Adam Courtenay, The Ship That Never Was: The Greatest Escape Story of Australian Colonial History

HarperCollins Publishers (ABC Books), 323 pp., ISBN: 978073333857, p/bk, AUS$29.99

In a genuine example of fact is stranger than fiction,  journalist Adam Courtenay’s book The Ship That Never Was takes us on the gripping journey of James Porter; a man who could quite easily take out the title of Australia’s most roguish lad.

Porter’s story starts out in a way that is not too different from so many convict stories of the early-nineteenth century. He is done for stealing (in this case a stack of beaver furs) and dispatched to the far side of the world. In Van Diemen’s Land, Porter’s story is revealed as being a bit different to most as, with far more confidence than the average convict, he takes extraordinary risks from pranking – he advises humourless colonial officials that he is a “beer-machine maker” (p. 10) – through to thefts and then made multiple escape attempts. Porter took “the duty of every recalcitrant who swore the prisoner’s motto: death or liberty” very seriously (p. 8).

Sent to the notorious Macquarie Harbour, Porter worked alongside a ragged group of fellow convicts on a ship that was being constructed to transport the prisoners to a new penal station: Port Arthur. In one of the boldest escapes in Australian history, Porter led a group of men to steal the ship and sailed off. The ridiculous, and poorly thought-through plan succeeds and the rough-and-ready crew make it, incredibly, all the way to Chile. But that is not the end of the story.

Courtenay has a great talent for bringing dead men back to life. For example, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur is clearly a difficult person rather than just an historical figure when Courtenay describes him as having “the look of a man mildly appalled at everything he surveyed” (p. 28). Similarly, Courtenay’s summary of Alexander Maconochie’s achievements, though quite brief, presents the former prisoner of Napoleon Bonaparte and later a superintendent of Norfolk Island as not just a noted prison reformer but, rather, as an extraordinary human being who was decades ahead of his time (pp. 299-302). Courtney saves the bulk of his effort for Porter. Indeed, his admiration and his sympathy for Porter is quite pronounced with repeated references to his spunk and his tolerance for physical pain alongside his glossing over of some of Porter’s more dreadful deeds, including the abandonment of his young wife and family in South America.

Written as creative non-fiction, the work speeds along. It is well researched (though I would not have listed Marcus Clarke’s 1870s story For the Term of His Natural Life as a primary resource) and, as the Acknowledgements reveal, the project was supported by a strong and skilled team. A disappointment for researchers are the picture captions throughout the text that offer descriptions of, rather than information about, the image (the absolute briefest of picture credits are listed on the copyright page rather than with the image or the acknowledgements; most people would find the detail provided insufficient to locate the original). The volume also lacks an index which would have made the book a more useful resource.

The Ship That Never Was is however a fast-paced and fascinating tale. It’s a great entry point for people reading about colonial Australia for the first time, as well as an informative read for those who are more familiar with Australia’s modern beginnings.


Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, September 2018

For a preview of the book visit the HarperCollins website

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