Far from the controlling mores of their countries-of-origin, colonialists could embellish their credentials or even recreate their life stories from scratch. As historian Ian Duffield explains it, such performances were not uncommon. After all, who would—or even could—check up on claims about noble birth, powerful relatives, or secret, romantic tragedies that necessitated exile?
In European colonial enclaves, small groups ruled over the many but socialized only among themselves. They hungered for new blood, conversation, news, eligible partners in marriage—the better the stories people told about themselves, the more interesting they were to their fellow expat-settlers. In such contexts, newcomers could claim anything.
Sometimes such identify fraud, as we would now describe it, boomeranged back to the home country. Take the Tichborne Claimant case, which centers Zadie Smith’s new historical novel The Fraud: in 1866, a working-class Australian man claimed to be the long-lost aristocratic heir to the Tichborne fortune in England. He convinced the mother of the missing heir and quite a lot of other people (barring Mrs. Tichborne, most of his supporters were on the “lower” side of the class divide). Turning out to be one Arthur Orton, a butcher’s son, he was convicted of fraud and served ten years, which didn’t stop others from believing in him.
Duffield’s example is more obscure, but perhaps more telling of the mutability of colonial identity because of its very ordinariness.
In 1801, Michael Stewart was condemned to death in London’s Old Bailey court for forgery and counterfeiting a bill of exchange. The amount in question was £40, roughly £4,000 or $5,000 today. The quality of early nineteenth-century British mercy being constrained, his sentence was commuted—to transportation for life to the Antipodes, literally the other side of the world.
The convict ships populated the Botany Bay penal colony with men and women who were expected to build up the colony. Unsurprisingly, those transported yearned for escape. Britain was far off—but getting out of the penal colony itself wasn’t impossible. Some headed inland into the vast Australian continent, living by what came to be called bushranging, which included banditry. Others opted for the sea. That necessitated stealing a vessel, so not a few of these escapees did it through group-efforts and became pirates.
That’s what Michael Stewart did. More than once. He kept lucking out by not being hung for piracy. One time, for instance, he was pardoned by the newly arriving governor, as it was customary for new governors to start with a clean slate. This governor was William Bligh, already in/famous for the mutiny on HMS Bounty. Bligh later described Stewart as “a determined Man, who had frequently endeavored to leave the Colony by open boat.”
By 1809, Stewart had gotten as far as Calcutta, then under the control of the East India Company. He was now known as Robert Bruce Keith Stuart or Robert de Bruce Keith Stewart. The Calcutta Monthly Journal introduced him as “A young man of respectable connections, who in consequence of an unfortunate affair had been sent to Botany Bay.”
As an escapee and pirate, he was locked up in Calcutta, but was nonetheless the talk of the European enclave. For one thing, he convinced colonialists that he was “a highly connected, liberally educated young gentleman, transported for a crime of honor, not a degrading felony, and with the gallant record of a young naval officer.” With, allegedly, an Admiral for a father and the Earl of Galloway for an uncle, Stewart was hot stuff—if not as young as locals seemed to think. He was then thirty-seven, already middle-aged by local standards.
Stewart’s imposture didn’t save him—unless it did. He was supposed to be deported back to Botany Bay, but he seems to have jumped ship downriver, before the ship reached the ocean. Its captain said the tide would have been against him reaching land. But this same captain later changed his story and said Stewart jumped the night previous, before sailing. After this, Duffield writes, Stewart disappears from history, except for “rumored Sydney sightings.”
In memory, however, Stewart “long remained inspirational among convicts who had remained behind, as a bold captain of their kind, sailing away on the seas of liberty.”