Ten Rogues, by Peter Grose. Alen & Unwin. $29.99.
The most renowned escape from the worst prison in the world occurred by land. Alexander Pearce led his mates away from the Sarah Island penitentiary in Macquarie Harbour, across Tasmania's South West wilderness, doing so without maps, food, warm weather clothing or tools (except one axe).
Peter Grose has chosen to exhume the second most celebrated escape. Twelve years after Pearce's escape (in 1834), ten convicts stole the brig they had built, then sailed the boat to Chile.
Unlike Pearce's trek, no cannibalism was involved.
Grose, formerly a journalist, literary agent and publishing director, has already written about a rescue village during the Holocaust as well as two books set in 1942, on the bombing of Darwin and Japanese submarine attacks on Sydney.
He knows how to tell a story. Grose can keep up the pace, infuse colour into his tale, and give rambunctious life to his characters.
This narrative is chatty without being cloying, brisk but not superficial. Only one pen-portrait seems a little flippant; the monster Governor, George Arthur, is described as "despotic but tidy-minded".
Grose deftly milks and frequently corrects the quite extensive historical record, including two attempts at autobiography by his main character. Both were full of lies.
He includes two bonuses at the end of the story, a chapter on "what happened to ..." his characters as well as re-productions of two key documents.
Grose's main subject, Jimmy Porter, is excoriated on the first page as a killer, a thief, deserting father, con man and self-pitying liar.
Porter did, nonetheless, possess a few redeeming qualities, among them resilience, hard-earned nautical skills and bravado.
Moreover, Porter provides Grose with both "a compelling tale with a happy ending" and an avenue to expose the "sheer cruelty and injustice of the whole convict system".
Those seeking a more comprehensive indictment of British sadism should still be referred to Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore. For a deeper analysis of early Tasmania, James Boyce's Van Diemen's Land remains exceptional.
After an ingenious and humane seizure of their brig, the ten convicts (accompanied by a cat) sailed more than ten thousand kilometres on starvation rations, with no charts, in a leaky and untested boat.
Mutiny and piracy (both charges later contested in court) were never so benignly pursued.
As for Porter, having survived five death sentences he was last known to history absconding in the direction of New Zealand.