On this day in 1846, a wooden ship called the Pestonjee Bomanjee left the coast of Kent headed for Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australasia.

Onboard was my fourth-great grandfather, James Messer. He was a butcher by trade, from Hertford, and had been caught selling stolen sheep (twice). And for that they shipped him off to Tasmania (as we now know it).

Over the years I’ve pulled together more pieces to his story. Relying mostly on some research a distant relative did, I’ve been able to learn more about him: his teenage years in Hertford, his two convictions, what life would have been like in London in the 1840s, what the Thames and Kentish coast looks like in October (muddy, foaming, grey horizons), and life in a penal colony.

Until the ancestral memories are played to me in a dream, collecting scraps of information is all I have to understand him more.

The document that gives me a jolt is the ship’s surgeon’s description of my fourth-great grandfather in the ship’s records. He would have looked like my dad.