Unspinning our convict beginnings

It would appear that even the Prime Minister of Britain William Pitt (1759-1806) knew a thing or two about spin. I have always thought that the reason the British government settled Botany Bay was because it needed somewhere to dump its criminals. So I was intrigued to hear an interview on Late Night Live where author Alan Frost told broadcaster Phillip Adams that the official line ‘is a bit of spin.’

Emeritus Professor of History at La Trobe University Alan Frost, argues that from the very beginning, the voyage to Australia was ‘an imperial venture’ with the view to developing a free settlement. Frost has spent the last 35 years studying Australia’s European settlement. His research, which is based on over 2000 documents that relate to the mounting of First Fleet and the settlement at Botany Bay, has resulted in a fascinating story.

In his latest books, Botany Bay and The First Fleet, Frost takes his readers back to 1786 at the time when the British Government first announced its intention to set up a convict colony at Botany Bay. Frost asserts that the British Government’s real objective was to expand British commerce throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans. To achieve this, Britain would need bases and resources along the major sea routes and ‘by transferring some of their population and at least some of their laws to New South Wales, the British made actual the preliminary right to possess this territory’.

If the motive was simply to provide a place to dump criminals then the voyage to Australia and the settlement was a very expensive way of doing this. The transporting of convicts to New South Wales, some 20,000 kilometres away cost around 2 to 5 times what it would have cost to keep them on hulks in the Thames.

But does the real story of the Botany Bay settlement matter? This is a question I put to Alan Frost.

‘It’s important that we have an accurate understanding of our beginnings. As individuals, we need to have a sustaining sense of the past. One of the things that I have found disheartening is how each Australia Day, newspapers trot out the same tired only ‘transported for stealing a handkerchief’ line and then refer to the accounts of people like Manning Clark.” Clark has described the convict colony at Botany Bay as ‘an indescribable hopelessness and confusion’ but according to Frost it was well organised and implemented.

That Botany Bay was settled just to dispose of unwanted criminals is still being taught in schools. Teachers rely on textbooks written by historians who didn’t have access to the National Archival documents which clearly show how seriously the Pitt government regarded the New South Wales settlement.

The details of the planning are well documented by Frost who maintains that the belief that the settlement of Botany Bay was ‘a shambolic affair’ was a myth, when really the preparations made for the colony were painstakingly orchestrated.

Contrary to common belief that the ships were ‘clapped-out tubs’ they were all under five years old and in very good condition. Convicts chosen for the First Fleet included those who knew how to farm, to lay bricks, and to weave cloth. Marines were also carefully selected for their skills as carpenters, millers and miners.

The First Fleet consisted of 11 ships which rather than representing ‘hopelessness and confusion’ were well fitted out. Amongst the supplies were two years worth of medicines and surgical items including beds. Such provisions were according to Frost ‘adapted to the needs of land based community’.

The quality of the food taken was very high; “the flour was made from good sound corn and calculated to keep for a good eighteen months’. Of the 1420 convicts who were sent to Botany Bay on the 13th May 1787 about 1373 reached Sydney in January 1788. The death rate was about 2% – much less than was expected.

I asked Alan Frost if The First Fleet and Botany Bay have changed the public’s understanding of our history.

“I’ve had a good response from the reading public – there’s still a public interested in history but I don’t think that my work has had any effect on governments however. For a long time our view of ourselves as being mistreated by the cruel British has been central to our image of ourselves, with the attendant perceptions that we are irreverent, disrespectful of authority, egalitarian, and self-reliant. Whether that perception can now be removed or mitigated is doubtful,” he said.

Frost also wonders whether the centrality of this belief may be fading now that we are now a nation composed of such a mix of peoples and beliefs.

Even so the real story  must be heard.

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