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Colonial captain with a questionable past

15 October 2016 261 views No Comment

Richard Brooks: From Convict Ship Captain to Pillar of Early Colonial Australia
By Christine Maher
Rosenberg Publishing, 248pp, $29.95

As captain of the convict transport ship ‘Alexander’, Richard Brooks sailed in a convoy of seven vessels bringing incoming governor William Bligh to Sydney in 1806. Four years earlier Brooks, a rum trader, had presided over arguably the worst single voyage in a convict ship coming to Sydney Cove, that of the ‘Atlas’. A third of the convicts — 73 people — died from disease and neglect, with the latter in large part because of the preference Brooks gave to his consignment of merchandise, including ample supplies of rum.

NSW governor Philip Gidley King concluded that the ‘Atlas’ convicts, who were mostly from Ireland, “were in a dreadfully emaciated and dying state … thanks to the great quantities of spirits and other private trade belonging to the master of the ‘Atlas’, [which] evidently deprived the convicts of air and the means of being kept clean. Moreover, it vexed the NSW Corps that considerable quantities of the alcohol, which operated as a currency, were sold to visiting French captains.

During the Rum Rebellion, which deposed Bligh in 1808, Brooks remained loyal to the governor. Moreover, despite earning the enmity of the rebel regime in the colony, Brooks carried Bligh’s dispatches safely back to England on board the ‘Rose’. As Christine Maher makes clear in this captivating tale of a convict-ship captain who after his sixth and final voyage in 1814 finally settled in Sydney, such unpopular conduct did not hold back Brooks for long.

Indeed, underpinned by cheap convict labour and generous land grants, Brooks became extremely wealthy by the end of the 1820s. This was much to the chagrin of his colonial rivals, including William Redfern, who accused him of organising the theft of one of his prize bulls. By 1830 Brooks was the owner of a vast pastoral empire that catered to the need for wool and cattle in NSW. In fact, as a powerful merchant, businessman, property and racehorse owner, and magistrate on the Sydney bench, he had become by then a pillar of early colonial society, at least from the outside.

But as Maher’s impressive biography reveals, Brooks continued to have a dark side, both in terms of his character and personality and his business dealings.

After Brooks died in 1833, aged 68, he was buried under the altar of the Church of St Mary the Virgin at his primary property in NSW, Denham Court. This was a place his eldest daughter, Christina Jane, described as “the prettiest place I have seen in the colony. But because of structural problems Brooks and his wife, Christiana, were laid to rest in the 1890s outside the church they founded.

As Maher concludes, Brooks lying in an unmarked grave at Denham Court is wryly appropriate for a person whose frailties and achievements are difficult to calculate objectively. Also lying in unmarked graves at the same small churchyard are some of those convicts whose crime and punishment first brought the convict-ship captain to Sydney and on whose labour he prospered. As Maher rightly puts it, their role and monument is aptly summarised by the following lines from the poem Old Botany Bay, published in 1918 by Dame Mary Gilmore: “I was the convict / Sent to hell / To make the desert / A living well / I split the rock / I felled the tree / The nation was — / Because of me.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, October 15-16, 2016, review, Books p 26.

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