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Our forgotten political prisoners

11 July 2010 1,465 views No Comment

Colonial Australia was a dumping ground for activists who fought for the freedoms that we take for granted today.

This concisely written, effectively illustrated “history from below” focuses on all those rebels and political malcontents banished by British authorities to the ends of the earth in the Antipodes.

Death or Liberty: Rebel Exiles Transported to Australia 1788-1868 usefully adopts the historiographical approach of the leading 20th-century scholars E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude to understand and elucidate the forces producing rebellion in the mother country. As Moore explains, studies by these and other progressive historians have demonstrated “how the uprooting of Britain’s agrarian communities by the forces of capitalism, industrialisation and urbanisation and the expansion of the empire led not only to class division, social breakdown and crime, but also to revolution, riot and organised resistance”.

Moore clearly argues in the early chapters of this fine book that Thompson, Hobsbawm and Rude have successfully recast many so-called “political criminals” as democrats and progressive reformers who were transported to Australia as a penalty for the “advance of self-determination, universal suffrage, free speech and assembly, workers’ rights and social justice”. Indeed, it is hard to resist the conclusion that transportation removed political threats from “home” in England and elsewhere in Britain and at the same time intimidated other potential rebels who might have contemplated active dissent and revolution.

Death or Liberty cogently examines the continued use over nearly a century – from 1788 to 1868 – of this “system” by successive British governments. It had the specific aim of suppressing radical political movements by means of exiling rebels to what Robert Hughes so tellingly called “this fatal shore”.

This thoroughly researched, thematic, social and political narrative has chapters dealing with different groups of political prisoners. They range from the Scottish and Tolpuddle and Young Ireland Martyrs to the Canadian Patriots, the Chartists, the United Irishmen and the Fenians. Perversely, with the conspicuous exception of the Irish rebels, while many of these other radical political exiles are now honoured in their countries of origin, there is still relatively little “to commemorate their time on our soil or contribution to our history”.

As Moore points out, this book has been written so that 21st-century readers, and especially the young, might learn the stories of “the rebels, radicals and protestors” who can be seen as sacrificing their own liberty to help achieve the egalitarian democracy we enjoy in Australia today.

Transportation to the British colony of New South Wales, Moore powerfully argues, was invented to “soak up the wave of criminality caused by the tectonic shifts in traditional British social relations”. But very soon after the arrival in Australia of the so-called First Fleet, transportation was embraced as “the best way to excise from the body politic both radical malcontents who wanted to import foreign systems of government like republicanism, and dissenters from the lower orders who threatened the King’s peace and property”. Indeed, by the 1790s transportation was also seized upon as the solution to Irish lawlessness and the “habit of rebellion”.

While in the past few decades interest in Australia about Irish rebel traditions has grown, it does seem passing strange that – at least until the advent of this brilliantly conceived, chronologically based narrative history – there has been little official and even historical acknowledgement of the debt our democracy owes to our varied and diverse political convicts, ranging from the Chartists and the machine-breakers and the North American patriots, through to both the Scottish and Tolpuddle Martyrs. It is pleasing to report that Moore has gone a long way to remedying this unfortunate situation.

As it happens, he was awarded the NSW History Fellowship by the NSW Government and Arts NSW to help research and write Death or Liberty. In the opinion of this reviewer, it was money well spent.

Review of Death or Liberty by Tony Moore. Review by Ross Fitzgerald in The Sydney Morning Herald, July 10, 2010