PASSAGES TO INDIA
A new exhibition unearths our forgotten colonial trade links with the subcontinent, writes John Zubrzycki
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.
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)