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Amnesia in Australia

Exiles and Emigrants: Epic Journeys to Australia in the Victorian Era

exhibition catalog edited by Patricia Tryon MacDonald
Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 144 pp., Aus$59.95

The Ballad of Desmond Kale

by Roger McDonald
Sydney: Knopf Australia, 638 pp., Aus$32.95

The Marsh Birds

by Eva Sallis
Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 252 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Infernal Optimist

by Linda Jaivin
Sydney: HarperCollins Australia, 329 pp., Aus$27.95 (paper)

On one of the southernmost tips of Sydney’s vast natural harbor, a grassy bluff overlooking a sea that stretches unbroken until it reaches the coasts of Antarctica, lie the graves of early Australian settlers, those who made the journey to this new world in the 1800s and never went home. Something of the harshness and unhealthiness of those times is reflected in the many tombstones of children. There is Little Bill, dead at the age of eight, Florence Philomena Hefferman, not quite five, and Ellen Berresford Ismay, two years and nine months, whose parents laid her to face the ocean with the words “What hopes have perished with you our daughter.” Stretching as far as the eye can see, in this windy and hilly cemetery of 78,000 people, are Italians, Cornishmen, South Sea Islanders, Frenchmen, men and women from Kentucky, Kansas, and Wales, and a great many from Ireland, driven into exile by the potato famine that lasted from 1845 to 1849.

After years of relative neglect, interest in the settlers, in the lives of those either transported as convicts or driven by poverty to Australia, has revived recently with “Exiles and Emigrants,” a powerful exhibition of early painters, surprisingly little-known artists like Erskine Nicol, Francis Hustwick, and John Alexander Gilfillan, who captured the desperate moments of departure and the long sea voyages into the unknown. Ford Madox Brown’s portrait of a stoical and somber young couple on the deck of a pitching ship drawing away from the white cliffs of Dover has the same desolate note as paintings by David Davies, William Strutt, and Thomas Webster of men and women grieving as they read letters from home.

The exhibition, which opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne last December and has since been shown in Canberra, came at the same time as a number of new books that celebrate and explore the lives of the whites who first reached these shores. None, perhaps, has the dazzling breadth and sweep of Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, which reads as fluently and persuasively today as it did in 1986, when research into the convict experiment was largely confined to dry documents and Manning Clark’s monumental six-volume history of the continent1 ; but each carries the narrative a little deeper. As a story, the white settling of Australia by a group of convicts and their guards, and the long amnesia that followed about the brutality and misery of that early period, is both fascinating in itself and relevant to the present day. In recent years, a continent born of immigrants—1.75 million during Queen Victoria’s reign alone—has effectively redefined itself as the most excluding nation in the world toward refugees and asylum seekers. Its immigration policies in the last five years have become the envy of those in the West who see in all but the most restrictive laws the specter of terrorism and social anarchy. No other country, in fact, not even the United States in the wake of September 11, has treated those fleeing persecution with such callousness. It is almost as if those who make it to the rich promise of these distant shores need to suffer first, as others have before them.

The first encounters between the British soldiers of the First Fleet, arriving with convicts in Botany Bay in January 1788, and those they called Indians or savages were not at all hostile. To demonstrate their mutually peaceful intentions, naked Aborigines and uniformed Englishmen danced and sang together, and then the whites clipped and combed the long matted hair of the men of the Eora clan, described by Lieutenant William Bradley, second in command of one of the ships, as “clotted with dirt and vermin.”2 Arthur Phillip, captain of the First Fleet of eleven merchant ships carrying 759 convicts as well as officers, sailors, a few of their wives, and the first governor of this new penal experiment of transportation, was determined to keep relations friendly. Nothing, however, had prepared either him or those who looked out with him across this hot, dry, silent land for the utter strangeness of what lay before them. Only Captain Cook had been here before, and his brief visit lay seventeen years in the past; it was his charts that had guided their voyage. What they saw now was a land both curious and contradictory.

Though mid-winter, it was very hot and very dry. There was no sign of anything that they could recognize as civilization: no ruins, no shards of pottery, no history. The trees were not green, but gray, with bark that peeled away in long strips, revealing a white trunk beneath. The very animals seemed to belong not so much to another land as to another age: creatures that jumped or stood frozen, watching; others that sat silently on the branches of trees, munching; giant brownish-gray birds that ran on legs set far back in their bodies but could not fly. And, wheeling in the sky at dusk, were screeching flocks of brilliant pink and green and red parrots. As for the Eora people on the shore, they, too, seemed fixed in an earlier moment of history, so without recognizable ambition that they built no houses, planted no crops, kept no domestic animals but gathered food by hunting with spears. Governor Phillip’s horses and greyhounds, which, together with cats, pigs, chickens, and ducks, had survived the journey from Portsmouth, intrigued the Aborigines greatly.

However, as Thomas Keneally observes in the early chapters of his somewhat sprawling account of this first experiment in penal social cleansing, A Commonwealth of Thieves, few of the convicts were in any condition to explore their new surroundings. Tax dodgers, deer poachers, linen thieves, stealers of fish from ponds, and vagrants, the first settlers were for the most part the urban destitute, casualties of rapid eighteenth-century industrialization, land enclosures, and the draconian nature of the English penal system; and they had spent ten months at sea shackled in dark, intensely cold quarters below deck. Their allotted space was eighteen inches wide and six feet high. Fever, scurvy, pneumonia, and dysentery had weakened and killed off many. And more would die as marsupial rats devoured the first plantings of wheat, fruit, and vegetables, a matter of little interest to the architects of this penal experiment in Whitehall, for whom the terra nullius, the no man’s land of Australia, from which there could be few hopes of return, offered a remedy to the alarming rise of crime. It was its very remoteness that made it so attractive.

The dancing between whites and Aborigines lasted a very short time. Even Phillip’s enlightened efforts—Keneally calls him a “colourless secular saint” who deserved the renown of Lafayette or Jefferson—could not prevent confrontations as the whites encroached on the surrounding forests and bush and the Aborigines resisted. It was clear, all too soon, that there was no place for Aborigines in this building of a colony. The First Fleet was fortunate in having a number of able diarists on board, of whom Watkin Tench of the Royal Marines was the most informative and readable, and Keneally draws on their excellent descriptions of growing antagonism. Even the good-tempered Tench came to consider the Aborigines an “ugly, dirty people, miserably under-equipped for life.”3

When Phillip reluctantly departed at the end of 1791, taking two Aborigines with him, he left behind him four thousand Europeans, perched perilously in three settlements, fed by a supply of convicts arriving on the Second and then the Third Fleets, and a rapidly dwindling indigenous population that became a walking incubator for diseases like smallpox and syphilis, which, as Keneally observes, had already begun “their long and relatively fast journey north, south and west of the Sydney region, bewildering and killing people who had not yet seen a European.”

And it was not long before individual killings turned into massacres. Hunting parties were made up of convicts who had served their sentences and were trying to scratch a living out of surroundings they seem to have found surprisingly inhospitable. Neither Keneally nor Hughes answers the question of why so many of the Europeans starved when the bays were full of fish and oysters and the bush teemed with kangaroos, marsupial rats, and wombats. The hunters formed posses to punish the increasingly angry Aborigines. In The Secret River, a novel that was recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Kate Grenville sets out not only to capture through fiction the next phase of the unhappy relations between settlers and original inhabitants, but to give a more immediate sense of the convict story.

By the time her hero William Thornhill, his sentence to hang for stealing a few planks of Brazilian wood having been commuted to transportation for life, reaches New South Wales in 1806 with his wife Sal and a first baby, born on the voyage, Sydney is a rugged and aggressive place. Arriving convict women are collected off incoming ships by waiting hordes of men on the dock as bits of baggage to which settlers and freed convicts alike are entitled, and rum has already taken its toll of the Aborigines. In her 1975 study of women and colonial Australia, Damned Whores and God’s Police,4 Anne Summers observed that for women during the first twenty years of settlement, transportation meant “enforced whoredom” and that the first ship full of women sparked off an orgy of drink and sex, which took place under driving rain. It is through Thornhill’s struggle to find out what life was like in this alien and confusing land that we witness one of the many surreptitious killings of Aborigines, revenge for what the Sydney Gazettecalled “outrages and depredations,” the theft of ripening corn, grown with such difficulty on stony earth. It was perhaps because it was so hard to turn the Australia bush into lush English fields that this crime was so unforgivable.

Phillip needed his greyhounds and horses, his claret and his port, brought 12,000 miles in barrels on board the convict ships, his starchy dinner parties and his frock coats, to convince himself that he was still an Englishman. Sal depends on the daily memory of who she once was, the ballads and ditties of London that she sang as a child and now mourns, the piece of broken roof tile she brought with her and preserved. When she at last achieves some measure of prosperity, it is an English garden that she sets out to plant, though the daffodils and poplars wither under the burning sun. It is noticeable that the landscapes painted by the first artists to arrive in Australia, like Conrad Martens, Eugene von Guerard, and Nicholas Chevalier, are often more reminiscent of Scotland or the Yorkshire moors than the bush and deserts of Australia, and are more likely to feature sheep and cows, unknown before the arrival of the First Fleet, than kangaroos or emus. Even the light in them has a curiously cold northern air. A painting hanging in the Adelaide Art Gallery by John Glover shows a cottage by the sea, surrounded by a little garden of hollyhocks, snapdragons, and roses. It is as if such comforting fantasies could keep the great alien wilderness at bay.

  1. 1

    A History of Australia (Cambridge University Press, 1962–1987).

  2. 2

    Quoted in Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 8.

  3. 3

    Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, annotated and with an introduction by L.F. Fizhardinge (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1979).

  4. 4

    Melbourne: Allen Lane; published in a revised edition by Penguin, 2002.

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