Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My ancestor was a pirate...?

 So, what happened to Richard Pickersgill, part of my family history, who sailed with Captain Cook into  Botany Bay? (See previous post).

Pickersgill sailed on Cook's second voyage as third lieutenant. At Easter Island it was he who led the exploring party. At Tierra Del Fuego, it was he who was sent to sketch the channel. From those two Cook voyages, Richard Pickersgill has several geographical features named after him, including places in both N.Z. and Australia--and a whole island, south of South Georgia. He also kept a log and a journal which I hope one day to read.

On Cook's third voyage, he was not on board. Instead he was chosen to captain a ship (Lyon) that was to meet up with Cook's vessel, after––it was hoped––they had found the Northwest passage.   Unfortunately for Richard Pickersgill, he made a mess of that attempt, partly because the Admiralty had sent them into late in the season, and partly because he just didn't do a good job. One wonders if his love of grog, which was part of the family legend and which has also been documented, was to blame. He was in fact disgraced and court-martialled for drunkenness.

After that, history has very little to say, except for one reference by a German scientist, Johann Forster, who was with him on Cook's second voyage. According to the Encyclopaedia Forster wrote that Richard Pickersgill had become a privateer after his fall from grace. Just how cool is that!! I have a family connection to  a pirate captain.*

Sadly, he died just four years after the disastrous Northwest passage journey, when he fell while boarding a ship in the Thames. In other words, after circumnavigating the world three times, on four separate voyages, he returned to England -- only to drown in London. He was thirty years old. Family legend says he was drunk when he fell... and I have had that confirmed by this blog entry, on a site run by the Captain Cook Society. In fact, that site says the ship in question was ... a privateer under his own command. Wow.

So what is my connection to this man? There, things become a little blurry. My mother's maiden name was Pickersgill. She was born in 1903, and grew up long before the days of Google...and heard tales of how her Pickersgill family came to Australia, linked to Richard.

The first Pickersgill to arrive was her grandfather Samuel Kirkby Pickersgill, who jumped ship in 1841, in Victoria. Family history tells us this was as a result of hearing tales about Botany Bay as told by Richard Pickersgill. However, as Richard P. died in 1779 and Samuel P. was only born in 1826, they could hardly have met... Moreover, Richard was born in North Yorkshire, while my great-grandfather's family apparently came from West Yorkshire.

And yet, a man who came to Australia in 1841 was full of stories he had been told of Australia, stories apparently originating with Richard Pickersgill. These stories were told directly to my grandfather who was born in 1866, and whom I remember well.

I have yet to ferret out the physical connection.

*Ok, so privateers are not exactly pirates in the traditional sense of fellows with peg legs, hook hands and eye patches. They operated with govt permission and financing against specific enemies, but if they were caught, too bad...
Major Ref: The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia (written by John Robson)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Something else two writers of epic fantasy have in common...

I have mentioned before that one of my ancestors, Richard Pickersgill, was on board His Majesty's Bark (sic) Endeavour when it sailed into Botany Bay under Captain Cook in 1770. Richard, just 19 years old, had been hand-picked by Cook, because he already had several years experience -- sailing around the world on board another vessel.
The modern Endeavour...
The mess deck of the Endeavour
Richard was appointed Master's Mate, and later became Master, of the Endeavour.
18 miles of rope, 28 sails, 127' mast
Cook had a high opinion of Lieutenant Richard Pickersgill's surveying skills, often sending him off exploring and mapping coastal areas. Cook also admired his skills at handling native peoples, and even used him as an ambassador, because of his skill at dealing with dignitaries at European colonies on route! Not bad for a Yorkshireman who was only 22 when they returned to Britain in 1771.

The firehearth, the height of modernity in 1768 ...
Family legend had previously told me that Richard was renowned for his drinking and his life had ended when he fell between a ship and the wharf back home in Britain. Family legend also said that it was his tales of Botany Bay that led to my great grandfather migrating to Australia in the 1840s.

When I was in Sydney earlier on this year, these stories alone gave me the incentive to visit Endeavour replica, now moored in Sydney Harbour. This ship, commenced in 1988, and finished in 1994 in Fremantle, Western Australia, recreated part of the original Endeavour's journey in the 1990s.
The Mess Hall, home to 60 men
I did have another reason to want to look around a replica of the eighteenth century sailing ship; it would be invaluable research for my upcoming trilogy, part of which is about the European trade to the spice islands, set in a period vaguely resembling the 1750s.
Officer's cabin

For this reason, I dragged my pal and fellow writer, Karen Miller off to the Maritime Museum. Actually, I didn't have to drag her at all, because––guess what––Karen also had an ancestor who sailed aboard the original Endeavour. In fact, he was a senior officer, and outranked poor Richard who didn't get a cabin, but had to mess with the seven midshipmen -- until he replaced the Master who died on the way home.

Karen's ancestor was Second Lieutenant Hicks, who died of TB in Batavia. His moment of fame? He was the first person to sight the Australian coast!
And here's me looking at a replica of a chart of Queensland, surveying and drawing done by Richard.
The Great Cabin, with Joseph Banks' desk.
Another of Richard Pickersgill's charts
And so, there you have it. Two Australian fantasy writers go to see the Endeavour and thereby discover that they'd both had members of their families aboard. Mine made it back to Britain; Karen's, alas, did not. For a moment, we could imagine what it would have been like to be part of the crew of the Endeavour; and we could marvel at the fact that Richard Pickersgill and Zachary Hicks knew one another 240 years before Karen and I ever met...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What I've been reading....


If you totally lost your memory, and never regained it back, are you (the previous you) dead?

 I have been reading quite a few things lately.
Asymmetry by the Thoraiya Dyer.
Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.
The Man Who Forgot His Wife by John O'Farrell.
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley.

Asymmetry is a -- tantalisingly short -- collection of short stories by a talented writer which left me with a strong desire to read any novel written by Dyer in the future. (She recently won an Aurealis Award for a short story.) Keep an eye on her -- this lady can write.

Blackbirds is a brutal novel in the urban fantasy genre, lots of blood and gore and an intriguing dilemma for the main (female) character--which kept me glued to the page until I'd finished.

Which brings me to The Man Who Forgot His Wife and The Rook. On the surface, they appear to be very different stories. The first is a literary novel, set in London of the present day, part comedy and part a telling look at a modern marriage. It's a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, won the best SF novel of 2012 in the recent Aurealis Awards. Although it is arguably a fantasy rather than science fiction, I shan't quibble over that. In fact, I'll say that it deserved a win, because it's a great read. It's also a book with no real male hero, but with several fabulous female characters and a gamut of extraordinary minor players.

What then do those two books have in common?

They both deal with main characters who have lost their memory.

The character in The Rook is aware from the beginning of that she is going to lose her memory and she will never get it back. The character in The Man Who Forgot His Wife, on the other hand, has a normal chance of regaining his memory, and in fact the story deals with this process. However, it's not all smooth sailing. His personality -- before and after -- plays a large role.

I don't want to say any more about either of the books for fear of spoiling two wonderful plots. If you can, read both books.

They both left me thinking about what we are –- are we more than our memory of our life? If you lose your memory (retaining only your learning and factual knowledge) what is left? Would life still be worth living? What makes personality? What would it be like to know you're going to lose your memory and never regain it? What would you do if you knew you were going to lose all your memory of your life and the people you've loved?

If you totally lost your memory, and never regained it back, are you (the previous you) dead?

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Another reason to like this place...

Just out of the back gate of the village I'm living in is the Len Howard Conservation Area.  And as those of you who know me know... that is exactly the kind of place I like. 
It has BIRDS!
And boardwalks!
And GORGEOUS scenery!
And I can take my exercise in places like this!
Every day!
Peel Estuary
Inland Thornbill
Black ducks, and if you look carefully, a Black Swan...

Yellow-rumped Thornbill
New Holland Honeyeater on a Banksia

Monday, May 20, 2013

Our New Place....

This is the village... with a rotunda...
One of the streets
And this is our house. Still a bit bare looking...
This is our street, our house towards the end on the left
The village is what is known as a lifestyle village, aimed at people who want to downsize their living space, live more communally yet still be independent. It is quiet (wonderfully so after where I was living!) and as an environmentalist, I appreciate the green living -- the catchment of water off the roof, feeding sunlight back into the grid, recycling, scraps to the chooks, and so on.

I was wondering if I'd find the house too small after our last place. But no, it's just right and so easy to look after. It will look better once the garden grows; I look forward to the flowering of the grevilleas  in our yard. I wake in the morning to the sound of the ravens and the parrots; dusk comes with the flocks of galahs crying their way to their roosts and the silent ibis vees cutting across the sky. I go to sleep with the sound of the Moaning Frog in the garden.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Lascar's Dagger

I made this big announcement at Conflux, the Australian National Convention, and I believe the news has also been sent to Locus, so I am making it public.

I have sold another trilogy, the name of which has yet to be determined.

The first book is called


To be published worldwide by Orbit early next year

"Lascar" is not a made-up word. It has Persian/Bengali origins, where it means "soldier", but in English it came to mean a sailor from one of the southern or south-east Asian countries who worked on European-owned ships.*

So is the trilogy about a lascar? 
No, not really, although he's part of the story. It's about the spice trade between two countries (evocative of the Netherlands and Britain of the 18th century) and the spice islands (evocative of the eastern archipelago of Indonesia during that same period). 

It's about great wickedness and enormous sacrifice and amazing bravery. And love. And unique magic systems, both evil and good, of a kind you won't have read before.

It's also the story of a clash of cultures...
*And if you think there weren't all that many of them, you're dead wrong. By 1660, the number of lascar seamen employed on British ships was so great that a new law required 75% of the crew of a British ship carrying Asian goods to Europe must be British! Lascars often settled in England, and were thus the first wave of Asian immigrants to Britain.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013


I'm home again, after a wonderful convention.

The best part was sharing with writer par excellence, Karen Miller, and talking writing, books, publishing, ideas...and even discussing a writing problem I was having at 5.30 a.m. one morning and having the solution handed to me by Karen before 6 a.m.!

Karen was the Australian Guest of Honour, along with Kaaron Warren and Rose Mitchell, and the two international guests,  Nalo Hopkinson (writer) and Marc Gascoigne (publisher) -- an array of talent and knowledge and wit that was mind boggling. Fabulous, fabulous people.

And so many old friends to meet and chat with as well... far too many to name.

I find that SF/F conventions rejuvenate me. I plunge back into the labour of writing with renewed enthusiasm and ideas.

I returned via Sydney. And here is the view from where I stayed, courtesy of someone's
remarkable and much appreciated generosity...