Saturday, July 9, 2011

White British Convict Slavery in Australia



"Hard work unveils appalling history," by historian Geoffrey Bolton (Murdoch University)

IN the 1960s, Geoffrey Blainey provoked a knockabout academic controversy by arguing in The Tyranny of Distance that NSW was colonised in 1788 not as a dumping ground for convicts but as a source of flax and timber for Britain's navies.

Several historians, myself included, disagreed, and most would now accept strategy, trade and the convict problem as all playing a part.

In the process we all noted that between the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 and the dispatch of the First Fleet in 1787, the British authorities had trouble finding accommodation for felons who had previously been sent off to labour in the plantations. All could not be dealt with by housing them in old ships moored in the Thames, and another place of exile had to be found. It was known that before Botany Bay was selected, several places in Africa were considered, but nobody has given enough attention to this process of trial and error.
Emma Christopher has now done the daunting archival research required for the job, and she has unveiled an appalling story. To set the scene, she has trawled through a mass of court records to describe the workings of crime and punishment in late 18th-century Britain. We are back in the world of Hogarth and The Beggar's Opera, meeting raffish characters such as Patrick Madan, with his extraordinary skill in eluding the gallows and breaking prison, or the dandy and conman William Murray, who also cheated the system several times.

Opinion was very slowly turning against the large number of public executions, and the prisons were overcrowded and badly run. An alternative suggested itself. To monitor the thriving trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 18th century, Britain had established a number of garrisons on the west coast of Africa. Convicts were spared the gallows if they enlisted as privates for the African service. It was almost the same as a death sentence, but offered a chance of survival, if only under the harshest regime.
With opportunities for service in America and India, no army officer was likely to put his hand up for a posting to Africa. Those who went often deteriorated; one or two became sadistic psychopaths. Governor Joseph Wall of Senegambia sentenced several soldiers who protested about their pay to floggings of 800 lashes. The punishments were imposed without a trial by court martial, a heavy rope was used rather than the standard whip, and the floggers were Africans, not as custom dictated, fellow Englishmen. Several died as a result.

Captain Kenneth Mackenzie, black sheep of an aristocratic Scottish family, rake and spendthrift, was another who believed in the unsparing use of the lash. He ruled in the style of a pirate captain, terrorising the local African population. Having originally shown favour to the educated convict William Murray, who may have been his kinsman, Mackenzie came to suspect him of planning mutiny and sentenced him to death without any legal process. Murray was tied to the mouth of a cannon and blown to pieces.

News of these abuses travelled slowly to London, and the courts continued to sentence unfortunate criminals to transportation to Africa. A few were women, and all seemed to succumb soon to disease, but not before they had to make a living by resorting to prostitution with Englishmen and Africans alike. It was the prevalence of disease more than stories of maltreatment that eventually caused the British authorities to query the viability of the African solution.

Back in England, Mackenzie was tried and imprisoned, but somehow gained a free pardon. Discredited and hard up, he survived a few more years, probably meeting his end in a duel in Constantinople. Expecting trouble, Joseph Wall dodged the law until 1802, when a jury found him guilty of murder and he was hanged slowly before a delighted mob of 60,000 Londoners.

During 1784 and 1785 the authorities took evidence to assess the prospects of a better regulated system of transportation to Africa. Lemane Island, several hundred kilometres up the Gambia River, was given surprisingly serious consideration but was eventually discarded. A half-hearted attempt was made to revive transportation to North America, but local opposition and the threat of convict mutiny put an end to these attempts. A ship was sent to investigate Das Voltas Bay in what is now Namibia, but found the country hopelessly barren.

New South Wales, known only through Cook's voyage of 1770 but urged by several hopeful promoters, was the last remaining choice. Given this dismal background, it was astonishing that NSW turned out as well as it did. Admittedly, as Christopher points out, instead of confronting Africans knowledgeable in the use of firearms, the convict colony had only to face the issues of co-existence with the less numerous and ill-armed indigenous Australians.

Arthur Phillip

Also, for British settlers, the environment turned out to be much kinder than the fever coasts of Africa. But the achievement of Arthur Phillip in nursing the colony to survival seems more impressive when contrasted with the brutalities of a Wall or a Mackenzie.

Christopher has given us an original and important addition to the history of Australia's beginnings, and she tells the story well. I have only a few quibbles. She is often inaccurate about British titles of nobility. She is occasionally uncertain in her use of participles. And when she asserts that: "From the perspective of the early 21st century it seems incredible that Great Britain once had the effrontery to ship its convicts away at all", I think of the Pacific solution and wonder whether a modern Australian has any right to moralise about disposal of the unwanted.

Convict Australia

1 comment:

  1. After England lost tax dollars resources from the United States with the battle of independence and the declaration of independence in 1776 England with much of the population in poverty had to find ways to recover these lost resources . The facts are that many poor people in England were grabbed of the streets and sentenced to terms of hard labour in the new colony in 1788 . Most of these people were innocent. The laws of the times for women were if they were unaccompanied at any time of the day on the streets without a male partner /husband they would be sentenced to 7 years hard labour in Tasmania. Once there the English constantly rapped and killed not only them but any babies born from these actions. The governor of the time would do live experiments on prisoners and send findings back to England.
    The colonisation of this country was sponsored by the wealthy and industrialist of the day. White slavery

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