Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Adventures of a Young Sailor: Prison Ship

Adventures of a Young Sailor: Prison Ship

Paul Dowswell
Historical Fiction  Series
For ages 12 and up
Bloomsbury, 2006   ISBN: 978-1582346762

Sam Witchall and his friend Richard are delighted to discover that several of their friends who sailed on the Miranda with them survived the wrecking of that ship and are to be their shipmates on the Elephant. The Elephant is a much bigger than the Miranda, was being a ship of the line, and it is joining Nelson’s fleet in an attack on Denmark. Soon the Elephant is one of many ships attacking Copenhagen and Sam is once again filling the dangerous role of being a powder monkey. In a cruel twist of fate he and Richard are wrongly accused of being cowards and are tried, found guilty, and condemned to die. A last minute reprieve saves them from the rope and the boys are sent to Portsmouth to await transportation to the convict colony in Sydney. Theirs will be a life sentence.

After a terrible stay in a convict hulk in Portsmouth harbor Sam and Richard are finally bound for Australia. The journey is a long one but thanks to a fair captain who believes in discipline and in rewarding good behavior, the conditions on board are not too unbearable. When they arrive in Sydney both boys are able to buy shorter sentences for themselves and they get jobs that are neither too arduous nor too boring. They make good friends and life is not too bad considering where they are. Then Sam makes the mistake of responding when an officer pushes him and things rapidly go downhill for both boys. When they find themselves out in the bush as fugitives with no food and no idea where they are Sam truly comes to believe that this time he is surely going to die.

In this second book about the adventures and misadventures of Samuel Witchall, Paul Dowswell paints an often grim portrait of life in the early 1800’s when justice was not what we are used to today and when the differences between the classes were enormous. For this reason, Sam could do very little about the accusations that were made against him. He had to take his punishment or run. It is hard for us to imagine what it would be like to live in such a world and at times reading about Sam’s suffering can be painful as well as powerful and moving. At the same time it is valuable to see how far we have come and to know how brave our ancestors had to be to survive in a world where justice and humanity were not the norm but the exception.