In 1783 a 19-year-old youth named Henry Cabell, from the Suffolk village
of Mendham, was sentenced, along with his father and another man named Abraham Carman, to be hanged for burgling a country
house at Alburgh in south Norfolk. There is no hint, in the brief reports of the trial, of the poverty that may have driven
these villagers to crime - but it was noted as particularly reprehensible that they stole the hangings from the bedsteads
and the pickled meat from the casks in the cellar. They were brought in chains from Thetford Assizes to the county gaol at
Norwich, which was then housed in some old brick buildings inside the roofless stone keep of the Norman castle. Cabell senior
and Abraham Carman were publicly executed on the high green mound of the castle, while a crowd stood in the cattle market
below and watched them swing from the gallows.
Young Henry Cabell's sentence was, however, commuted to transportation for fourteen
years. He was kept in the castle gaol, among some forty or fifty other felons, to await shipment overseas. Towards the end
of the same year, 1783, another 19-year-old, a girl named Susannah Holmes, from the south Norfolk village of Thurlton, was
sentenced to death for the theft of some household linen and silver (value £2.13s.6d.). Her sentence, too, was commuted to
transportation, and she also was kept in Norwich gaol to await the sailing of a prison ship to the colonies.
Henry and Susannah were imprisoned for three years - simple, unlettered young
villagers, awaiting penal servitude in some unknown country far across the ocean, for offences which would nowadays be met,
in all probability, by suspended sentences and a period of probation.
The reason for the long wait was that 1783 was the year in which a defeated Britain
recognised the independence of the United States, and was thereby deprived of the American colonies to which she used to transport
her convicts. Crime was rife in the towns, whose population was beginning to swarm under the influence of the industrial revolution.
In the country, landless labourers and discharged soldiers resorted under stress of poverty to smuggling, highway robbery,
burglary, and horse, sheep and poultry stealing. Vainly, the law increased the severity of its penalties. Hanging disposed
of the major offenders: whipping, and hard labour in the local bridewells, punished the petty criminals. Yet the gaols were
full and the hulks were crowded with felons the Government had been accustomed to pack off to America, to work out their sentences
at forced labour for the colonists.
At last, in 1786, it was decided to send a fleet of prison ships to found a colony
in New South Wales, on the east coast of Australia, which had been explored by Captain Cook some seventeen years previously.
There, in a hitherto uncultivated continent on the far side of the earth, inhabited only by the sparse and wandering tribes
of its aborigines, the embarrassing surplus of the criminal population would be out of sight and out of mind.
Meanwhile, in the mixture of squalor, barbarity and laxity that prevailed in an
18th century gaol, Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes had contrived to become lovers. In the spring of 1786 Susannah bore a
son, named Henry after his father. Henry Cabell - described at the time as "a fine, healthy young fellow", in spite of his
years in prison - was devoted to the mother and child, and pleaded repeatedly but in vain to be allowed to marry. Then, when
the child was five months old -"a very fine babe, which the mother had suckled from birth" - the gaoler of Norwich castle
was ordered to send his female convicts to Plymouth, to join the expedition then fitting out under Captain Arthur Phillip.
Henry Cabell desperately renewed his petition to be allowed to marry, and begged
to be transported along with Susannah, but was refused. So, in November 1786, the turnkey, John Simpson, set out with Susannah
and her baby, and two other women prisoners, on the slow journey of 350 miles on the outsides of coaches, through the dismal
November weather, to Plymouth. There was much worse to come; for when, after waiting three hours in an open boat, the women
were put aboard the ship on which they were to await transportation, the captain said he had no instructions about infants,
and flatly refused to accept the baby. Susannah was dragged, sobbing, to the cells below deck, and threatened to kill herself
at the first opportunity. Simpson, the turnkey, was obliged to go ashore with the baby.
Fortunately, Simpson was both a kindly man and a strong character. (He became
known, after this incident, as the Humane Turnkey). "Having once before been with his lordship on a matter of humanity", he
resolved on a direct approach to the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. So he set off on the first coach back to London, nursing
the baby on his knee, and feeding it as best he could at the inns on the way. In London, he left the child with a careful
woman, and - followed by a sympathetic crowd - went straight to Lord Sydney's house, where he forced his way into the presence
of a secretary, whom he persuaded to make out an order for the restoration of the child to its mother.
Simpson then waited in the hall, ran to Lord Sydney as he came downstairs, and begged him
to sign the order. it stands to the credit of this 18th century grandee that, having been waylaid in his own house by a mere
turnkey, he listened to his story and "was greatly affected". He made his secretary write immediately to Plymouth, that the
mother was to be told her child would be restored to her, and he ordered that the father should accompany her, "directing
at the same time that they should be married before they went on board, and adding that he would himself pay the fees". The
humane Simpson arranged for the care of the child until he should return with the father, and then hastened to Norwich to
break the glad news to young Cabell that he was to be transported. Meanwhile, sympathisers in London, led by a Mrs. Jackson,
subscribed for a box of comforts to be shipped for the use of the young couple when they reached Australia.
Thus it was that Henry, Susannah and their infant son eventually sailed in May
1787 in what is known to historians of Australia as the First Fleet. The convoy consisted of eleven ships, carrying 600 male
and 178 female convicts, 200 Marine guards, two years' supply of stores, and a deck cargo of sheep, pigs, goats and poultry.
They were nearly nine months at sea before they anchored off what proved to be the inhospitable shore of Botany Bay. There
is a tradition that when Captain Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, eventually decided to disembark in the more
favourable locality of Sydney Cove, the sturdy Henry Cabell carried him ashore through the surf on his back, and was thus
the first man to set foot on the site of the new colony.
This was not the only precedent he set. For Lord Sydney's instructions in London,
that Henry and Susannah were to be married before the convoy sailed, had apparently miscarried. They were in fact wedded on
Feb. 10th, 1788, along with four other couples, in the first marriage service ever held on Australian soil. Not long afterwards
the colony's first civil court of law was established by that just man, Arthur Phillip, to hear a complaint by Henry against
the captain of the ship Alexander, because the box of comforts furnished for him and Susannah by Mrs. Jackson had been broken
open on the voyage. Susannah lamented the loss of the luxury of some tea, and complained that there was nothing left but books,
which she could not read. The court awarded £15 compensation.
By the way, the family name was henceforward spelt Kable. It is unlikely that
Henry was anything more than barely literate, and his name must have been spelt phonetically in the records of the penal settlement.
The landing in Sydney Cove was only the beginning of fresh tribulations for the
unhappy convicts. The Government had comfortably assumed in London that from the proceeds of agriculture, stockbreeding and
fisheries the settlement would very soon become self-supporting. In fact, the soil was stubborn, the climate harsh, and the
expedition's supplies were inadequate. The officers quarrelled with one another and with the governor, the soldiers were unruly,
and most of the convicts were poor and unskilful workmen. Four years after the landing, the whole colony was still on half
rations. Nevertheless, further convoys of prison ships were sent from England; and, under less humane and able commanders
than Arthur Phillip, their miserable freight of convicts fared worse than those in the First Fleet. Ashore, they were subject
to the merciless discipline of fetters, the cat o' nine tails and the gallows. Until well on into the 19th century, the history
of convict settlement in Australia is one of the most cruel tales in the record of man's inhumanity to man..
And yet Henry Cabell throve. His character was obviously as rugged as his
physique. (Tradition also has it that he was red-haired). He became first an overseer of his fellow-convicts, and then chief
constable of the new settlement. Being freed on the expiry of his 14-year sentence, he prospered commercially. in 1798 he
opened a hotel called the Ramping Horse, from which he ran the first stage coach in Australia, and he also owned a retail
store. His property later extended to five or six farms, and he was a partner in a big fleet of sealers and trading ships.
He was one of the "emancipists", or freed convicts, who rose to be commercial barons of the colony - but were described by
Bligh of the Bounty (who became Governor of New South Wales after Phillip) as unprincipled rogues.
As for Susannah, she bore Henry Cabell ten more children besides young Henry
who was born in Norwich gaol, and who survived to become captain of one of his father's ships. Henry, senior, lived to the
ripe age of 82, died in the odour of respectability, and was buried in the family vault (no less) beside his Susannah, who
predeceased him in 1826. And in 1968, on the 180th anniversary of the landing from the First Fleet, more than a hundred descendants
of Henry and Susannah Cabell met in Sydney to honour them as the heads of one of Australia's founding families. It was
the first reunion to acknowledge convict ancestry. This is the happy ending of the tale.