When Alexander Pearce stood in the dock of the Supreme Court of Van Dieman's Land, it was the first time that a self-confessed cannibal had appeared in court. A year and nine months earlier Pearce and seven other convicts had escaped from the totally isolated prison-settlement of Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, the most remote penal hell-hole in the whole British Empire at that time. He was the sole survivor of their nine-week trek to what they thought would be freedom, a journey through some of the most difficult wilderness terrain in the world. On the way five of his companions had been killed and eaten by their fellows. Two others had died. Even in the harsh convict world of incarceration and chain gangs, of vicious floggings and backbreaking slave labour, of drunkenness and petty thievery, of homosexuality, and even bestiality, cannibalism was unheard of in early nineteenth-century Australia. At the time of Pearce's trial for murder, the tale of his crimes created a sensation not only in Hobart Town, but also in London and right across the British Empire and the United States. Paul Collins' telling of the story of Alexander Pearce offers twenty-first century readers a way of entering into and experiencing the dark, violent world of the wilderness prisons of the day. It is a book about Pearce, but the Gothic, romantic and menacing Tasmanian landscape is as much a character in the book.
Paul Collins is an historian, writer, author of ten books and broadcaster, often heard on the ABC.