By David Hill. Allen & Unwin, 369pp, $32.99
reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
Why are convicts so much more interesting than respectable folk? Being related to one of the poor sods who was transported to the early colony is a badge of honour now, which is just one of the reasons David Hill’s latest book is so fascinating.
‘Convict Colony’ is a well-researched and clearly expressed populist history of early British Australia. In it, Hill, author of the bestselling ‘1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet’, concentrates on colonial Sydney to chronicle how, in its first few decades, the fledgling settlement survived against the odds.
In so doing, he adroitly tells us the story of how the imperial plan to settle Australia was an extremely risky undertaking that almost came undone. These days many Australians assume the infant colony was bound to succeed. But as Hill makes clear, the 18th century had been characterised by several failed colonial ventures, and New South Wales at times came perilously close to joining them.
In an extremely lucid and compelling way, Hill underscores how “a motley crew of unruly marines and bedraggled convicts who arrived at Botany Bay in 1788 in leaky boats” nearly succumbed to starvation. Indeed, as he argues, soon after the beginning of white occupation of what is now Sydney, they could have been murdered by hostile Aboriginal clans or “overwhelmed by attacks from French or Spanish expeditions”. Later on, the convict rebellion of March 1804 at Castle Hill, near Parramatta, which involved hundreds of Irish political offenders, threatened the survival of Britain’s first outpost in Australia.
But despite many obstacles, the nascent colony emerged to thrive and prosper, albeit at the expense of the original inhabitants of the land, sea and waterways. The growth and development of colonial Sydney and beyond was aided by some talented leaders, including Arthur Phillip (1738-1814) and Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824), who were governors of New South Wales from 1788 to 1792 and 1810 to 1821 respectively.
Hill makes particularly good use of the Historical Records of NSW and the Historical Records of Australia. Comprising thousands of pages of primary sources, these sources provide an extremely detailed account of the foundation and progress of the colony. These records include instructions to the early governors and their dispatches to England; correspondence sent by the British government, including proclamations and orders, official letters and statistics; as well as contemporary newspaper and magazine articles, private letters, diaries and journals.
All of this material enables Hill to tell the official and personal stories, great and small, that in turn help frame this narrative of the early colony of New South Wales.
One of the most illuminating chapters involves the much-maligned William Bligh (1754-1817).
Despite the infamous mutiny on the HMS Bounty in April 1789 that involved Captain Bligh’s overthrow by Fletcher Christian’s rebels, Bligh was appointed governor of New South Wales in 1806 on the recommendation of the great English botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, to clean up the corrupt colony.
In particular, Bligh attempted to crack down on the nefarious activities of the New South Wales Corps (or Rum Corps), which made a fortune from the copious sale of alcohol in the colony. This led to the so-called Rum Rebellion, which involved the overthrow of Governor Bligh in Australia’s first, and arguably only, coup d’etat.
One of the most interesting illustrations is the reproduction of a petition, signed by 151 leading citizens and organised by the primary instigator of Bligh’s overthrow, the troublesome John Macarthur. This petition called on marine commander George Johnston to take over as governor after arresting Bligh.
When he did so, Johnston gave a letter to Bligh that stated the reasons for his dismissal: “I am called to execute a most painful duty. You are charged by the respectable inhabitants of crimes that render you unfit to exercise the supreme authority another moment in this colony; and in that charge all the officers under my command have joined.”
Other useful illustrations include portraits of the progressive Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth in 1819, plus two paintings of colonial Sydney in 1821.
During the 11 years of his governorship, Lachlan Macquarie not only steadied the ship of state after the turbulent Bligh years but under his watch the European population increased almost fourfold to nearly 40,000 people. Across the next quarter of a century the colonial population would reach 400,000.
As Hill highlights, Macquarie was a strong supporter of those former convicts sentenced and transported to New South Wales who became known as the emancipists.
Much to the ire of the military, he invited key emancipists to social functions at Government House.
In the final chapter, “The Father of Australia”, Hill highlights the following revealing paragraph written by Macquarie as governor of New South Wales: “At my first entrance into this colony … I certainly did not anticipate any intercourse … with men who were, or had been convicts; a short experience showed me, however, that some of the most meritorious men of the few to be found, and who were more capable and most willing to exert themselves in the public service, were men who had been convicts!”
‘Convict Colony’ is a ripping yarn. This is history for the everyday reader but it is no less worthwhile for that.
Hill doesn’t let the mass of historical material get in the way of crafting this story, but he does use the facts as the basis for telling it. And what a rich story it is.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, November 23-24, 2019, review, Books p 26.