In June of 1873, Ned Kelly found himself transferred from Pentridge Prison to the prison hulk Sacramento in Hobson’s Bay. This creaky old cargo ship, converted into a floating prison and painted brilliant yellow, would be his home for the next three months.
The travel to Williamstown had been uneventful, but through the limited view he was afforded by his conveyance he had snatched glimpses of the country through which he was travelling. He was unimpressed. Ned soon found himself at the beach near the famous timeball tower, walking down a jetty to a small boat that was waiting to transfer the prisoners to the ship. The smell of a salty breeze brushing over the surface of the water was unlike anything Ned had experienced before. He climbed into the boat cautiously. He had been on a punt before but this seemed far more unstable and he was nervous about the way the craft wobbled. Once they were on their way Ned did his best to examine his surroundings in order to drown the anxiety the rickety boat instilled. The yellow prison hulks were dotted along the bay, anchored in place far enough away from shore to deter any convict with delusions about their swimming prowess. Seagulls circled overhead, their voices crackling and screeching in the wind, and boats of varying sizes and shapes could be seen beyond the hulks going about their business.
Once Ned was on board and checked in he was marched below the deck and taken to his cell. The whole structure was musty and dark, reeking of dirt, mould and effluent. There was no talking, just the murmur of human activity punctuated with wet coughing. Ned did his best to settle into the tiny wooden box that qualified as a cell. Though it wasn’t as mercilessly cold and unyielding as the bluestone of Pentridge or the granite of Beechworth, there was nothing comforting about his new lodgings.
That night was a frigid and restless one with every footstep from the patrolling guards reminding Ned that there was no escape. Even putting aside the cruel and unusual punishment that the hulks were infamous for, the feeling was one of utter oppression.
It had been twenty years since the heyday of the quarry at Point Gellibrand, when convicts spent their days digging up and splitting stone. Though the untapped resources of the area had decreased in that time due to the remarkable efficiency of men working to avoid corporal punishment, there was still plenty of work to be done. Ned was assigned to building a seawall, carrying lumps of stone for constructing a barrier against the ocean in an effort to tame the waters. It was not highly skilled work, but with Ned’s strong eighteen year-old body he found the work to be relatively easy to adapt to. He was springy like a sapling, and the strain of his labours provided him with a welcome numbness to his longing for home and a pot of stewed kangaroo.
Ned wandered over to the shoreline with the handcart full of stone and paused for a moment. He gazed out at the huge blue-green expanse beyond the ships. He had heard so many stories about convicts travelling to Australia in hulks. Even his late father had occasionally reached the delicate point of intoxication wherein he felt free enough to tell of the experience of being transported from Ireland as a convict, before he was slurring and rambling and passing out again. It never occurred to Ned how unfathomably huge the ocean must be. Living in the bush, he had never seen so much water in one place. Certainly he had never seen water as blue as this. The smell of the salt and the cackling of sea birds on the beach was alien to Ned, who was more accustomed to the tangy scent of eucalypt and the warbling of butcher birds. Suddenly he was overwhelmed by the reality of how far away from home he was and how long it would be before he could return.
As the days passed, Ned’s thoughts dwelled on the day he could return to Greta and his mother. He yearned for the taste of roast lamb, the soft crunch of dry earth beneath his feet, the comfort of a bed. He vowed to himself never to end up in such a godforsaken place as Pentridge or Sacramento ever again. Every day he observed the way the confines of prison whittled away at a man, stripping him of his humanity like the flow of a river smoothing jagged stones until all that was left was a blunt and useless lump.
He wondered what his father had endured in prison that had turned him to drink. Ned had once thought his father a weak and immoral man for spending his last months almost drowning himself in poitín. Now he realised how it must have broken him to realise he had failed as a provider, then to be taken to the dungeons and treated like an untamed beast, all the while knowing his family was outside struggling without him. And for what? Taking possession of a single stray calf in order to provide precious meat that he could not otherwise afford to his hungry children, though he had tried to do so through honest means but failed. As Ned saw it, his father was a man who had tried to make a go of things but had been denied success through twists of fate. He was punished for having the good grace not to plunder and pilfer the gifts of the land like the squatters and in so doing had doomed his family to poverty and desperation. Ned regarded the injustice bitterly. He knew that he would never see eye to eye with squatters, who had seized all the best land for nurturing stock and raising crops. A squatter would never have to spend days churning up rock-hard earth with inadequate tools just to be able to plant seeds, only to discover the dirt was infertile and nothing would sprout. They would never have to worry about falling behind in their payments and losing their home if the yield from their harvest had fallen short. Ned was not simply jealous; he was endowed with a deep, bubbling resentment that fermented something furious and rebellious within him.
For the prisoners, the one luxury that made things almost bearable was tobacco. Those who did smoke were permitted a ration and once it was gone it was gone. Ned had tried to cut back on smoking, a habit he had picked up from Harry Power, and as a result he found himself with unused tobacco. While working on the seawall one August day he heard one of the other prisoners complaining that he had run out and was aching for a smoke. Ned saw no need to hoard the unsmoked tobacco he had with him and gave it away. Such a gesture had its benefits of course, such as creating alliances. Unfortunately for Ned, he was spotted by the guard. This earned him a week without access to any tobacco at all. He was lucky to have been spotted by one of the more even handed guards. On any other day such an infraction would have landed him a severe beating and solitary confinement – none of which would be on the books though. It was a harsh response to a harmless display of camaraderie, but Ned learned his lesson and would never go out of his way for his fellow inmates again. If he had any hope of getting home, he needed to knuckle under.
Since beginning his prison term Ned had gone from a petulant and aggressive youth of sixteen to being a hard-working and sullen young man of eighteen. He kept quiet and went out of his way to be industrious and obedient. The gaunt face and thin limbs he had possessed as a boy had filled in. His arms were now like coiled rope. His dark eyes bore a determined expression and his mouth remained tight lipped, creating a standoffish appearance. He packed his feelings down deep and became like a machine; unfeeling and efficient. Prison was no place for boys. It was a factory where puppy fat was pressed into rippling musculature and Ned was determined to be the man among men.
The return to Pentridge was a sign to Ned that his time in purgatory was almost done. As he bundled into the wagon to leave the settlement at Point Gellibrand he looked back at the blue horizon and the yellow prison ships. A part of him remained there at the beach, pinned between the stones that thrusted out to sea. The layers of innocence had shredded away in the sea breeze to reveal a powerfully proportioned young stag. He would not miss the ocean’s company. He craved the majesty of mountain ranges and the undulating hills of his home town. He knew it was not far away; he could almost taste the dust.