Project Description

Kemp & Potter

for Lali Johne

Early in 1999 I flew from London to Sydney and then, on Valentine’s Day, to Tasmania. I’d just finished writing a long biography, seven years work on one man, the writer and traveller, Bruce Chatwin, and I was burnt out. One of Tasmania’s attractions was its remoteness; another was that Chatwin, who specialised in the remote, had never been there. The island would be terra incognita, unevoked in my mind by his writing and my research into his life. Tasmania’s freshness – its wind and its light (friends in mainland Australia remarked on the light especially) – might empty me of the biographer’s condition: that dull, unfriendly abstraction brought on by too many months in the shade of old documents.

I was, I suppose, sick of a life already lived. I hoped never to read another old letter again.

My girlfriend came with me. Our idea was to walk for a week through Tasmania’s western highlands before returning to Sydney, but the landscape – a mixture of low-growing rainforest and fragile alpine heath – cast an intense spell on us and we delayed our departure. We hired a car and drove south to Port Arthur and then to the East Coast where one afternoon, outside a town called Swansea, we saw a beach house for sale on a nine-mile shelf of coastal dunes. It was single-storied, carefully made of Canadian cedar and glass, and through the glass I could see a whale-coloured rock.

The owner greeted us, an artist-photographer in her late fifties draped in a filmy lavender sarong. Helen had built the house with her husband, a retired radio executive who, she explained, was now ill and needed to be closer to a hospital. Hers was a New Age vocabulary and on our tour of the rooms, which she had hung with her vast red chthonic landscapes, she spoke of  “destiny” and “serendipitous unions”.

As soon as we went inside a sleight of light caught me off guard. I had a strange feeling and it stayed with me while I followed Helen into “the solarium” and “the verandah café” and then through clumps of boobyalla to the deserted beach and her “bliss spot,” a small clearing in the spinefax where, she said, she liked to sunbathe naked. There was a fenced-off garden below the house, planted with apple trees, and a small tin shed where I imagined myself at a desk. Less than an hour later, there was an emotional farewell on “the grand staircase”.

We drove away in a strangely silent state. We had no family connections, no friends, no reason to linger, but for the rest of the day I thought of the view onto the peninsula. That night we were booked into a B & B on the road to Hobart. By the time we arrived, I was wondering, rather tentatively, if Helen’s house was somewhere we wanted to live; whether it, and therefore Tasmania, could be a destination as well as an escape.

And yet what did I know about Tasmania? Perhaps only these things:

-that it was the smallest Australian state, an island the size of Ireland but populated by only 450,000 people, separated from the mainland by  200 miles of the treacherous pitch and toss of Bass Strait;

-that it was poor and that people were leaving;

-that while it was beautiful it was also – I could already sense this  – melancholy;

-that  it had once been known as Van Diemen’s Land – a synonym for all kinds of terror and dread – in its days as a colony of British convicts;

-that, some time during the nineteenth century, its original aboriginal population had been ruthlessly wiped out.

We had barely identified ourselves at the convict-built B & B when we were told to ring Helen. She just wanted to say that she saw herself in us and how rare it was to feel such a connection to strangers and that there are no accidents in life.

And did we like the house?

We went home to England and immediately plotted our return. By a happy combination of circumstances we were both transportable. The major obstacles were the residency visa and money. The beach house was just within our means, but to buy it would mean spending every penny I’d earned from the biography. We could shrink the commitment by renting and I proposed to Helen that we take a six-month lease. Whether impressed by our karmic connection or by a lack of offers (the house, like many in Tasmania, had been on the market a long time), she agreed. At the end of six months we would make a decision to buy or not.

In the same week as my residency application went off, my father produced a plastic bag filled with letters which he’d unearthed from the basement of my grandmother’s house in Worcestershire. My grandmother was 96, but my father suggested the letters were much older than that. The plastic was thick, the colour of old toenails.

“I think,” my father said, “we may have relatives in Tasmania.” He had an idea, glancing through the bag, that an ancestor of ours had left London at the end of the eighteenth-century and become a merchant in Hobart.

This was the first I’d heard of any Tasmanian relative and I didn’t really take it in. I chucked the bag in the back of the car and drove it through England and then to the Continent, where it sat like a cat under various tables. For a long time, I didn’t open it; I was finished with old letters. And there were more important things to think about. In July, I got married in Wiltshire and took my bride to Saxony. There, in an artists’ residence in Wiepersdorf, I gathered the bag from under the table and opened it.

My time in the archives had taught me the frustration of going through the letters of the dead. We want the dead to reveal to us what they did not reveal in life, some confessional strain they kept hidden from the world. The stirring is quite powerful, but it’s a lot of nostalgia and nonsense too. So often what we exhume are the random husks of the everyday: barely legible hopes for good health, polite thank-yous, numbing résumés of the day got through – and scattered among them faded receipts, photos without dates, without names.

The contents of the plastic bag smelt like rotten vegetables. I pulled out a loose slip of paper, a cheque made out, in 1815, to “Kemp & Potter, brandy and tobacco merchants.” Potter was my grandmother’s name and I remembered that our family had been, long ago, involved in the drinks trade. But the name Kemp meant nothing to me. Nor had my grandmother heard of the Kemps. Her father had left her the papers and she had never got round to reading them.

Also in the bag was a bundle of about 30 letters written on stiff paper in the days before stamps. Occasionally they were signed with a woman’s name: Amy, Susannah, Elizabeth. But most of the correspondence was between the two business partners: William Potter and Anthony Fenn Kemp.

The archivist’s impulse of whoever had organised the papers had created a narrative. Kemp’s letters to Potter were sent from all over the world: Brazil, Cape Town, Sydney, Hobart. Written in sepia ink, the words had been scratched aggressively onto the page, with exaggerated tails to certain letters. The slanted handwriting looked like Arabic and was in contrast to the neat, upright hand of his recipient in Aldgate who had made faithful copies of his replies, so providing both sides of their correspondence. Folded away in chronological order, the last letter was written in 1825, the first in 1791.

I tried to subordinate Kemp, envision him in a clerical position, but then I opened a red marbled business ledger dated 25 March 1789, the year of the French revolution. The ageing paper had the scent of damp nutmeg and on the first page I read a list of what Kemp had inherited on his sixteenth birthday. His estate included properties in Surrey and central London, as well as stocks and cash. It amounted to a fortune today worth several million pounds. What had happened to it?

Kemp was a very rich young man, but the ledger makes it clear that he worked at this period as an apprentice in his father’s business at 87 Aldgate (now the site of Boot’s chemist), trading under the name of Kemp & Son. His father appears to have given him a free hand. While old man Kemp tramped with his samples to Biggleswade and Newport Pagnell, the teenage Kemp ordered hogsheads of rum from Antigua, pipes of port from Lisbon and fine shag from plantations in Maryland. Nor did he restrict his purchases to tobacco and rum. He fitted out a boat – the Neptune Galley  – to bring from Jamaica a lavish cargo of cinnamon, cochineal, sugar and silk. And then, after six months, the ledger stops. Kemp’s entry for June 14, 1789 contains a clue: “and lost by betting at an horse race £15.10”.

Kemp goes through his entire inheritance in two years. In 1791, he cannot repay even twelve crowns to a man called Page. Instead, he organises for “a very shabby insolent low-bred woman” to march into Page’s favourite London coffee house and, at the top of her voice, “utter impertinencies” about him. Page reports this incident in a letter to Kemp’s father who reacts with retrospective fury: he threatens to sue his son unless he reflects upon the situation “your early vice and infamy has placed you in”. Only if Kemp admits to his “evil conduct” and makes ample confession of his faults will his return home be welcome to his father and mother. “If this overture is rejected expect that I shall take speedy and effective public measures to prevent further injury.”

One week later, a letter is brought to Aldgate by an attorney of Clement’s Inn. He has held back delivery by order of Anthony Fenn Kemp until its author was safe across the Channel. Kemp’s handwriting shoves aside the centuries. “Hon Sir and Madam,” he addresses his parents. “Behold my reply. At present I am not sensible of what distress is nor pray to God I ever shall and as to returning with compunction I hope when I do come I may.”

Someone has scribbled on the envelope “First elopement”, suggesting that Kemp’s story is just beginning.

I’m intrigued to see what Kemp gets up to in France, but there is a gap of several years. Kemp’s next letter I unfold is written to William Potter, in March, 1816, from Sydney. “After a few months passage I have arrived here having touched at the Derwent in Van Diemen’s Land where I have left Mrs K & family intending to commence my commercial pursuits there.”

In October 1999, one month before I am due to fly back there, I learn that my application to live in Tasmania has been successful.

*            *           *

We move into the house. Helen has sprinkled handfuls of rosemary into our pillows, which my wife mistakes for spider’s eggs, and she exhorts us with telephone messages and faxes to maintain what she had begun in the garden.

She favours an organic approach to everything, right down to the flies in the kitchen. One particularly buzzy day, she rings from Queensland, where she and her husband have moved, to find out how we’re settling in. When I comment on the lack of fly-screens, she says: “Practise fly-psychology.” This involves sitting in the dark and persuading the flies to go outside by switching on the verandah light.

The house is more beautiful than we remember, all wood and glass and views of Oyster Bay. On our first afternoon, we walk two hundred yards to the deserted beach. There’s a southern equinox cooling the sea and a clear sky over the hills above Swansea. Naked we enter the surf and afterwards run back to the house, startling a young wallaby on the path. It stares at us, then bounds off through the boobyalla, its feet thumping the warm sand with the sound of a heavy fruit dropping.

For the first time I plant seeds, buy trees, learn about mulching. And it bemuses me to find myself, when out of the garden, still wanting to dig.

I hold up both hands and count them out: Potter, my great-great-great-great grandfather; Kemp, my great-great-great-great uncle.

They are closer than business partners: they are brothers-in law, and their story is about two ways of being in the world. On one hand is Kemp, roistering, opportunistic, corrupt. (The name Kemp, I discover, means: combat, competitive drinker, “a contemptible, rascally fellow”). On the other is the sedentary and abstemious Potter, poet of Pooterisms.

A picture starts to emerge as I read their letters. In 1791, the 18 year-old Kemp is being groomed to take over the family firm. After he quits England, his father turns to William Potter, who has married Kemp’s elder sister Amy. He invites Potter to move into the Aldgate premises and grants him a third share of the business. On the death of Kemp’s father, a reluctant Potter takes over the running of the firm, now called “Kemp & Potter”.

There are those who go to New South Wales and there are those who mind the store. Potter comes off the page – in his handwriting and in his character – as the opposite of his brother-in-law: a cautious, fussy, meticulous man who is forever penning maxims for his family to live by. “We must be very careful what we are about,” he tells his son in the course of warning him about which public houses in Ware are “safe” or not: “The owner of the Little White Lion likes you to spend an hour with him in the evening which calls for a bottle of wine which you may mix with water.” He is, one feels, is the last person who should be dealing in spirits.

In Australia, meanwhile, his absentee partner is peddling family connections with the rum trade for all they are worth; or not worth, for Kemp’s letters suggest that, despite a good deal of charm, he continues to be a feckless businessman. He borrows a vast sum from Potter, which he never repays. He writes out several cheques in the name of “Kemp & Potter”, which are never redeemed. His letters take up to 14 months to reach London and each contains an excuse. The only things he sends back to Aldgate are three children he’s fathered in the Antipodes.

It is painful to observe how Potter struggles to cope with Kemp’s escalating debts. “For 18 months I have had weekly applications from one or another of your creditors for the amount of bills made payable at our house” – and yet, from Kemp, “not a farthing has arrived, which I am much astonished at.” The etiquette of the early nineteenth-century fails to check his frustration. “I do not consider ‘Kemp & Potter’ has anything to do with it. I am now completely sick of shipping goods to you.”

Yet Potter cannot cut him off. I see him sitting at night at his double-mahogany desk, dressed in the same calico nightcap as favoured by Kemp’s father. I can feel his sense of responsibility, born of Georgian duty, blood, grudging envy and just enough imagination to believe in his brother-in-law’s schemes. And in among the letters I discover him writing these bits of advice to his son:

-Drink no more than you can help

-Never play cards in Grantham  OR  IN ANY OTHER PLACE WITH STRANGERS

-Remember one above sees and knows all and will reward or punish as we deserve

-Be careful at Brighton. It’s a rotten place.

One morning, my wife has a toothache and I drive her in Helen’s ancient green Peugeot to Hobart. The two-hour drive along the coast takes us through the counties of Glamorgan, Pembroke and Buckingham, and through countryside eerily similar to where we’ve been living in Wiltshire: Georgian sandstone houses with windows finger-tip to ankle; rose gardens and wicket fences; names like Annandale and Clarendon and Bust-Me-Gall Hill. “Everything in Tasmania is more English than is England herself,” noted Trollope who was tempted him to pitch his staff here permanently (he liked the mulberry jams in particular). And yet I am most certainly not in England. It might look like an English nobleman’s park, but beyond the bourgeois topiaries there are sad edges – and not just because of the haunting absence of the native population. Anyone with ambition, I’m told, follows the example of Errol Flynn, who though born in Tasmania got out as soon as he could. Young Tasmanians take their leaving as a rite of passage. What they leave behind are greybeards and children; and the blackboards I pass on the road to Hobart, chalked with advertisements for  “horse-poo”, “chook-poo”, even for kilos of flies.

Tasmania’s capital is a clean, unselfconscious port whose water throws back smooth reflections of white sails, bright facades and a dramatic mountain. (“My predominant recollection is of its apples, its jams, its rose-cheeked girls,” wrote Errol Flynn in My Wicked, Wicked Life.).  Once the last port of call for Arctic explorers, Hobart has today the feel of an English market town. “Last, loneliest, loveliest,” said Mark Twain, who thought it “the neatest town that the sun shines on.” And that’s what I can’t stop marvelling at: the clarity of the sunlight. Mainlanders put the transparency down to the frazzled ozone layer. Whatever the cause, the light is so clear that there seems no gauze between it and the first settlers.

In such a history-obsessed place as Tasmania the present quickly leads back to the past. Leaving my wife at the dentist, I pass Kemp Street and wonder if there might be any connection with my distant uncle. I suppose I don’t want him to be a rapacious old colonialist, but I am about to learn that he was – unbearably so.

In Murray Street I find myself outside the Hobart archives and whether from habit or a reflex I duck inside. I’m led upstairs less by an investigating spirit than an extinguishing one: I’ll check him out and be done with him.

The archivist is a friendly-faced lady who politely hears me out. Has she heard of Kemp?

She tells me Anthony Fenn Kemp was known as “The Father of Tasmania”.

The Father of Tasmania. I am pretty amazed. Until now I have thought of him as a dodgy character in the rum and tobacco trade. Nothing in the letters has prefigured this fame.

“He also wished to be known as the George Washington of Van Diemen’s Land and the Father of the People” – although, she says, there was debate over whether this sobriquet saluted Kemp’s role in Tasmania’s history, his sublime egoism or his eighteen children.

She tells me more. Kemp was one of the very first colonists to set foot in the territory. He helped establish the first permanent settlement in the north and for seven months was left in command of half the island. Nor did he limit his influence to Van Diemen’s Land. He was witness to many crises in the early history of Australia and responsible for several more. He fomented one mutiny, saw off two Governors of New South Wales, two more Lieutenant-Governors of Tasmania and risked war with the French. He was also the great-grandfather of the Victorian novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward and the great-great-grandfather of Aldous Huxley.

I tell her he’s a relative.

“If I was you, I would not go round divulging that information.” She presses her yellow pencil to her chin. “He’s a man of whom I’ve heard not one word of good.”

So I begin to sift through the vast, messy junk drawer of Anthony Fenn Kemp’s life; to do, in fact, the very thing I had come to Tasmania not to do. But how could I not? It was irresistible. It was as if, having arrived in this place to escape Chatwin, I’d found myself caught up with the kind of characters he adored and would have delighted to count among his ancestors.

I hoped quickly to fill in the gaps. The Father of Tasmania would surely have inspired a biography. But no. Despite his credentials, little has been written about Kemp; and although he pops up everywhere, he resists any move to fix him.

I might have stopped there, left Kemp alone, but I had trained a muscle too well – and I felt singled out, as if the bag had chosen me. Stories, like small children, have a life which demands to be expressed: “I want to be told and you’re going to be the person to do it.” And so I tracked him down: in libraries in Sydney, London and Hobart; in leather-backed books the archivist brought to my desk; in interviews with his descendants. Step by step, I chivvied him out of the undergrowth until what emerged was not the indigent remittance man I’d expected, but an important and extraordinary figure – one of the founding fathers of Australia, who by the direct connection of family led like a lightning rod back to the island’s past and gave me a thumbnail sketch of the whole bizarre and brutal early history of Tasmania and New South Wales.

And as I followed Kemp to Australia, I felt like Potter’s accidental auditor, crossing the world as Potter never could to bring Kemp to account. It was the opposite of everything I intended. I had come here, as had Kemp, to begin afresh in the way of Van Diemen’s Land when it was renamed Tasmania. But you can’t just shed yourself like that, not even if you go and live on the rim of the world.  Too often the Potter and rarely the Kemp, I was back at my desk. I was the clerk now.

The young man stepped ashore at Calais and headed south on foot. He walked through a country in mid-revolution, a penniless outcast driven by a need to escape his family’s censure.

Back in Aldgate concern about his safety had confined his mother to her bed. Susannah Kemp was a highly-strung woman who rode for her health and was addicted to a tincture of valerian and castor known as “Bevan’s nervous drops”. When she died, six months after he left, her only son was in Liege, dancing the “Marseilleise” around the cap of Liberty.

His resentment of his father had worked itself into contempt for all authority. He sympathised with the revolutionaries who egged him on and was able to communicate his feelings expansively, in their language. He had learnt his French at Dr Knox’s school in Greenwich (where, said his obituary, he also acquired a fondness for quoting Latin “which afforded frequent amusement to his intimate friends”). What was said of him later was true of him then: he was never happy “unless talking”.

He talked himself out of most friendships, being prone, when piqued, to address his listeners in rather an abrupt manner. One of very few to take him at face value was James Calder, an amateur surveyor who wrote his obituary for the Tasmanian Times. As an old man in his nineties, Kemp spoke at length to Calder from his wheelchair in “Mount Vernon”, his estate outside Hobart. (The house is still there: tall, three-storeyed, Georgian, with a facade the colour of dried orange peel.)  He talked about his anarchic experiences in Liege, the wild excesses he had witnessed, and revealed how, after gaining a taste for republicanism, he spent the next year in America “as a pleasure-seeking traveller”. And there, at his farm in South Carolina, he had a brief, if unlikely meeting with the only man he ever admired. He loved George Washington, he told Calder with a power for self-deception that remained undimmed at 95, for strengthening his “inherent aversion to despotism”.

But not even America was far enough from Aldgate.

Why else did Kemp go to Australia? The books in the Hobart library tell me that people who went to Australia were either felons who didn’t want to go (but it was better than being in a hulk); those sent to guard them, who also didn’t want to go; and a handful of free settlers who were making a huge gamble, comparable, at that time, to settling on the moon. No one came with the high ideals of the Founding Fathers. It was, in fact, a very odd place for someone like Kemp to choose. It must have suited him to be 13,950 miles away. Distance is a great aid to a rascal.

Aged 20, he bought a commission in the 102 Regiment of Foot (later called the New South Wales Corps), raised to manage convicts in a new penal colony at Sydney Cove, a wild, half-empty, desperate place at the other end of the world. He was one of only 18 officers, but his red and white sash was never a coveted uniform. Kemp himself calculated that 200 of the 460 soldiers under him were ex-convicts, recruited from the ranks of those they were supposed to garrison. And while Kemp wasn’t a convict, like most of his fellow passengers on board the leaking Reliance,  he would, in a remarkably short space, be more criminal than any of them. Kemp’s first Governor travelled with him to Australia on the same decrepit ship (along with the town-clock, a windmill and an aborigine suffering from flu). Governor Hunter was soon to describe the behaviour of Kemp’s Corps as “the most violent and outrageous that was ever heard of by any British regiment whatever.”

On the evening of September 7, 1795, Kemp sailed between the Heads into slack water. He had spent six months ricocheting between the walls of a cabin with no headspace and poor ventilation, breathing in the stench of sanitary buckets. In Sydney it was late spring, the air hot and scented. A crew of blue-jackets rowed him ashore. He saw a town settled on spurs of sandstone covered with sheep-grey trees that grew to an immense height. Flights of strange birds jabbered at him and the sinking sun gave to everything it touched a ghost-like quality. It was a mesmerising setting, though not altogether foreign (one settler called it, in a magnificently potty description: “A Wapping or St Giles in the beauties of a Richmond”). It was also a microcosm of all that was riotous in Georgian society.

The town was only seven years old and spread back from the harbour in a shabby crescent. The population of 5,000 lived in tents and bush-timber huts covered in rammed earth. Rationing was in force and there was not much to eat “except rats”. Few knew anything about agriculture or how to grow food. In this strange place of banishment they took their relief in alcohol. On his way to Barrack Square, Kemp passed men and women slumped beside buckets of pure spirit which they drank from quart mugs until unable to budge. Outrageous drunkenness affected even the colony’s chief legal officer, Judge Advocate Atkins, whose wife would lead him to bed senseless and vomiting. Historians unite in describing Colonial Sydney as a drunken society from top to bottom. And thanks to Kemp, it became even drunker.

In Sydney Cove, the 22 year-old Kemp proved adept at swindling his way to the top. It was his very good luck to find himself at large in a society that thrived on the very commodities about which he was able to boast unique knowledge: viz. tobacco, which the convicts prized above food and sex, and rum (a term to describe any spirit) which they prized even more. Kemp exploited their craving with an unexpected ace card: the good name and credit of  “Kemp & Potter”.

Born into the trade, Kemp knew the shippers and agents in Mauritius, the Caribbean, India. (By far his most profitable liquor, he told a government commission, was Bengal rum: “There is a particular flavour in it which the lower orders prefer.”) His contacts and his education quickly secured him the post of the Corp’s acting paymaster. He was surrounded by no-hopers, he knew Latin, and his father, he reassured everyone in one of his rare true statements, was “one of the most respectable men in the City of London”. First up the ropes when a ship entered harbour, he purchased the cargo using a combination of promissory notes to “Kemp & Potter” and the Treasury Bills with which he was supposed to pay the regiment. He then sold back the cargo to his captive clientele at gross prices.

In November 1799, Kemp paid half a crown to lease a plot opposite the George Street barracks. Here, surrounded by paddocks and bush and tree stumps, he erected a diabolical version of 87 Aldgate known as The Golden Corner.

The Irish rebel Joseph Holt described how Kemp threatened to flog those men who came in to request their monthly wages. Kemp, instead of paying the soldiers, would point to his shelves of striped shirts, muskets, snuff. “I have very good tobacco, ten shillings the pound, and good tea at twenty shillings the pound…”

“Sir, I do not not want any of your goods.”

“You don’t! … Begone you damn mutinous scoundrel or I’ll send you to the guard house.” Which goes to explain Kemp’s bald description in the regiment’s official history: “Renowned bully”.

Kemp was not alone in his racketeering. Beet-faced Judge Atkins, whom Kemp would one day succeed, wrote in a lucid interval: “Almost every article was monopolised by the officers for profit in a most scandalous manner.” By most accounts, Kemp was the most energetic and unscrupulous of the officer-traders. His special racket was rum. He and a ring of army cronies bought every incoming barrel for as little as  7/6 a gallon and resold it for up to £8. Soon rum was the currency of the colony. For half a pint of “Bengal”, a desperate settler gave three bushels of wheat, a convict chopped a hundred feet of timber, a woman offered her body. And Kemp was chief supplier. His ring earned the regiment its nickname: the Rum Corps.

In the same month that he opened his emporium, Kemp impregnated Judith Simpson, a 25 year-old convict woman probably assigned to the store.

Judith was typical of many convict women. She had worked a week as kitchen maid for a Mrs Silk in Westminster, over that period filching a moth-eaten bombazine gown and a linen apron. Missing these articles, Mrs Silk had visited her lodgings and was furious when Judith opened the door dressed in her clothes. Mrs Silk recognised the moth holes “which she had darned” and a red wine stain on the apron. For her theft of objects worth 16 shillings and sixpence, Judith was transported to Australia for seven years.

She had 18 months of her sentence left to serve when she gave birth to Kemp’s daughter. Emily’s arrival on June 4, 1800 stirred in Kemp unusual emotions. He put pressure on the Governor who, the same day, granted Emily’s mother an absolute pardon.

Five months later, Kemp sailed home on leave with his “concubine” – as Judith is called in the Female Muster – and his illegitimate daughter. They occupied a rare berth as a family unit. On board the Buffalo,  Judith conceived again.

Back in London, Kemp moved to patch things up with his father, but his homecoming was less impressive than he might have hoped. Only one communication survives an 11-year silence between them. This letter tells me that Kemp has decided to marry the woman he calls, for decorum’s sake, Miss Crawford. Too ashamed to introduce his pregnant “Moll” to Aldgate, he takes lodgings at 15 Baker Street, from where he writes to his father: “I feel my Happiness entirely depending on your acquiescence to accomplish my union with her, having Mr & Mrs Crawford’s consent.” He is confident, he writes, that his marriage to Miss Crawford “will add much to my prosperity in New South Wales.”

But Kemp’s father sends a cousin around with a blunt message: his son is free to do as he likes. Three weeks later Kemp does exactly this – abandons Judith in London, dumps his 18-month daughter Emily on the Potters and elopes a second time to the Antipodes.

Tasmania alone of all the former penal colonies has a tendency to sit on its family secrets and be nervous about them. Emily is the source of much speculation to her descendants, who own a vineyard ten miles from where I live. While buying a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, I fall into conversation with the proprietor, a small, fair-haired man of sixty with blue stubborn eyes. Twenty minutes later I am sitting in his drawing-room and examining Anthony Fenn Kemp’s “christening mug” – a pint-sized silver tankard used by his wife as a vase.

The farmhouse at Coomb End, at the end of a small valley, once served as the district post office and belongs to a family from what I would later learn is Tasmania’s landed gentry. (“You’ve really scored,” says Helen with a trace of envy. “I lived there ten years and haven’t been invited for coffee.”). Descended from Emily, their interest in my research is hedged with anxiety about what discoveries I have made in the plastic bag. With a casual air, the wine-maker says: “It’s very fashionable to be descended from convicts?”

I pick the flowers out of the tankard, more drinking bucket than christening mug. Stamped onto the side there is the crest of a long-necked vulture standing on a wheatsheaf, and some words: Sic copia campis.

“Let there be plenty in the fields,” translates the wine-maker’s wife.

Her husband starts to laugh. “The only thing I know, he was a bastard. It’s stressful being a philanderer, but they live to a great age.” He shoots me a look: “The genes, they come down.”

A fortnight later, I’m buying some sausages in a Hobart delicatessen when a woman who turns out to be his sister darts round the counter and grips my shoulder: “Welcome to the family.” She has red hair and direct eyes and gives me a discount. And then she glances at my wife, conspiratorial: “Are you going to you call him Fenn?”

We know it’s a boy thanks to a young midwife in the northern town of Launceston. I had asked in a general way if it was possible to tell a child’s sex at fourteen weeks, whereupon she pointed at the ultrasound image: “Oh yes, there’s his little penis sticking out.”

Later in the garden, treating one of the apple trees against wind-burn, the fact of a son overwhelms me. Like his sex, which is already formed, his character is presumably out of my hands. And I’m driven to thinking it’s a good thing that there’s no technology to tell you whether you’ll get a Potter or a Kemp; whether this child will lean towards the ledger or the rum.

While in London with Judith in 1801, Kemp had his portrait painted. The original is lost, but I learn of a man in the north of Tasmania, a descendant of Kemp, who has a copy.

The likeness hangs on the wall of a weatherboard cottage in Hawley Beach and shows Kemp in the scarlet tunic of a Rum Corps Lieutenant. He has the features of a determined sensualist: large dark eyes, powdered white hair, a prominent nose.

“He’s a very devious, interesting gentleman with a cruel mouth,” says the owner, Paul Edwards. “My children wonder how I can sit here, him looking at me.”

Edwards, an amateur genealogist and retired papermaker, descends from Kemp’s eldest legitimate daughter Elizabeth. He says of Kemp, whom he has studied for many of his 84 years: “He had a few good points. He didn’t like the British Establishment. But I think he was completely amoral. I don’t know how his wife put up with him, quite frankly.”

The red paint had hardly dried on his portrait when Kemp returned to Sydney and married Elizabeth Riley, a girl of sixteen. Her miniature shows a pale round face with ringlets of chestnut hair. Kemp introduced her as the daughter of a prosperous London bookseller (although others spoke of his father-in-law as a conspicuous forger hanged at the Old Bailey for defrauding the East India Company). Kemp had known her, at most, 32 days, and while they remained uxorious for 63 years, the thin-nosed Elizabeth never inspired much affection in Kemp’s two sisters. There’s a letter in which Susannah describes her as “cool”, writing tartly to Amy Potter: “so much childbearing must weaken the constitution.”

Paul Edwards says gruffly, “Fancy siring 16 children on a woman. I reckon that’s disgusting.”

And Judith? According to Edwards, she ran a series of pubs and boarding houses, was gaoled for debt and died in Sydney in 1836 aged 61. I presumed Kemp never gave her another thought, but then I came across a poem he published in a Hobart newspaper 22 years after abandoning her with their second child. Titled “The Contrast”, it is a shockingly sentimental tribute to a distraught young woman who had relied on a man’s promise:

…She had given

Life’s hope to  a most fragile  bark – to love!

Twas wrecked – wreck’d by love’s treachery.

As Kemp expands the Potter in me contracts.

A monster and a blaggard he may have been, and yet there’s something beguiling about Kemp. There are moments where he exerts a brutal charm, drawing me into his story despite myself. There’s a tale-like satisfaction in the repeated pattern of his apparently facing catastrophe, only to get away scot free, usually prospering. And the story begins the same way, with Kemp striking out at a father figure; someone he perceives, as he would say, in loco parentis.

Abruptly on his return to Sydney, Kemp found himself at loggerheads with the new Governor. Gout-swollen Philip King was a pious anti-Republican, with a mission to tidy up Kemp’s cartel of army racketeers. He cut both the price and consumption of spirits and when the supply ship Atlas  sailed into port with a cargo of rum, he refused permission to unload. Kemp hated King, as a result, “abominably”. While the Atlas  lay uselessly at anchor, he began to plot against him.

In June 1802, a French ship appeared off the Heads with no one at the tiller. British “Tars” who climbed aboard Le  Geographe   found a crew paralysed with scurvy; even the animals had it. The ship was part of a French scientific force which had been mapping Van Diemen’s Land and in the days ahead it alarmed King to discover that the affable French commander, Nicolas Baudin, had baptised the coast after members of his expedition.

At the far end of the bay where we live, Cape Péron commemorates a one-eyed zoologist from the ship who used a contraption known as Régnier’s Dynamometer to measure the handclap of Tasmanian aborigines (he concluded they had a weak one); while the Freycinet Peninsula opposite our house is named after Baudin’s cartographer.

A delicate peace then existed between Britain and France and Lieutenant Freycinet’s unrolling of a chart marking regions of Australia “Terre Napoléon” filled the choleric King with panic. Nonetheless, he gave the sailors safe passage ashore to treat their blackened gums. And he allowed them to buy 800 gallons of rum from the Atlas – on Baudin’s strict word that the spirits were consumed on his ship.

King’s kindness outraged the avaricious Kemp. Denied his profits, he generated the rumour that Freycinet and one other officer had secretly rowed the rum ashore and sold it. Compelled to investigate this “inflaming report”, King summoned the accused. They swore that the charge was false. Not one pint had reached land. French officers demanded a duel. Baudin pointed his finger at the man responsible: “Monsieur Kemp.”

The crisis was averted only after Kemp sent a written apology to both officers. But the oddest part of this affair is the identity of the second French lieutenant, Jacques St Cricq. The fact is, Kemp had accused a fellow mason.

Freemasonry is a guarantee of clannishness, but at this period it had seditious connotations as well and was particularly strong among French revolutionaries, for whom Kemp felt a powerful sympathy. On the evening of 17 September 1802 (that is to say a fortnight before his apology), Kemp had boarded the French corvette Le Naturaliste   and participated in the first Masonic meeting to be convened in Australia. His certificate, written in French on thin paper, elevated “le chére frère AFK” to the position of Master Mason and was signed J St Cricq.

What is going on here? Was Kemp preparing the spadework for an insurrection of his own? Was he counting on the French to help him? Or did his Masonic loyalty prove flimsier than his certificate the instant anyone threatened his monopoly? I can’t work it out. As one contemporary said bitterly of Kemp: “He is anybody’s body.”

In November, Baudin’s expedition left port. No one guessed his destination until, a few hours after the topsails vanished, Kemp circulated another rumour. French officers been overheard speaking of their intention to establish a settlement on Van Diemen’s Land. One of them had even indicated the proposed site on a map.

Governor King had learned to trust the wayward, sympathetic Baudin. But what if the Frenchman’s ambition extended beyond handclaps? Van Diemen’s Land, as yet unsettled by either power, offered vital access to southern waters. Alarmed by the spectre of a hostile French colony, King fitted out a schooner with 17 marines and launched them after Baudin “to make the French commander acquainted with my intention of settling Van Diemen’s Land.” They found the French scientists netting insects on an island in Bass Strait. The marines hastily tied a Union Jack to a tree, fired a volley over the tents and gave three aggressive hurrahs. Insulted a second time, Baudin complained to King about this “childish ceremony”. (The flag, he noted acidly, was hoisted upside down and resembled a dish-rag hung out to dry). He assured King he had no intention of claiming a territory anyway discovered in 1642 by a Dutchman and, in his opinion, already inhabited by aborigines. Once again he identified the culprit. “The story you have heard, of which I suspect Mr Kemp, captain in the NSW Corps, to be the author, is without foundation.”

By now, King’s gout had advanced into his chest, torturing his lungs. He took to his bed, unable to breathe. Meanwhile, Kemp’s spiteful vendetta continued. At a time when King’s existence was “doubtful”, it scandalised him to be shown, uncovered in Kemp’s barracks, a tightly rolled piece of paper containing “seditious drawings” of the Governor and two short poems. “Extempore Allegro” was a brisk assault on King’s character (“for infamous acts from my birth I’d an itch”), while “Epitaph” looked forward to the Governor’s demise (“A wretch to whom all pity is bereft”).

Maddened to discover this anonymous doggerel scattered about Sydney, King arrested Kemp and determined to prosecute him. The trial was a farce. King had to draw the court-martial from Kemp’s cronies like the Rum Corps commander, Lieutenant-Colonel “Phlegmatic” Paterson, an inebriate botanist with failing eyesight who had witnessed Kemp’s marriage; and Major Johnston, Paterson’s no less alcoholic second-in-command, who had been the first officer to step ashore at Sydney Cove. This was a tribunal that protected its interests.

On 25 February 1803, the trial was suspended and Kemp acquitted. A startling despatch from the Colonial Office advised King to forget the whole business and “consign to oblivion” all that had passed. He was urged to colonise Van Diemen’s Land.

In October 1804, King departed his sick bed and with tremendous relief waved goodbye to an occupying force led by Paterson, with Kemp – his “concealed assassin” – as second-in-command. Among the 181 soldiers, convicts and settlers, were Kemp’s wife Elizabeth and her brother, the emotional Alexander Riley who was to act as storekeeper. Some confusion had flowed from Lord Hobart’s order for the three ships to proceed to Port Dalrymple “upon the Southern Coast of Van Diemen’s Land”: Port Dalrymple lay on the north. King put it down to a clerical error and saw off the expedition with an 11-gun salute.

One cloudless morning I drive the old Peugeot to Georgetown and park above the beach where Kemp landed. Even though the river-mouth is sprinkled with caravan parks and bungalows called “Ups-n-downs”, the shoreline is pristine, the sand empty and the sea an outlandish ultramarine. This is not the ruined coastline of most countries and it would have looked little different on the day Kemp’s ship slammed into an unexpected sandbank off Lagoon Beach.

I doubt the future “Father of Tasmania” was pleased to be on board, separated from his grog store. He didn’t share my love of the sea: it was for the convicts to wash in. And he would have avoided the sun so as to preserve his vinous complexion, and to distinguish himself from the aborigines who watched his bungled landing in puzzled silence.

I move along the beach, trying to make sense of my own small role in Kemp’s story and his appearance in my life in this place at this time. The discovery of his letters has thrown up a bundle of prickly questions from British history to personal identity. I’m amazed at the idea that you just set sail and pitch up in a country about which you have no real knowledge or understanding. But isn’t that what I’ve done? And while I don’t share Kemp’s sense of greedy entitlement, am I not, in some way, in his debt? Whatever brutal means he employed, he makes me, I realise, complicit. Because of people like him, people like me are able to grow apples in a far-flung place like Tasmania. And write stories.

He hurried to unload the stores on the river’s east shore. The beach was thick with black swan quills and the feathers whirled around him as he strode through the wavespray. The wind blew in heavy squalls and was still blowing four days later when Paterson, the Rum Corps commander, took formal possession of the colony and swore in Kemp and his brother-in-law Riley as its magistrates. Hours before a terrible storm with vivid lighting, Kemp stood on the reddish sand and declared he didn’t believe in Transubstantiation.

It was the wrong place for a settlement, with brackish water and stony soil. Leaving Kemp to oversee the erection of a church and gaol, Paterson crossed the River Tamar and decided to establish a permanent residence on the edge of a shallow rivulet. “It is my opinion,” he wrote in his diary, “the Country will turn out to be Superior to any yet discovered.”

The settlement of Patersonia is recollected today by a brass relief map in a deserted picnic spot beside a garden supplier. The pyramids of wood-chips and “chook-poo” are all that remain of what, on the map, is “Major Kemp’s garden”. The original garden was, in fact, Paterson’s creation. His horizons reduced by opthalmia, Paterson concentrated on his plants and soon was treating Kemp to a corned beef dinner served with eight different vegetables and an impressive cucumber. But his optimism was ebbing.

In Patersonia, Kemp watched his commander go steadily barmy. The site was a disastrous choice. The closest a ship could anchor was six miles away. After rain, the place became “a complete swamp”. The climate was colder than in Sydney and as winter set in the animals started to die. Within six months half the 600 cattle had perished and Kemp and Riley were having to hoist the remaining herd into slings and daily massage their legs. And there was trouble in the garden. Nettles had grown up with a sting violent enough to kill four dogs and bring out the officers in a terrible fever. In February, Kemp made a further unpleasant discovery that seems like a metaphor for himself. Overnight, a small white insect, “the most destructive in the world of its size”, had devoured his coat and was advancing through the vegetables which Paterson had to surround with soapsuds. Then one morning, Paterson woke to find all his ducks and chickens feathers, eaten by strange spotted predators with bull-dog mouths. The only animal missing in Van Diemen’s Land was the dingo, but Kemp would make good that absence.

By June, the community was on half rations. Frantic to find a more suitable place, Paterson sent off Riley, but after walking four hours Kemp’s brother-in-law was speared in the loin by aborigines who had grabbed at his cravat. Desperate and homesick, the colonists were hanging on by their fingernails when they received a further blow, the pirating of a supply ship by a convict crew. Apart from critically needed salt and grain, the brig Venus   was bearing letters to Kemp from Potter. In his embarrassed deposition, Captain Chase described how, just before his ship was seized from him in June 1806, he saw something hurtle into the sea: a small deal box of papers belonging to Kemp, thrown overboard by a drunken female convict who would help navigate the ship to New Zealand.

In August, an anxious and fatigued Paterson sailed for Sydney, unable to withstand another “Breeze of Wind”. He left behind Kemp as acting Lieutenant-Governor.

Years later, Kemp argued that he had spared neither trouble nor expense “converting a howling wilderness into a cultivated plain”. But he was not a natural leader and under his command the settlement almost starved to death. Floods destroyed the grain the wounded Riley had managed to grow, in spite of his “painful circumstances”. The settlers survived on seaweed and pigs they’d fed on whale scraps and which tasted of lamp oil. In February, Kemp ordered five men into the long boat to seek assistance from the mainland, but they all drowned. In the same month, he directed Lieutenant Laycock to make the first crossing of the island to the settlement in Hobart. For nine days, Laycock trekkked through grazing plains of silver tussock and kangaroo grass. The southern settlers were starving too. “We can afford no relief,” they told him.

In April, Paterson sailed back up the Tamar to find the settlement in a state of anarchy. To ward off famine and mutiny, Kemp had distributed guns to the convicts to hunt kangaroo and many had stayed out in the bush, harassing the settlers. Left in charge for seven months and eleven days, Kemp desired nothing more than to quit Van Diemen’s Land and resume his business on the mainland. Complaining of “extreme ill health” he requested permission to take his wife and nine-month old son George to Sydney. The placid Paterson agreed, but warned Kemp of the tyrannical new Governor he would find installed.

Seventeen years after the mutiny on the Bounty,  William Bligh had arrived in Sydney with express instructions to stamp out the rum trade. He did not look favourably on Kemp’s return – he considered Rum Corps officers to be “tremendous buggers”- and suspicious of the reason he complained to Paterson: “I regret your sending Captain Kemp up until he could be relieved.”

Bligh had excellent cause for concern. On a scorching evening five months later, the Rum Corps mutinied and it no longer surprises me to discover who marches up the drive ahead of them, sword drawn, into Government House.

I wonder if Kemp has found a venue in which to unfurl his republican ardour; but his rebellion is activated by hog-whimpering drunkenness and corruption.

The occasion was the complicated trial of Kemp’s predecessor as paymaster, Captain John Macarthur, a former corset-maker whom Bligh accused of smuggling parts to build an illegal still. Kemp, who was close to the haughty Macarthur and owed him much, was senior officer at his trial. The notion that he might convict the man who had handed him his rum monopoly was held only by the presiding Judge, Richard Atkins, a disgraced but well-connected ruin who had never read a law book and was known to pronounce sentences of death “in moments of intoxication”.

On the eve of the trial, Kemp drank himself into a stupor at a mess dinner with Major Johnson, then acting (in Paterson’s absence) as the Rum Corps commander. The button-nosed Johnston held up a bottle and said, “Look here, Kemp; recollect tomorrow.” Then the two officers stood up and began to dance.

Kemp had not yet sobered up when the court convened in the Orphan House. After Judge Atkins, reeking of spruce beer, warned he would commit Macarthur to gaol for contempt, Kemp roared back: “You commit! No, Sir, I will commit you.” Atkins scampered from the room, shouting the trial could not continue without him. Kemp, declaring the court still in session, promptly freed Macarthur on bail.

Next day, Governor Bligh expected to celebrate the colony’s twentieth anniversary. The evening, however, would see him under house arrest and burnt in effigy as “The Silly Old Man”. The spark for the mutiny was the letter Bligh delivered to Johnston, Kemp’s senior officer, to inform him that Kemp was guilty of treason and he required his presence. Johnston had been in bed two days, so drunk after dancing with Kemp that he had spilled out of his carriage and injured his leg. But on receipt of Bligh’s letter, he immediately set off for town.  At 6.30pm, with his arm in a sling and his bruised face perspiring in the summer heat, Johnston limped his regiment towards Government House.

Bligh was finishing his dinner and had poured a second glass of port when Atkins bustled in to advise him that the military were on the move. Bligh dashed to the window and pressed his unnaturally white face against the glass. He was a humourless martinet, the male equivalent of a strict Victorian governess – save for a penchant he had for swearing at any provocation. His mouth fell open at the sight of Kemp ambling across the Tank Stream, arm in arm with three officers.

Johnson had sent Kemp on ahead to tell Bligh that his days were numbered. He barged into the residence where Bligh’s recently widowed daughter shrieked at him. An Irish parson there to comfort her slammed the hall door on Kemp. The upper part was made of glass and through the glass the Rev. Henry Fulton discerned the restless shadow of Kemp’s drawn sword. A voice commanded the parson “in a very peremptory tone” to open the door. “I answered in the same kind of tone that I would not.”

Meanwhile, the 52 year-old Bligh had disappeared (“We could not find Governor Bligh anywhere,” Kemp complained). Two hours later, at 8.30pm, he was driven to earth in a dirty little room upstairs. Alerted by a twitch in the bed-cover, a soldier prods his musket beneath the mattress, striking a boot: Bligh with his shirt frill out and his back covered with spiderwebs.

Johnson’s junta rewarded Kemp with 24 cows, 4000 acres, and appointed him Judge Advocate in Atkins’ place. A lampoon described him as “a grinning tobacco boy” whose prolific learning was praised to the skies. For seven months he ruled as the supreme legal officer in an area the size of Western Europe, a position of extraordinary power. For seven months there was no court of appeal after Kemp – except to God. With tremendous relish, he transported former adversaries like William Gore, chief of the constabulary, to seven years on the Coal River. “Take him away, take him off; take him away, take him away.”

By now, Kemp has run the gamut. He’s already been in charge of the colony’s finances and judiciary (and inaugurated the tradition – still vibrant in Australian politics – of jobs for the boys). But I have underestimated my uncle. I discover from the Hobart Gazette  that he has, with some reluctance, taken on another responsibility. Following the Rev. Fulton’s suspension, the 35 year-old Kemp will perform all marriages in the colony. One morning, with eleven services to conduct, through a combination of impatience and drink he marries the wrong couples. “The Parson-Captain, when subsequently applied to, bade them ‘settle it amongst them, for he could interfere no further!’”

How does he do it? It’s easy to fob off Potter, because of the length of time of the mail; and he’s invisible. But Kemp abuses people at close quarters and he goes on doing it. Even in this thinly-based society he must have had a gift.

*           *           *

And what of the pious Potter, for whom the great division in life is whether you play cards in Grantham? I sense Potter’s response to the errant element in our family behind this advice he pens to his son:

-Rather lose a customer from want of wit than by exercising wit indiscreetly.

-By drinking till you are inebriated you lose the respect even of those who drink with you to the same excess.

-Be polite but not too attentive to married females, the single ones you may be less cautious about.

-Say you don’t know a knave from an ace rather than sit down to cards. You can have no idea how they would work upon your spirit or shame or desire to make your losses gains. Pray be particular in this.

Potter’s maxims have pathos because they don’t work for him. One day in 1810 there’s an impatient knock at the door. Kemp is back: the Rum Corps has been broken up and he’s looking for a job.

The letters offer no indication that Kemp’s family are pleased to see him. Susannah, his younger sister, calls him “a strange man” who seldom exchanges a word. “He seems very proud,” and she mentions a court case he’s involved in, writing that he’s a bankrupt, exactly as he had been when he left England twenty years before.

He is home to give evidence at Major Johnson’s court martial. Bligh has singled out Kemp as the first he wishes to see prosecuted for the mutiny, but not surprisingly Kemp avoids punishment. Commended for his candour in the witness box, he forfeits his 4,000 acres and 24 cows, and that’s all.

But Kemp’s return home is a defeating experience. His capacity for swagger and hyperbole has been enlarged by his 17 years in the Rum Corps. It is significant that when he has to compete as a citizen in the then greatest metropolis on earth, a place where he is not the law, it disables him.

His next five years are sketchy. I know from the letters he lives in Brompton. I know he tries his hand at various ventures, but the same practises that allowed him to prosper in Sydney in London usher him quickly into the bankruptcy court. I catch glimpses of him as a shipping agent, a pawnbroker, and in one sighting as a wine-merchant who has “lost much on Bordeaux wine speculation”. In vain, he bets £150 against the capture or death of Napoleon.

By 1815, he has exhausted his options. The world regards him, he later complains indignantly, as “an uncertificated bankrupt, alias an outlaw.” There is nowhere to go but back to the Antipodes. For a third time he prepares to flee the country. Pursued by “clamorous” creditors, he comes cap in hand to see Potter in the house where he has grown up and with the optimism of a glorious gangster requests his biggest loan to date; an amount, in 1815, equivalent to the entire annual turnover of “Kemp & Potter”.

Kemp asks Potter to guarantee two shiploads of goods worth “upwards of five thousand pounds”. He assures Potter that he will be able sell the goods at considerable profit in Van Diemen’s Land, thanks to the exceptional contacts of his other brother-in-law, Alexander Riley, who has recently built Sydney’s new hospital and made £30,000 from the contract (“some say Fifty, but he is a close man and no person could tell exactly how much”). The same “most splendid fortune”, he promises Potter, awaits “Kemp & Potter” in the cargoes of tobacco, brandy and seedlings. Kemp requires the money only for nine months and will pay full interest.

Potter agrees.

But Kemp pushes for more. Since 1801, the Potters have looked after his illegitimate daughter Emily. Before he boards the Dawson, Kemp unloads on them his legitimate children George and Elizabeth.

Potter first smells trouble in a letter that arrives several months later from Paraiba in Brazil. Kemp’s ship has been detained after losing her anchor. Her captain “appears to me to be a little deranged.” And Kemp has run out of money. “I have been under the necessity of drawing on you for sixty pounds.”

This is all Potter hears for two years. Letter after letter appealing to “our agreement with your good self” goes unanswered. By now Kemp’s father is dead and Potter is having to steer the firm from the rocks on which Kemp’s negligence threatens to pitch it. At Aldgate, his desk piles up with demands for Kemp’s £5,000 (easily more than £400,000 today). Uselessly, Kemp’s sisters wring their hands. Susanna writes to Amy: “It’s complete swindling to fly one’s country for speculation.”

At last, in August 1817, a letter arrives from Hobart. It begins breezily: “I arrived here about six weeks ago and have commenced my mercantile pursuits.” But due to “the severe trials” lately experienced, combined with “unprecedented mercantile circumstance”, Kemp fears he will not be able to make his remittances “so punctual as I would wish”.

He details his sales to date.

Tobacco: “I am sorry to say there is no market for that now” – although he did sell some sacks of Prince’s Mixture in Cape Town (“You was either rob’d or cheated,” splutters Potter).

Brandy: “The market is completely glutted with spirits and all other goods -such that to force sales would be ruinous.”

The seedlings: “They are unsaleable and good for nothing.”

Kemp moves to hearten Potter. “What is possible for man to do shall be done. You may rely on it, there is no cause for alarm.”

The family’s distress is summarized in a letter from Kemp’s sister Susannah: “There are characters in life who care very little for each other, self-consideration their first and justice their last.” She unites with the Potters in wishing never to see her brother again.

*            *            *

I start to think no one could write Anthony Fenn Kemp’s life – not even Anthony Fenn Kemp. It’s more exaggerated than any story one could tell about him. It verges on the incredible, to put it mildly. And the most unbelievable part is still to come.

Kemp was only too delighted to be separated from Aldgate “by the circumference of the globe”. On January 12, 1816, he was rowed ashore in Hobart. The town consisted of a thousand people living in wattle and daub huts and resembled more a campsite than a capital. That night, he dined in Government House (actually a barn), a guest of the volatile Lieutenant-Governor, Thomas Davey. He informed Davey of his “valuable cargo” and of his wish to become a free settler. He was then my age: 43.

Davey, who liked to entertain in shirtsleeves, was a jovial incompetent known as “Mad Tom”. If anyone put him on the spot, he had the habit of screwing up his forehead and yelling out “Ponticherry!” An ex-Marine who received the news of his appointment in a debtor’s prison, Davey was the most alcoholic of Kemp’s superiors. His favourite tipple was “Blow my skull”, a cocktail he served in half-pint glasses consisting of rum, brandy, gin, port, Madeira, sherry and claret.

Davey and Kemp had plenty to discuss over dinner. Davey was engaged in a desperate struggle with convict kangaroo hunters who had remained out in the bush and terrorised the island. Kemp was familiar with the problem: these bush-rangers were a legacy of his administration nine years before.

Anxious for the right sort of settler who might bring security to the interior, Davey opened his arms to his predecessor. Tucked inside a letter to Potter from Hobart, I find a faded copy of the Governor’s grant which gives the bankrupt Kemp 800 acres and four convict workers; and appoints him a magistrate.

Kemp’s land is situated 40 miles north of Hobart and 20 miles south of Kemp’s Lakes (named after him when Laycock crossed the island). Here, in a basin of rocky hills and wildcat frosts, Kemp will slough off what is left of his self-restraint. He marks his return to this remote sandbox by using Potter’s wealth to create a parody of Potter’s world. This is where Kemp will erect his imposing property “Mount Vernon”, with its cedar-wood staircase and 20-foot ceilings. Here he will breed Merino sheep and, in the words of his obituary, “pioneer the Tasmanian wool industry”. He will import Sambar deer from India to decorate his park, dwarf corn from America to fatten his poultry, and plant trees in the shape of his masonic sign. By the 1860s, the nearby township is called Kemp Town while Kemp its “squire”, a former President of the failed Bank of Van Diemen’s Land, is known as “Dollar Kemp” after his habit of giving money away in the street.

But this is for the future. For the moment, bush-rangers make it too dangerous for Kemp to inhabit his property, and so he uses his land grant to buy a mortgage on a building in Hobart where he opens a ramshackle store with a former convict transported for stealing an eyeglass. Kemp assures Potter: “I have given a person a share in the concern who is a complete man of business.”

It is Potter’s hard toil that has made it possible for Kemp to set himself up. In July 1816, the Hobart Gazette  carries adverts for Potter’s hogsheads of tobacco, Potter’s brandy, Potter’s Souchong teas – “to be sold on a liberal Credit”. Potter never sees a bean.

Kemp’s one-storey boarded house is not quite The Golden Corner, although he endeavours to make it so. By 1820, he controls 80% of the spirits landed in Hobart and “nearly all the Rum in the colony”. He guards the monopoly with a mixture of greed and flammability. He overcharges customers. He boards ships without permission. The only magistrate to own a pub, he invokes the law to protect his interests. When a rival merchant accuses him of acting “like a peddlar”, he sends him to prison.

Truculent, intolerant, inconsistent, Kemp exemplifies the transition from rollicking empire-founding to the humbug of empire-ruling. In May 1817, sitting as magistrate, he has the “high satisfaction” of announcing the arrest of the last bush-rangers. He rounds on his creditors with the same spleen. While in Aldgate, Potter writes yet another despairing letter (referring his brother-in-law “to my letters No 1,2 & 3”), Kemp places announcements in the Hobart Gazette  warning he will sue his debtors unless they settle instantly. Astonishingly, Kemp brings an action to recover £12. Given his less than reflective nature, I assume he doesn’t notice a symmetry: for this sum he fled England as an 18-year-old.

His antagonism to his father never flags. He treats anyone who flexes authority over him with the same hysterical vehemence. When the Governor rides past him in the street, Kemp refuses to take off his hat and laughs at him. His attitude to successive Governors is that they are “equally bad”. He falls foul of each, beginning with “Mad Tom” Davey.

-In 1817, Davey summons a sentry to evict Kemp from Government House, following the “extreme rudeness of his observations on the exercise of my Duty as Governor.” Davey is recalled.

-In 1823, Governor Sorell is recalled, after Kemp accuses him of immorality.

-In 1836, Governor Arthur is recalled following Kemp’s campaign against him in the British press under the pen name “A Correspondent”.

-In 1846, Governor Wilmot is recalled after Kemp stages a Punch and Judy show outside the Legislative Chamber, attacking him for raising taxes. Allegations have also reached London that Kemp’s “undisciplined and tempestuous” granddaughter Julia has seduced the Governor. (If she were a man, she tells Wilmot, she’d never marry but take as many lovers as she liked. “What a devil you are,” beams Wilmot. “You’re another,” she says). The upright Colonial Secretary, William Gladstone, writes to Wilmot that these rumours render him ineligible for employ in the colonial service.

Little by little, Flashman turns into Prince Albert. Until the improbable moment arrives when Kemp decides to behave well.

The tender shoots of Kemp’s moral awakening may be credited to Governor William Sorell, a rare example of someone prepared to stand up to Kemp and, unusual in this cast of characters, teetotal. Sorell is the benevolent patriarch of the colony: a fatherly, much-loved administrator, known because of his white shocks of hair as the “Old Man”. Friendly with the citizens of Hobart – he stands at his gate to hear their complaints – Sorell is wise, honest, grave and firm, but his private affairs are surprisingly tangled.

Sorell arrives at Government House in April 1817 with a beautiful and intriguing wife who is pregnant with their third child. Kemp detests him from the start, but this Governor is from every angle impregnable. Then a package arrives from Potter containing black cloth for two coats and some newspapers. And there Kemp reads of a court-case involving Sorell. He hares about town showing the articles to everyone. The elegant Mrs Sorell is, in point of fact, Mrs Kent, the wife of a Lieutenant in the 21st Dragoons who is suing Sorell for damages. Oblivious to all parallels between Mrs Kent and his former “concubine” Judith Simpson, Kemp launches a vindictive attack on Sorell for his “immoral Habits and pernicious example”.

The roots of their dispute are petty: a refusal by Sorell to assign Kemp two more convict servants (because he already has 17) and a quarrel over a wall. It is a novel experience for Kemp to be contradicted. Menacingly, he reminds Sorell’s secretary of what happened to Governor Bligh. Sorell’s reaction is to strip Kemp of his magistracy and to sanction a penalty he’s incurred for refusing to list members of his household. Kemp is fined £1 and sent to gaol for an hour.

Kemp’s 60 minutes in Hobart gaol constitute his single known prison sentence, but the detention activates a pathological thirst for retribution. Soon he is slandering Sorell in his shop and in the streets, wherever he could find a listener.

Kemp’s principal complaint is over “the dreadful example” of Sorell’s relationship with Mrs Kent. Conceiving it “a Duty that I owe my family”, he shoots off letters to Lord Bathurst, Lord Liverpool, and the Bishop of London. He writes, he insists, on behalf of  “all the married men of Respectability”. After watching Sorell’s mistress ride through town in an open carriage at government expense, he declares it “lamentable to see the highest authority in the island living in a public state of concubinage.” In his words there is the residue of his father’s indignation towards himself as an 18-year-old. He appears to savour his new role as the safeguard of Vandemonian rectitude, as if in felling the paternal and honest Sorell, he can finally take the stand against not only his father but against all those who have sat in his judgement.

Kemp objects sorely to Sorell’s habit of introducing Mrs Kent to his guests as his wife, but it is the spectacle of Mrs Kent at church that most distresses him. “On seeing Mrs Sorell in the Government House when Divine service was performed under the verandah I determined to decline all further intercourse.” Kemp subsequently reads prayers to his family at his own house. Bluntly, he requests that Lord Bathurst remove the Governor from office.

With this action he comes into full make-up. From rake to founding father to monster, the last virgin land to explore is to be Kemp the Puritan. His final incarnation is a gruesome caricature of everything he has fled (and is not): the God-fearing, respectable family man of Aldgate, William Potter.

Sorell denies Kemp’s accusations as a malignant tissue of lies. Kemp could not have seen Mrs Kent in church for a simple reason: “he was never there, nor has ever attended divine service.” For the past two years, Sorell tells the enquiry that Kemp’s accusations have helped to provoke, Kemp has incessantly vilified him and the Judge Advocate. Indeed, Sorell asserts “without fear of contradiction from anyone with whom Mr Kemp has come into contact, that his conceit and credulity, envy and malice, turbulence and arrogance, have been at all times equal, to which may now be added a total disregard of truth…”

But the same habits, Sorell reminds the commission, have characterised Kemp through life, “from the moment that emerging from behind his father’s counter, he became an ensign in the New South Wales Corps.”

Unfortunately for Sorell, Kemp’s mud sticks. Sorell is recalled. Then Kemp changes his mind. In an extraordinary volte-face, Kemp organises a petition entreating the King to extend Sorell’s tenure as Governor. Kemp, after witnessing Sorell’s “Unremitting Attention to the Duties of his Station”, has formed “a deep Conviction that our Personal Rights and the General Security of Property will hardly find a more able and upright Protector.” The petition arrives too late. In June 1824, Sorell and Mrs Kent leave Van Diemen’s Land on the Guildford.

Kemp is not so Puritan that he can’t forgive and forget. His accusations and retraction spring from the same old source of his self-interest. Within months of Sorell’s departure, Kemp gives away his 17 year-old daughter Elizabeth in marriage. Kemp’s new son-in-law, a reserved bureaucrat reckoned to be “a bit of a sis”, is Sorell’s son.

Elizabeth Kemp has spent her childhood with the Potters. Back in Hobart, she has grown into a headstrong and striking woman, “perhaps the most beautiful woman you ever saw,” according to one contemporary, “but a very devil incarnate.” Her great-grandson recasts her in Point Counter Point  as the alluring Lucy Tantamount: “A perfumed imitation of a savage or an animal.” Aldous Huxley is inspired to his portrait by the Kemp precocity for havoc. In 1838, after thirteen years of marriage, Elizabeth abandons Sorell, sails with their five children to Brussels and elopes to India with a Colonel Deare she had known in Hobart.

Her tempestuous daughter Julia returns to Tasmania, where, after three broken engagements, she marries Thomas Arnold. She is Huxley’s grandmother and the mother of Mrs Humphrey Ward (who called the Kemps “a wild, forcible set”). Julia warns her husband about her family: “Very few have been cursed such as mine.”

Genealogy is considered the domain of the elderly, but the impulse to look back at the tracks in the sand can be triggered by having a child, especially when that event occurs for the first time, as in my case, later in life.

He announces himself with his feet, palpable between kicks under the diaphragm; tiny heels, no bigger than my thumb, with which he will make his own track down to the beach. What I see in the uproar of his ancestry are some pretty disappointed expectations, but like any incipient parent I’m prone to self-deception and to wishful thinking: I want his life to be perfect.

The genes, they come down . If I had a say, whose genes would I wish my son to inherit: the sound and sensible Potter’s or the romantic but indebted Kemp’s?

Before I can know what I wish, I need to sort through what their drama explains to me about myself. Parenting, by definition, is about Pottering. Every parent says hopefully to their child, “Go and get a qualification and a job.” But am I a Potter secretly longing to be a Kemp – and isn’t this the case for all writers? From our secure beach-houses, we look out on a chaotic world and shape a pattern from it. In the riot of Kemp’s life, am I trying to find the sense which suits me at this moment?

It’s hard to stand back from blood and to view with any objectivity the connection between past, present and future. All I can answer with confidence is that by coming to Tasmania, I’ve repeated the pattern of an ancient, unknown relative and the discovery pleases me in a profound and mysterious way because, however tenuous, it links me to this place. It suggests that life is not a series of arbitrary events. That there are, if you like, no accidents.

On December 4, 1819, Potter writes his last letter to Kemp. “In every letter I have requested to know if you receiv’d a Copy of your Father’s will, mourning ring, etc etc… to these repeated questions I have not as yet got an answer.”

He directs his son up a ladder to erect a new sign: “William Potter & son”.

He begins to clear Kemp’s papers from his desk.

I can see him hesitate. Endings are always difficult. The end of a failed business, like the end of a failed love affair, is charged with the same nostalgia and sadness. Potter has lost what he wanted to lose, but oughtn’t he to keep a record? Unable to balance his books, does he treat the letters as if they are receipts? Setting them aside may be his way of buying time, of stalling the “one above” who will reward and punish as Kemp and Potter deserve.

He tidies them away.

Potter without Kemp eventually peters out. As Potter muses to his son: “An Englishman fails because he fears he shall and is continually stumbling over the shadow his fancy raises.” Potter’s son faithfully lives by his maxims and rises to become Master of the Vintners Company, where I find an entry in the minutes book commending him for “his able and zealous discharge of the duties of his office and for his kindness and courtesy on all occasions.” But these qualities, on their own, are not enough to save the business and the family moves to Birmingham, where my grandmother – the last of the Potters – was born.

The same goes for Kemp without Potter. When he died in 1868, he had lived long enough to be known to a man in 1936 (who called him “a Jewish type”). But despite 18 children, he has left behind no descendants called Kemp in Tasmania. Today, his warehouse is occupied by Madame Korner’s beauty college and a hearing-aid retailer. Even his gravestone has disappeared. All that is left of his person are some letters in a yellow plastic bag.

Kemp was a baby once, some mother’s darling. So was Potter, for that matter. Their letters make me think that what holds both men back is that each is not more like the other. If Kemp had hurried a little more slowly, if Potter had been more clangourous in his care… Perhaps every affair of business, of love, of writing itself, calls for a necessary balance between the Potters and the Kemps, between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, between the ledger and the rum. And I suppose I wish this balance for my son: not as a state conferred, but as a state achieved once his wax has melted and his feet have got wet.

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