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Revisionist look at a fleeting history

19 February 2011 3,287 views No Comment

ALONG with Geoffrey Blainey and Geoffrey Bolton, Alan Frost is the leading historian of the foundation and development of Botany Bay.

Indeed some of the work in Botany Bay: The Real Story was published in Frost’s seminal 1980 book Convicts and Empire: A Naval Question and in his 1994 book Botany Bay Mirages: Illusions of Australia’s Convict Beginnings .

For the past 35 years, Frost, emeritus professor of history at La Trobe University, has toiled in archives here and overseas (especially the Public Record Office, now the National Archives, in London) to flesh out a mighty narrative about the origins of the decision to settle New South Wales in late January 1788.

In particular, he directs his considerable intelligence to ascertaining how politicians and administrators in Britain came to choose Botany Bay not just as a means of ridding “the old country” of its excess criminals, but also to gain a key strategic advantage over rival nations, including the Dutch and French, and to assume control of valuable natural resources such as Norfolk Island’s pines and flax, which were so sorely needed by the British navy.

As we were taught at school, the American War of Independence (1775-1783) severely disrupted the transportation of British convicts, which resulted in prisoners being held in increasingly overcrowded metropolitan and country jails and crammed into the hulks (unrigged ships) that littered the Thames and which, at best, were seen as a short-term solution to “the convict problem”. It is not so much that Frost’s “real story” of the origins of Botany Bay denies or discounts all of the above. But what he does do in this splendidly researched but sometimes rather dense book is to tell a story that is much more complex and multi-layered and often at variance with the statements of previous Australian historians.

Early chapters deal efficiently with crime and punishment in 18th-century England. They also usefully explain how, for those felonies not deemed serious enough to warrant the death sentence, imprisonment in “houses of correction” and especially transportation to British colonies in the New World were the favoured forms of punishment. To use that colourful phrase, these miscreants were banished from their country “for their country’s good”.

But, in analysing British court records, Frost attempts to explode the myth that most of those transported to America and NSW were, in the main, guilty of trivial offences. He argues that in fact most transportees had committed serious crimes of violence and robbery that had, at the mercy of the crown, been downgraded from the death penalty.

Contrary to received wisdom, Frost also claims that those hundreds of convicts held on hulks in the Thames, and also at Portsmouth and Plymouth, were not especially overcrowded and that, before the transportation of prisoners to Botany Bay, allocated rations kept most prisoners in reasonable health, and that their death rate on board was not particularly high. Moreover, he maintains that a number of these prisoners were pardoned by the crown or enlisted in the British army and navy to serve overseas.

It is certainly true that from 1783 the number of British subjects convicted of felonies rose substantially, placing pressure on municipal and country prisons. This, Frost concedes, led to increasing calls for the resumption of “transportation beyond the seas”, to faraway places, including West Africa. Moreover by 1784 James Matra, who had sailed on the Endeavour with Captain James Cook, proposed that, for reasons of trade and strategy as well as ridding Britain of its surplus convicts, a colony be established at Botany Bay on the eastern coast of NSW.

In 1785 the famous naturalist Joseph Banks reinforced the eastern coast of NSW as a suitable site for transportation. But, as Frost carefully argues, it was the very capable prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who in late 1786 argued that the new colony centred at Botany Bay was to be more than a dumping ground for convicts. Indeed it was intended to play “a crucial role in the expansion of British trade”.

A colony in NSW would certainly offer a solution to the convict problem. But, more significantly, according to Frost it would assist British traders gain much-needed resources; “increase Britain’s ability to combat France, Holland and Spain in the Indian and Pacific oceans”; and provide a naval base as well as and naval materials.

How convincing is this revisionist history? That’s moot. Certainly, penalties in late 18th-century England were extremely punitive. The existing game laws, for example, were very severe, which meant that those found guilty of poaching often had their death sentences commuted to transportation to Botany Bay. Plus, I remain suspicious of the claim that those imprisoned on hulks fared as well or better than those who were held in metropolitan or country “houses of correction”, or who enlisted to serve their country overseas. Thus it was not uncommon for inmates in the hulks to regard transportation to the colonies as an option much preferred to remaining on the Thames.

But while this may be the case, Frost satisfies this reviewer that Blainey was right to stress the significance of naval stores, and materials such as hemp and flax and timbers, in the British administration’s decision to plumb for NSW and the adjacent Norfolk Island, as opposed to other places of transportation.

Moreover, it now seems clear that reasons of trade and strategy, including outmanoeuvring the French, were pivotally important in the Botany Bay decision.

Although not an easy read, Botany Bay: The Real Story is a fascinating and compelling attempt to explain the multiple reasons for the so-called First Fleet arriving on January 26, 1788, to establish a convict colony in the continent we have long called Australia.

Botany Bay: The Real Story, By Alan Frost, Black Inc, 276pp, $32.95

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 33 books.

The Weekend Australian February 19-20, 2011