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 Advertiser newspaper report, 13th November 1840:
Apprehension of a Desperate Robber
‘Our readers will recollect, that on the 23rd of last month, James Alexander, or Elshender, a notorious robber who had earned himself the sobriquet of “The Modern Rob Roy,” had broken out of Lanark jail, where he was incarcerated, charged with a desperate act of highway robbery; and that £20 was offered by the authorities there for his apprehension. Since then the police have been on the alert, to discover the daring freebooter; and having got a hint that he was likely to visit Hallow Fair, Sergeant-Major Colquhoun traced Elshender on Wednesday afternoon to a house in Bruntsfield Links, where, assisted by the criminal officers of the Establishment, and Mr Currie, Chief Officer of Police at Lanark, they pounced upon him and a confederate named Somerville. Both Elshender and Somerville are strong and desperate men, and they made a powerful resistance, but Colquhoun and his party succeeded in overpowering them both, and in dragging, or almost carrying them bodily, to the cells of the Police Office, where they were safely lodged, to be dealt with according to the law. The farmers in the west of Edinburghshire, as well as those of Lanark and Linlithgowshires, will, we believe, feel relieved by the knowledge that Elshender is at length in safekeeping.’