates I’ll probably be free,
though the scars above my ankles will remain.
So I cannot help but wonder…when they see the likes of me ̶
will they let me in without my ball and chain?
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