thomas m wilson

Pirates, Surgeons, and Diving into the Indian Ocean.

June 24th, 2008

A bit of hyper-local comment today, which will hopefully be of interest even if you don’t live where I live.  I dwell on the west coast of Australia, in the port city of Fremantle.  The other day I was reading a report from the surgeon of the Fremantle prison from 1870.  In describing Fremantle he talks of the ‘excessive heat at times’, and the ‘sterile, uninteresting prospect’.  The Fremantle Attfield would have looked down on all those years ago was a small town of crushed limestone roads, limestone cottages, encroaching sand dunes, the odd grass tree dotted here and there, and a few ships masts off to the left of Arthur’s head (the limestone outcrop the Roundhouse sits on).  It was an extremely isolated fragment of Anglo-Saxon protestant society, sitting incongrusously in the wild lands of dark-skinned hunters and gatherers.  You could send a telegraph up to Perth, but you certainly couldn’t make a phone call to any other part of the British Empire (the telephone had only just been invented a couple of years ago in America at the time). 


Last weekend I was watching a pirate film set in the late 1600s and shot partially on the rainforested coast of the island nation of Dominica in the Carribean.  It was not a great bit of cinema by any means, but the visual landscapes made me dream of my own experiences of tropical coastlines.  I remembered being in a mouldering old port town on the southern coast of Reunion Island in the Indian ocean.  Then my daydream turned to pirates chasing well laden East Indiamen off the coast of Reunion in the early 1700s.  To boarding these wealthy British ships, looting them, and riding off to a remote coast of Zanzibar and careening there on the beach and drinking rum in the humid sunshine… the soiled leather hats, the scared cheeks, the well worn hemp ropes, the dirty canvas full of wind, the untramelled natural world now sliding by the ship’s rails as they pass another green isle.  


In 1859 three convicts broke out of the Convict Establishment at Fremantle, stole a long boat and some supplies, and headed up the coast, tacking their way into adventure.  I imagine these long dead men looking over the boat’s rails at the flat and arid Western Australian coastline slide by monotonously under the hot sun.  


In one sense Attfield, that surgeon from the nineteenth century, was right: the Western Australian landscape can exhibit a ‘sterile and uninteresting prospect’.  This is the oldest part of the planet geologically speaking, and the soil is eroded of nutrients for the most part.  And many white folks back in Attfield’s day would have stopped on Mauritius on their way to Australia from England, to get some more fresh water and food.  Mauritius, like Reunion, is tall hills and mountains and deep lagoons and black basalt tumbling into the sea.  To see such a place and then arrive on the other side of the Indian ocean after a month or two at sea might have been an anti-climax. 


But then maybe that long dead surgeon should have rambled down to the sea at Fremantle, taken off his clothes, stood on a rock, looked down at the shifting, clear blue waters below him, and dived head first in.  He would have surfaced, as I did last Sunday, gave a hoot at the fresh temperature of the water in late June, and then happily gone for a swim.  The coastline at Fremantle isn’t something that I really complain about.