John Robinson diary, 1837-1838
26 February 2013
Recently I was privileged to photograph the Diary of John Robinson, kept by Robinson while on board the convict ship William Sardinia on a Journey from Dublin to Sydney, nla.ms-ms1845, a record of an amazing journey, recounting both it's author's experiences, and those of the other passengers aboard the William Sardinia, as it sailed towards Sydney, Australia. I captured the front, inside front cover, inside back cover, back cover and fifty two pages of the diary with one of the Sinar large format cameras that we have in the Photographic Studio, in DAP (Digitisation and Photography). I used a book cradle to support the diary, and photographed the right hand pages first including the cover, then the left hand pages and back cover.
All items digitally recorded in the studio are done so with a grey patch or colour card, to ensure that the object is faithfully represented, as closely as possible, with both master (with patch) and cropped co-master images saved. These images were uploaded to the Digital Collections Manager (D.C.M), the National Library's image database. The cropped image is the image that visitors will see when viewing the pages on the National Library's Website, while library and photographic staff can access either image on DCM.
From the convicts and crew, to the Officers and their families, this journey was like no other they'd encountered, on to a new horizon and a new future. The language of the diary is rich and beautiful, and allows you to imagine life as it was without all of today's many luxuries and distractions. For John Robinson (Sargent, 51st Regiment, K.O.L.J.), it was part of his post and service, but for many of the travelers aboard the William Sardinia, moving from the civilized world to the furthest point away from civilization, it must have been frightening. There were some elements of normality, for example the description of Christmas Day 1837, on page 6 (nla.ms-ms1845-s8): " The convicts were regaled with plum pudding and salt beef, with a noggin of wine after it", but this was toward the beginning of their journey. It would not be so good when provisions and water ran low.
It was hard to stop myself from reading "too" much while photographing and then processing the images, but with each capture taking a few seconds, and the cropping of the images taking a similar amount of time, it was possible to read a little of each page. On page 10 (nla.ms-ms1845-s12), John lists the various convicts offences, and among these there are many burglars and larcenists, but not many convicted for highway robbery, arson or forgery. I have just finished reading "The Secret River" Trilogy by Australian Author Kate Grenville, and it's amazing to get lost in the history of those first visitors to Australia, who were only trying to provide for their families, and the hardships they had to face, heading to this new land; mysterious, alien and beautiful.
There were times of calm and "fair winds", when the convicts seemed to be allowed on deck, a certain number at a time, and plenty of storms as well as sickness. Unfortunately quite a few passengers did not make the journey and were "committed to the deep". They saw quite a few sharks and first thought this a good supply of food, until they realised that the sharks had been hanging around the ship and feeding on those passengers who did no complete the full trip. "I will eat them no more" writes John on page 12 (nla.ms-ms1845-s14).
There were floggings for convicts stealing provisions and even a story of a possible mutiny, on page 19 (nla.ms-ms1845-s21), arising from a suspicious call of "man overboard", with the convicts growing more restless throughout the trip. Finally they saw land and were able to make out figures on the shoreline; the "natives are uncivilized, we can see them naked, they have no huts". They were only at the start of discovering what Van Dieman's Land (Australia), it's land and indigenous people were all about.
I processed the images through the software CS5 "Photoshop Bridge", which allows for batch cropping and renaming of image files, especially when the images are very similar, but with little changes in the cropping for each, such as pages of a book. The images are now available for viewing on the NLA website.