Van Diemen’s Land is a traditional Irish song about three poachers who are sentenced to 14 years penal servitude in the British colony of Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania – an island off the coast of Australia.
The song is also known The Gallant Poachers. It tells the story of the three young men who went out poaching one night and were caught by the landlord’s gamekeepers. The song tells of how they were “trepanned”.
The word trepan refers to a surgical operation involving boring into the skull. How that applies to the capture of the poachers is uncertain, but it could simply be a slang way of saying they were clubbed over the head as they were caught.
Ireland was part of the British Empire during the 19th century. At that time the British had developed a new way of dealing with people who broke the law.
Instead of hanging them or sending them to jail, it started sentencing them to years of hard labour developing Britain’s new colonies in Australia.
At that time there were about 200 crimes for which a person could be hanged. This caused some unease in the minds of more Liberal British thinkers, who were concerned that many offenders had done no more than steal a loaf of bread.
Transportation came to be seen as a more humane way of dealing with these “criminals” at the same time as getting an endless supply of free labour.
Conditions in the convict colonies, however, were far from humane. The treatment was harsh and the work was exhausting. Many convicts died long before they completed their sentences. About 75,000 convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land in the first half of the 19th century.
The song Van Diemen’s Land describes how the convicted poachers are sold off to farmers as soon as they arrive on the island to serve their sentences. They were then “yoked to the plough…to plough Van Diemen’s Land”.
That was their life for the next 14 years. The song goes on to describe the harsh conditions. The only escape is to dream of their lives back in Ireland, the loved ones they knew and the places where they used to live.
The song is written as a warning to all young men who think they can hunt for food on the land of the rich and powerful. It ends by saying that young men would give up poaching immediately if they realised how terrible life was in Van Diemen’s Land.
Van Diemen’s Land was first published as a broadsheet ballad in the 1830s. There are versions of the song in Ireland, England, Scotland, Australia, and even North America.