How convenient was it to have access to an almost endless supply of labour, free labour – slaves by any other name? How just was it to put a man to trial, when that man had no right to speak in defence of himself in court? Just how many of the countless ‘convicts’ sent to the ‘new world’ by the British legal system were actually guilty of the crimes they were accused of?
James “Elshender” Alexander was born poor and remained so for the duration of his life. His struggle was one of survival, beset on all sides by the ‘laws of the land’ which made such a task increasingly difficult. A man who found his way from the lowlands of Scotland to Lower Canada, in search of a life free from the interference of over-zealous authorities. On his return to Scotland, to aide his wife’s mental health problems, the authorities would not leave him be, and eventually fabricated a charge that would see Elshender transported for life to Tasmania, the largest penal colony of its time.
There has yet to be retribution for the indiscriminate wielding of tabula rasa. Elshender: A Tale of a Poor Man is one small step in this direction, linking the stories of Scotland’s poor with the Haudenosaunee of Lower Canada, and with the indigenous peoples of Tasmania.
Edinburgh Courant newspaper report, 29th October 1840:
Ingenious Mode of Escape from Prison
‘On Friday morning, an untried prisoner of the name of Alexander, better known by that of the “notorious Elshender,” made his escape from Lanark jail, in which he was incarcerated on a criminal charge. He was permitted to go into the court for some article, when, finding a rope, he tied it to the handle of a spade, which he also got hold of in the court. He then threw the spade over the wall, twenty feet in height, and it fastened to the cope-stone, when he easily ascended to the top, fixed the spade to the other side of the cope, and swung himself down to the bottom, which having gained, he made a good run for it, and has not since been seen or heard of. He is described as a dangerous character, and is charged with a great many crimes, the conviction of any one of which would infer the punishment of transportation. He broke out of the old jail, and was captured only a short while ago at Carnwath, where he was put into a school room, his hands tied behind his back, and a couple of sentinels placed over him. By rubbing the cord against the chimney-piece, he succeeded in disengaging his hands, and immediately dashed through a window, and would have effected his escape; but a troop of yeomanry, who happened to be ready mounted, immediately started in pursuit. He held out even then, until he became alarmed on seeing an officer belonging to the corps marching forward with a pistol, and another with his sword drawn, when he surrendered.’