Vandemonians by Janet McCalman

Reviewed by Lisa Molloy MAAGRA

Recently published in 2021 this book is the result of a collaborative project which used the dataset of 25 000 convicts transported to Van Demien’s Land, ‘Founders and Survivors:  Life Course Ships Project’.  It reveals the secrets hidden by Victorian families regarding their Tasmanian heritage.  Victorian records were matched with the convict records of Vandemonians who crossed the Bass Strait in the gold rush years.

Janet McCalman exposes the intergenerational trauma passed down by convicts and measures success by whether a family was created.  Of particular interest to me were the short biographies at the back of the book.  They provide a cradle to grave snapshot detailing key records and original documentation sources.  Further insights were made by noting whether a descendent joined up with the AIF in the First World War.  I was also drawn to the portraits which depict the hardships suffered by these reluctant migrants, bringing to mind the old adage a picture is worth a thousand words.

The majority of Vandemonians disappeared into obscurity and led a miserable existence, self-medicating with alcohol and often plagued by violence.  An interesting research find was the common trait of the Vandemonian convicts was to come from a ‘fractured family’ – where one or both of the parents were either dead or absent.  The data also revealed that for both men and women who were born in a British port city their life expectancy and family creation prospects were reduced.

Another interesting fact is the lack of state funded education in Victoria.  Private schools dominated the education landscape until the 1960s and the first Melbourne high school wasn’t established until 1888, thus reinforcing the stratification of Victorian society.  Class barriers remain entrenched without free access to education and intergenerational poverty ingrained.  Hence it is hardly surprising the Vandemonians wanted to keep their convict past hidden.

I enjoyed reading about Romeo Lane as I am familiar with this corner of Melbourne regularly enjoying a coffee at Pellegrinos.  Little did I realize about its seedy beginning.  Collingwood also features as a drawcard for the Vandemonians who provided a support network for each other when they were marginalized by the Victorians.

Although a sobering and bleak read at times about an unfortunate people who were down on their luck, it is a thought-provoking journey and provides a captivating and vivid picture of the human flow between the two colonies.

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