I’m standing on the point at Scott’s Head, watching whales make their way south. I can see a mother and calf playing. Their massive flippers beating on the surface of the water. Arching bodies revealing dorsal fins followed by towering tail flukes. I feel like they are putting on a show just for me but of course they don’t even know I’m there.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for Barney, perched up the mast of a whaling ship.
Jackie writes, ‘ A laugh bubbled out of me. Only minutes earlier I’d been almost crying. But up here I was king of the ocean, just as Captain Melville had promised. No one would cuff my ear up here. I could watch and think and watch some more. I might even see a whale …’
Barney, had left the safety of a home with the chaplain of the convict colony of Sydney Town, in the hope of making enough money to buy some land to farm. While he was living there he had made friends and learnt much from a young aboriginal girl, Birrung. When Barney sees a brown snake he knows to stand still.
Jackie writes ‘I stood like a statue … I’d only ever seen a statue once, way back in England, before ma was put in prison and me with her, and that was just a glimpse through London’s yellow fog.
The captain of a whaling ship, joins the Johnson’s for dinner and tells of the secret he has learned. The captain talks of ‘Great pods of whales sailing as if they had never seen a ship – certainly not a whaler.’
He says, ‘We are the men who go out in small boats, boy, after the biggest masters of the sea, we harpoon the whales, and fight them till they give up their lives. And then we take their oil.’
Jackie writes, ‘Captain Melvill looked at me again. ‘Have you ever dreamed of getting rich, boy?’ Barney can tell the captain is wealthy because he wears ‘probably the only unpatched trousers in the colony’.
On board the whaling ship Barney yearned for his life at the Johnson’s. Jackie writes,’He peered at me, his eyes as red-rimmed as the other sailor’s. His skin looked tougher than kangaroo leather, and as dark.’
‘But I couldn’t cry long. A face that was mostly whiskers and rotten teeth yelled at me.’You! Wasting time showing the sharks your buttocks! Captain wants you! Up to the Quarterdeck. Now!’
Barney finally has a chance to prove himself when he climbs the mast as lookout. This is when we see more tenderness from this young lad who has led a harsher life than he deserves. Barney spots a whale and the whaling ship gives chase and harpoons the magnificent beast.
Barney says, ‘But this was not a storybook giant. This was real. A great eye gazed at me as if to say, ‘Why are you doing this?’
Jackie has written a fascinating story which illustrates the lives of the convicts, free settlers and Indians (aboriginals) as the history of Australia undergoes rapid change.
It is also a story of compassion and integrity. We see that it is possible to break out of the cycle of cruelty that may have been your lot in life so far. How important it is for those in a position to give a helping hand to be there for those in need. A voice for those without a voice.