Prison Ship

Written by Paul Dowswell
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1803. In this second Sam Witchell adventure, 15-year-old Sam is an experienced ‘powder monkey’ aboard HMS Elephant. The battle of Copenhagen is imminent and Lord Nelson himself is on board. In the heat of battle, Sam and his friend Richard are set up for a crime they didn’t commit. Narrowly escaping hanging, they are sentenced to transportation and find themselves on a prison ship heading for Australia.

At first, convict life isn’t too bad, especially as they are both literate, a rare skill in the penal colony. But then an old enemy appears and, suddenly, their future becomes very precarious indeed…

Paul Dowswell has the ability to tell a rattling good story and, at the same time, give the readers a real feel for what life must have been like at the time: the terror of being in the middle of a 19th century naval battle, especially as Sam’s job involves carrying highly combustible gunpowder; the filth and corruption aboard the notorious hulks; and the horror of being lost in the outback with dwindling food supplies, etc., all brought vividly to life.

This book would, in fact, make an excellent introduction to the early settlement of Australia, life in Nelson’s navy, or the brutal punishments of a period when an 8-year-old child could be hanged for a minor theft.

My one niggle is that occasionally Sam seems more a coat hanger on which to hang various adventures than a real person. I know it helps the plot, but, all the same, I couldn’t quite believe in Sam and Richard’s stupidity in the penal colony. I’d certainly like to see more evidence of Sam maturing as a person and learning from his mistakes.

Still, this is a terrific read which should appeal to boys (and some girls) of 10 plus.