England rejects

V.G. Kiernan

  • The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 by Robert Hughes
    Collins Harvill, 688 pp, £15.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 00 217361 1
  • Rights of Passage: Emigration to Australia in the 19th Century by Helen Woolcock
    Tavistock, 377 pp, £25.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 422 60240 X

Robert Hughes has written a full-scale study, often nightmarish yet objective and well-balanced, of something second only to the slave trade as a blot on Britain’s record in the world – something that was at the same time the birth of a nation. It was ‘the largest forced exile of citizens at the behest of a European government in pre-modern history’; we may compare it with the uprootings of peoples by Assyrian or Mongol conquerors. His book is massively researched, with the fullest use of official papers, but with the greatest weight attached to the convicts’ own testimony, surviving in letters, petitions, memoirs, largely unpublished, and plentiful enough to dispel the common notion of the unfortunates as ‘a mute mass’. It is, in fact, very much an essay in ‘history from below’, and must be one of the best that has appeared. The author is not a historian, but an art critic, which helps to explain the range and quality of the illustrations, a veritable art gallery. It may also have something to do with his command of style, both narrative and descriptive – his artist’s vision, for instance, of Pacific waves as ‘towering hills of indigo and malachite glass, veined in their transparencies with braids of opaque white water, their spumy crests running level with the ship’s cross-trees’. His picture of the virgin continent, in two early chapters, has the same graphic quality.

In 1784 Parliament passed a Transportation Act for the benefit of criminals under sentence. Jails and their annexes the ‘hulks’, mouldering old warships out of commission, were overflowing – like prisons today in Britain, where more custodial sentences are passed than almost anywhere else in Europe. Eighteenth-century jails were often privately, and vilely, managed. Very likely when Mrs Thatcher, faithful to her gospel – ‘Sell all that thou hast, and give to the rich’ – has jobbed off everything else she can lay her itching hands on, she will dispose of our prisons to speculators. (And why not the lawcourts with them? They were mostly run for private profit in the good old days of feudalism.) It may be a tribute to British humanitarian feeling, or to British hypocrisy, that the public could not bear the sight of convicts working in chains on road-building or canal-digging, but did not mind the thought of them working in chains in the antipodes. Similarly French and Spanish convicts were got decently out of sight by being sent to pull an oar in the galleys; and lately men and women disliked by the Argentine Government were being turned into still more unobtrusive desaparecidos.

It remained to find a suitable destination for the malefactors; the American colonies, a former dumping-ground, were no longer available. Alternatives were not many, and the choice fell on Australia. In 1787 the ‘First Fleet’ of transports set sail for Botany Bay. By 1800 42 ships had made the fearful passage, but the long wars with France held up operations; the mass exodus came after Waterloo, and most of all in the early 1830s. The peak year was reached in 1833, the year after the passing of the first Reform Act and the coming to power of the upper-middle classes, when 6779 captives set out. Not until 1828 did the free outnumber the unfree in New South Wales, and nearly half the free population of 20,870 were ex-convicts. From start to finish Britannia got rid in this way of about a hundred and fifty thousand of her children.

Hughes rejects as a ‘consoling fiction’ the idea some Australians have cherished that those transported were innocents, while the real evil-doers stayed in England, many in high places. In support of their view it might be urged that the Tory oligarchy of the early 19th century, with its Corn Laws and Game Laws and bribery and corruption, has a good claim to the title of ‘criminal’, and that most of those caught in the meshes of the law were victims from childhood of a perverted and hostile society. Hughes’s point, however, is that the great majority of the exiles were neither political idealists nor grand villains, but mere petty thieves. Only a few were social protesters to the extent of being poachers. On the First Fleet, that grim travesty of the Mayflower and its Pilgrim Fathers, all those of the 736 convicts whose records remain were guilty (or had been pronounced guilty – much allowance needs to be made for clumsy police and law court methods) of crimes against property. ‘Pitiful necessity’ was often the cause. Elizabeth Beckford, at 70 the second oldest woman aboard, had been given – or rather robbed of – seven years for stealing 12 pounds of Gloucester cheese. Her senior was a vendor of rags and old clothes, aged 82, who was to be Australia’s first suicide. But the average age was only about 27. Youngest of all was a boy chimney-sweep, aged nine.

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