Convicts’ golden age
Life in colonial Sydney was not all penal, writes David Andrew Roberts
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.
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