Breaking the shackles
The First Fleet By Rob Mundle ABC Books, 382pp, $45 (HB)
FORGET Wikipedia, census records, birth certificates, death notices. Anyone wanting to gain a little historical insight, regardless of the period, need look no further than an era’s prison rolls. Prisons have always been reflective of the times, holding a mirror to the prejudices, preoccupations, and partialities of society.
During the Tudor period in Britain, for example, religion was the thing likeliest to land you behind bars. Whether it was Catholicism or Protestantism depended on the monarch. Skip forward to the 19th century, and the proliferation of overcrowded debtors’ prisons in Victorian London is indicative of the number of people jailed for failure to pay their bills.
Rewind a little to the 18th century, however, and we find convict passenger lists equally as informative as prison records. Theft, it seems, was one of the most frowned-on crimes of the day. No distinction was made between petty theft and larceny of the grander kind: Britain’s stringent judicial system meant you were just as likely to be jailed for stealing a piece of cheese as you were for making off with a few heifers or a quantity of silver plate. Since 1717, when transportation to America, Canada and the West Indies was enacted into law, ships’ manifests were heavily burdened with the names of condemned pickpockets, poachers and pilferers.
But as Rob Mundle outlines in The First Fleet, from 1782 onwards America (newly independent following the patriots’ victory in the War of Independence) was no longer prepared to accept the continued dumping of British felons on its shores. With such vast borders now closed to them, and with prison populations at home reaching critical levels, authorities in England had to find another location for a penal colony — and fast. A few fatal excursions to inhospitable Africa ruled out that option. There was nothing for it, it seemed, but to head south to that great landmass first discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770.
And so it was, Mundle explains, that Captain Arthur Phillip, a man of solid if undistinguished naval reputation, found himself, in 1787, leading a convoy of 11 ships to the farthest reaches of the globe. In his care was a coterie of sailors, marines, a few officers and their families. By far the greatest number on board, however, were the ‘‘shackle draggers’’: a human cargo of 775 unfortunate convicts sentenced to banishment to an unknown land. Their crimes, as listed in the glossary of this book, ranged from the theft of a bedsheet to highway robbery, fraud and forgery. It was this motley crew of adventurers, this ‘‘cross-section of vagabonds, vagrants and halfdecent individuals’’, that would constitute Australia’s first settlers.
“I am not an historian, nor an academic,” Mundle declares in the author’s note that opens this book. “But having sailed countless thousands of nautical miles in my life, I consider myself a competent sailor and a man of the sea.” He need not have pointed this out. Fans of his previous books, which include studies of Cook, Matthew Flinders and William Bligh, will know