A new ex­hi­bi­tion un­earths our for­got­ten colo­nial trade links with the sub­con­ti­nent, writes John Zubrzy­cki

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Museums - East of In­dia: For­got­ten Trade with Aus­tralia,

HEY came by the shipload — and for many their only crime was drink­ing too much rum and then telling their com­mand­ing of­fi­cers where to go. But in the 1790s that was enough to earn a seven-year sen­tence in a pe­nal colony — and the near­est one was Aus­tralia.

As the early con­vict set­tlers strug­gled against the twin spec­tres of hunger and iso­la­tion, they found them­selves work­ing along­side Bri­tish army soldiers who had been picked up for be­ing drunk and dis­or­derly on the streets of Cal­cutta. So strong was the soldiers’ be­lief that a pas­sage to NSW was prefer­able to be­ing re­leased back into army ser­vice, the ad­min­is­tra­tors of Ben­gal blamed the lure of the great south­ern land on the rise in num­ber of in­ci­dents of abu­sive be­hav­iour.

The story of the con­victs shipped at 300 ru­pees a head from In­dia to Port Jack­son is just one of the many sur­pris­ing themes ex­plored in the East of In­dia ex­hi­bi­tion, which opens to­day at Syd­ney’s Aus­tralian National Mar­itime Mu­seum. Two hun­dred years be­fore the Asian Cen­tury be­came a buz­zword among pol­i­cy­mak­ers, the East In­dia Com­pany was lay­ing the ground­work for eco­nomic, strate­gic and cul­tural con­nec­tions that have seen In­dia be­come our eighth largest trad­ing part­ner and third largest source of mi­grants.

From the economies of the rum trade to the tes­ti­monies of in­den­tured In­dian labour­ers ex­ploited by their Aus­tralian pay­mas­ters, the mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight that goes far be­yond the usual cliches of cricket and coal ex­ports.

‘‘ It is a story that most peo­ple don’t know,’’ says Nigel Ersk­ine, se­nior cu­ra­tor at the mar­itime mu­seum, who traces the re­la­tion­ship back to the early days of white set­tle­ment, when In­dia was a cru­cial life­line with­out which the new colony might not have sur­vived.

The vi­sion of Aus­tralia as a land of op­por­tu­nity that led soldiers in Cal­cutta de­lib­er­ately to court jail time was mis­lead­ing. For much of its first decade, the set­tle­ment at Port Jack­son teetered on the brink of fail­ure. The First Fleet ar­rived with limited stores and next to no ex­per­tise in how to ex­tract a liv­ing from a strange and in­fer­tile land.

Get­ting re­sup­plied meant an eight-month round trip to South Africa or wait­ing for a ship

Tfrom Eng­land. The Guardian, which set out ahead of the Sec­ond Fleet, car­ry­ing stores, struck an ice­berg shortly af­ter leav­ing Cape Town. An at­tempt to ob­tain sup­plies from Nor­folk Is­land, where a small set­tle­ment es­tab­lished by Arthur Phillip was thriv­ing, also ended dis­as­trously when the HMS Sir­ius sank af­ter hit­ting rocks on the is­land’s south­ern end.

It was not un­til 1791 that Phillip re­ceived in­struc­tions from the Bri­tish home sec­re­tary, Lord Grenville, that the set­tle­ment of Port Jack­son be sup­plied ‘‘ ei­ther wholly, or at least to a very great ex­tent, from Cal­cutta . . . or some of the other com­pany set­tle­ments in In­dia’’.

‘‘ Trad­ing with In­dia meant trad­ing with the East In­dia Com­pany,’’ Ersk­ine says. ‘‘ So the ex­hi­bi­tion also tells the story of the rise of the com­pany, un­til they lose their monopoly af­ter the Napoleonic wars in 1813.’’

Much of the ev­i­dence for that early trade lies sub­merged un­der the tepid seas of the Great Bar­rier Reef. Ships sail­ing from Syd­ney to Cal­cutta via Batavia had first to ne­go­ti­ate a pas­sage through the largely un­charted wa­ters off the Queens­land coast. Dozens never made it.

It was Ersk­ine’s in­volve­ment in a three-year mar­itime arche­o­log­i­cal pro­ject doc­u­ment­ing th­ese wrecks that in­spired the idea for the ex­hi­bi­tion. Among the wrecks he sur­veyed were the Royal Char­lotte, which went down 450km north­east of Glad­stone in 1825 while car­ry­ing Bri­tish troops to In­dia, and the Mer­maid, an­other ship built in In­dia and wrecked in 1829.

Ob­jects found by divers from th­ese and other wrecks in­clude rail­way sleep­ers made of jar­rah and lumps of coal from the Hunter Val­ley bound for In­dia. Ships com­ing from Europe typ­i­cally car­ried rum, cot­ton tex­tiles, soap, sugar, rice and tea, as well as Chi­nese ce­ram­ics, cloth­ing and leather items. Be­tween 1813 and 1833, more than 250 ships made the voy­age to the ports of Cal­cutta and Madras. ‘‘ It was com­mon for ships ar­riv­ing from Europe to un­load their cargo in Aus­tralia and then sail for In­dia, where they could make a profit by tak­ing In­dian cargo back to Bri­tain,’’ Ersk­ine says.

Apart from ob­jects sal­vaged from th­ese wrecks, the ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes items bor­rowed from the Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum in Lon­don, the Bri­tish Li­brary, the National Mar­itime Mu­seum in Green­wich, Lon­don, Syd­ney’s Pow­er­house Mu­seum and the mar­itime mu­seum’s own col­lec­tion.

Trade picked up fur­ther in the 1840s when the East In­dia Com­pany set up a stud near the present-day western Syd­ney sub­urb of Parramatta to breed horses for the In­dian army. Of the 25 army reg­i­ments sta­tioned Aus­tralia in the first few decades of the colony, most went on to serve in In­dia. The move­ment of peo­ple also went the other way. Lach­lan Mac­quarie spent two decades in In­dia be­fore be­ing ap­pointed gover­nor of NSW in 1810. Mac­quarie was so taken by the colo­nial el­e­gance of Cal­cutta that he set about trans­form­ing Syd­ney’s ‘‘ ru­inous de­cay’’ into some­thing that re­sem­bled a proper city.

Tas­ma­nia, with a cli­mate that most re­sem­bled Eng­land’s, was favourite des­ti­na­tion of the com­pany’s ser­vants. In 1833, Au­gus­tus Prin­sep, an em­i­nent bar­ris­ter from Cal­cutta, pub­lished Jour­nal of a Voy­age from Cal­cutta to Van Diemen’s Land, which praised the is­land’s ‘‘ beau­ties and in­ter­ests’’, plen­ti­ful farm­land and po­ten­tial for rais­ing fine-woolled sheep.

But not all the sto­ries were pos­i­tive. Ersk­ine’s co-cu­ra­tor Michelle Lin­der un­earthed tes­ti­monies of in­den­tured In­dian ser­vants brought from Cal­cutta by mer­chant Wil­liam Browne. The short­age of labour weighed heav­ily on the colony’s early ad­min­is­tra­tors and Browne wrote en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about the In­di­ans’ ‘‘ mild and sub­mis­sive man­ners, so­bri­ety, hon­esty and docil­ity’’. Un­for­tu­nately, Browne took ad­van­tage of th­ese qual­i­ties to ex­ploit his hired hands ruth­lessly.

Their tes­ti­monies were pre­sented to a spe­cial bench of mag­is­trates in 1819 on the or­ders of Gover­nor Mac­quarie. Most of the ser­vants were shipped back to In­dia. Voiced by In­dian ac­tors for the ex­hi­bi­tion, the tes­ti­monies pro­vide a rare op­por­tu­nity to hear from male and fe­male ser­vants in Syd­ney in 1819. ‘‘ Their de­scrip­tions of be­ing beaten, de­nied food and gen­er­ally mis­treated pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into the hard­ships the In­dian work­ers suf­fered in Aus­tralia,’’ Lin­der says.

To­day the ta­bles have turned and In­dia is one of the world’s largest and fastest-grow­ing economies. In­dian multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions such as Adani and the GVK group are pour­ing bil­lions into Aus­tralia’s re­source sec­tor. In­dia is the sec­ond largest source of for­eign stu­dents and two-way tourism is boom­ing.

As China’s growth wanes, In­dia’s role as a life­line for our econ­omy looks set to grow once again — only this time it won’t be rum and tea mak­ing the pas­sage in leaky boats from In­dia to Aus­tralia.

The Death of Mun­row

Clock­wise from top left, 17th-cen­tury Indo-Por­tuguese in­laid wooden cabi­net; Nigel Ersk­ine; sword from Tipu Sul­tan’s palace (c. 1790); ce­ramic fig­ure, (c. 1830)

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