Con­victs’ golden age

Life in colo­nial Syd­ney was not all pe­nal, writes David Andrew Roberts

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Aus­tralia’s Birth­stain: The Star­tling Legacy of the Con­vict Era By Ba­bette Smith Allen & Un­win, 408pp, $ 49.95 Free­dom on the Fa­tal Shore: Aus­tralia’s First Colony By John Hirst Black Inc, 496pp, $ 36.95

THERE are two com­mon av­enues that lead Aus­tralians back to their con­vict past. One is a visit to his­toric sites such as Port Arthur, with its eerie gothic struc­tures crum­bling amid the fra­grance of cut grass and blue gums, and where the quaint, park- like am­bi­ence is sat­u­rated with rest­less ghosts and un­set­tling shad­ows. If one com­pounds the ex­pe­ri­ence by read­ing Mar­cus Clarke’s riv­et­ing his­tor­i­cal novel For The Term of His Nat­u­ral Life, or its late 20th cen­tury equiv­a­lent, Robert Hughes’s The Fa­tal Shore ( 1988), we are branded with an in­deli­ble im­age of bru­tal­ity and tor­ment. The senses are tit­il­lated by the grue­some vi­o­lence, but the mind is per­plexed and dis­turbed by the de­scrip­tion of our na­tion’s ori­gins.

The other av­enue, now just as pop­u­lar, is through fam­ily his­tory re­search, which usu­ally re­veals a quite dif­fer­ent im­age of the con­vict ex­pe­ri­ence. One typ­i­cally learns that ‘‘ our con­vict’’ whit­tled away his sen­tence on a pas­toral es­tate or in an of­fice in Syd­ney, far from the ter­rors of Port Arthur. We find them rel­a­tively well fed and tol­er­a­bly housed, sel­dom flogged and pro­tected from ne­glect or abuse by a sur­pris­ing ar­ray of checks and bal­ances.

The con­victs were gen­er­ally a con­tented folk, jus­ti­fi­ably in­dig­nant, ha­bit­u­ally ir­rev­er­ent, but rarely re­bel­lious.

Find­ing them­selves not only re­ha­bil­i­tated but also re­warded by their forced mi­gra­tion, they mar­ried, ac­quired prop­erty, lived with dig­nity and au­ton­omy and spawned a vast prog­eny.

The dis­crep­ancy be­tween th­ese two images of con­vict Aus­tralia has pro­pelled his­tor­i­cal in­quiry for more than 30 years. Gen­er­ally, the quest has been to com­pre­hend just how and why con­vict so­ci­ety was so suc­cess­ful and so sur­pris­ingly nor­mal. How did the in­mates of a haz­ardous pe­nal ex­per­i­ment col­lec­tively forge one of the most pros­per­ous, op­ti­mistic and self- con­fi­dent so­ci­eties of the New World? We there­fore seek to un­der­stand how pop­u­lar me­mory of the sys­tem came to be dis­torted by sen­sa­tion­alised stereo­types and tropes of tor­ment, epit­o­mised by chain gangs, flag­el­lated backs and the sin­is­ter cells of Port Arthur.

More­over, why is it that for so many years Aus­tralians found this her­itage so em­bar­rass­ing

Hirst’s in­no­va­tion that the pe­nal its free­doms, such that so­ci­ety in the mid- 19th cen­tury ap­pears nat­u­ral and straight­for­ward.

Hirst’s in­flu­ence on the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion was un­done by Hughes’s gothic block­buster ( much to Hirst’s cha­grin, as he notes in the pref­ace to the 2008 edi­tion), but Hirst has pro­foundly in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion of pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans.

The quest to nor­malise the con­vict ex­pe­ri­ence has reached an apoth­e­o­sis in Ba­bette Smith’s Aus­tralia’s Birth­stain , the first full- length treat­ment of the ‘‘ star­tling legacy of the con­vict era’’. Smith takes Hirst’s the­sis and stretches it to that they con­spired to erase it? Why did we wil­fully de­stroy doc­u­ments and relics, fal­sify our his­to­ries and cen­sor our re­search? Why did we howl at the faux pas of visit­ing dig­ni­taries and in­vade the pitch when visit­ing English crick­eters al­luded to our in­aus­pi­cious ori­gins?

John Hirst ad­dressed th­ese ques­tions in his 1983 study, Con­vict So­ci­ety and its En­e­mies , re- re­leased this year as Free­dom on the Fa­tal Shore ( which in­cludes his 1988 clas­sic, The Strange Birth of Colo­nial Democ­racy ).

was to demon­strate colony was char­ac­terised by

its tran­si­tion to a free ex­tremes. She nor­malises the con­vict pe­riod to the ex­tent that it be­comes a golden age of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and ca­ma­raderie, when con­victs and eman­cip­ists made the place their own.

And, as with Hirst, she traces the ma­lig­nant ver­sion of con­vict his­tory through the hys­ter­i­cal hy­per­bole of those mid­dle- class im­mi­grants and cler­gy­men, jour­nal­ists and lob­by­ists, au­thors of pop­u­lar fiction and pur­vey­ors of pseu­doan­thro­pol­ogy who in the late 19th cen­tury sought to fun­da­men­tally re­design the so­ci­ety that con­victs had built. Their self- right­eous­ness, and par­tic­u­larly their fren­zied ho­mo­pho­bia, cut a deep psy­cho­log­i­cal swath through the men­tal­ity and self- per­cep­tion of colo­nial Aus­tralians. Even­tu­ally, even con­victs grew deeply ashamed and be­came com­plicit in a con­spir­acy to erad­i­cate ‘‘ the birth­stain’’.

This, Smith ar­gues, was the ori­gin of the ‘‘ con­vict stain’’, a strange, col­lec­tive am­ne­sia that be­queathed a ‘‘ legacy of na­tional self­ha­tred’’. We have been blinded to the unique ethos and pre­cious her­itage of our re­luc­tant pi­o­neers, with the vac­uum filled by cow­er­ing men­dac­ity and puffed- up lies. And so Smith’s plea is that we must re­claim the lost world of con­vict Aus­tralia, to fi­nally end that mo­rose in­tro­spec­tion over our na­tional iden­tity and bet­ter un­der­stand our­selves as a dis­tinc­tive peo­ple with proud tra­di­tions.

That mis­sion is well un­der way in the archives of fam­ily his­tory so­ci­eties. The sol­diers of ge­neal­ogy are the he­roes of Smith’s book, the saviours of Aus­tralian his­tory. They have re­con­nected with our con­vict an­ces­tors and they un­der­stand how the truths of the con­vict records be­lie the false car­i­ca­tures of sen­sa­tion­alised fiction and the anom­alies of Port Arthur. The ex­tra­or­di­nary skill and depth of Smith’s re­search, and the com­pelling and au­thor­i­ta­tive ex­am­ples of her many case stud­ies, sug­gest that she may be right.

With its broad scope, com­bat­ive tone and the star­tling orig­i­nal­ity of its ar­gu­ment, Aus­tralia’s Birth­stain is nat­u­rally a flawed and vul­ner­a­ble piece of schol­ar­ship. Its con­tri­bu­tion will come in the fur­ther re­search and in­tense crit­i­cism it will in­evitably gen­er­ate.

But that, as with Hirst’s and Hughes’s books, will mark it as one of the most im­por­tant books writ­ten about 19th- cen­tury Aus­tralia. It will doubtlessly achieve its stated aim of res­cu­ing con­vict his­tory from the mar­gins.

David Andrew Roberts lec­tures in Aus­tralian his­tory at the Univer­sity of New Eng­land and is a com­mit­tee mem­ber of the NSW His­tory Coun­cil.

Pic­ture: Cour­tesy Mitchell Li­brary, State Li­brary of NSW

Con­vict stereo­type: An 1836 il­lus­tra­tion of a pris­oner at More­ton Bay be­ing flogged

An anom­aly: The ru­ins of Port Arthur in Tas­ma­nia

Rewrit­ing his­tory: Ba­bette Smith

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