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May 2015: A Merciless Place: The Lost History of the Convicts sent to West Africa and the Settlement of Australia

Reviewed by: David Andrew Roberts, University of New England

Emma Christopher, Allen and Unwin 2010. 440 pp. AUS $35 (paperback)

It has always been well known, if only vaguely understood, that the British government’s 1786 decision to found a convict settlement in New South Wales was prefaced by calamitous colonisation and convict transportation schemes in Africa. All students of Australian history learn that the loss of the American colonies, Britain’s accumulating prison population and the passing of a new transportation Act in 1784 generated colossal and anxious debate on transportation policies in the 1780s. In these, Africa featured prominently, indeed preferentially, until the weight of concerns about the deadly environment, and a failed reconnaissance of Das Voltas Bay in 1786, put paid to African schemes and forced an apparently desperate decision in to fix on ‘Botany Bay’.

Given that Australian historians have so long debated the context and nature of the ‘Botany Bay Decision’, it is surprising that the African background has not received more detailed examination. After E.C.K. Gonner in 1888 famously asked whether ‘other and nobler motives were not present in the minds of the statesmen’ who determined to lay the foundations of a nation on the coast of New Holland, some of Australia’s premier historians, such as A. G. L. Shaw, Manning Clark, Geoffrey Blainey, Ged Martin and especially Alan Frost, have dissected the matter. While they mostly hoped to place the Botany Bay decision within a broader, hopefully coherent imperial policy, they have perhaps failed to dislodge the orthodox view that the African schemes were little more than part of a reductive process that led the Pitt administration towards Botany Bay as a place of last resort – ‘a mediocre second choice’, as Robert Hughes put it.

In A Merciless Place, Emma Christopher ably shows that the story of this neglected prelude to Australian settlement is a not only important, but also extraordinarily compelling. She has a gift for identifying an epic subject, for extracting its social, political and human dimensions, and for communicating the story with great eloquence and power. It is in truth a story ready made for an artful historian – a cast of colourful and mostly iniquitous characters, testing themselves and one another in an oppressive environment and in circumstances conducive to extreme displays of avarice and treachery; a story in which a barbarous governor meets his demise on the end of a rope outside Newgate prison, and another leading protagonist is tied to a cannon and blown to pieces. Ranging across an array of settings and themes – poverty and crime in the shady boroughs of Georgian London; depravity and horror in the forts and dungeons that serviced the transatlantic slave trade; new beginnings on the relatively Arcadian and regenerative shore of Botany Bay – the book makes the most of its fabulous raw material.

Such a style does perhaps (as other, more critical reviewers have noted) occasionally draw the author into old tropes and traditions, and some aspects of Christopher’s argument have been challenged (notably by the erudite and discerning Emeritus Professor Norman Etherington). This calls to mind the recent warnings of the Oxford historian, Sir Keith Thomas, that young academics risk ‘damaging’ the integrity of their discipline by seeking a slice of the popular market. In my view, although I have a far lesser grasp of the subject, Christopher has not sacrificed rigour and originality by appealing to a broader audience. Her archival research (one of Christopher’s trademark strengths) is commendable, and she has dutifully attended to the secondary literature, although the omissions include Patrick Webb’s 1994 work on convicts and slaves on McCarthy Island, and Australian historians Ged Martin and Alan Frost have dealt with this subject in more than ‘a sentence or two’ (p. 19).

But this is one of those works where one feels indebted to the author, not just for crafting such an instructive and rewarding account of a largely neglected topic, but for inspiring a passion for history that will be readily consumed by a broader public. The scholarly merits of A Merciless Place were recognised by the Australian Historical Association, which declared it the joint winner of the 2011 Ernest Scott Prize for ‘the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation’. It was also the worthy winner of the 2012 Kay Daniels Award for early colonial history, in part because of its appeal to scholars and the general public alike. While one hopes that Christopher might be slightly discomfited by the hubris of the publisher’s blurb, which describes her as ‘one of the most brilliant young historians of her generation’, there is no doubting that she is an exceptional talent. Her next work, purportedly a history of a west African slave trading factory, is eagerly anticipated.

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