Break­ing the shack­les

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Sinead Fitzgib­bon

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

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