The first item that comes under challenge here is the idea that most of those who found their way onto the First Fleet were guilty of trivial offences, innocent victims of 'dastardly oppression'. That’s a comforting thought for later Australians and provides a reassuring narrative. Yes, they were criminals, but they were poor displaced working class people who didn’t have any alternative, so they weren’t that bad...

In Frost’s version of events most of those sentenced to transportation were definitely poor, were considered to be hardened criminals, or guilty of serious crimes of violence or robbery, and many were repeat offenders who would find a sentence of transportation for seven or fourteen years a better option than a date with the hangman.

Having dealt with that one, Frost turns his attention to the build-up of criminals sentenced to transportation held on the allegedly overcrowded and unhealthy hulks in the Thames, Portsmouth and Plymouth, and suggests those run by contractor Duncan Campbell were, at least by contemporary standards, clean and well run, and not especially overcrowded (unlike the jails). The allocated rations were sufficient to keep most prisoners in reasonable health, death rates on board were not particularly high and a number of prisoners were pardoned by the crown on the condition that those pardoned would enlist in the armed forces to serve overseas.

Still, when transportation to the American colonies ceased after the American Revolution those convicts needed to be sent somewhere and the conventional wisdom asserts Botany Bay was chosen because there was, effectively nowhere else. 

Frost looks at a number of schemes proposed to deal with the problem, including a scheme organized by a group of merchants whereby criminals sent to the African Gold Coast would be left to their own devices and, if they survived, become the core of a new colony.  One does not need to be Einstein to figure out why that proposal didn’t get up.

With Canada reluctant (based on prior experience), planters in British Honduras preferring African slaves to British convicts, West Indian slave traders reluctant to have their interests weakened by competition from English jails and plenty of cheap labour already on the ground in West Africa things would appear to be sliding towards the conventional wisdom.

Frost, however, points out that apart from the colonies in the Americas and the trading ports on the west African coast, Britain's empire in the late 1780s mostly consisted of a series of trading depots in India, China and elsewhere, and those interests, being on the other side of the globe, needed to be looked after. A ship was sent to survey Das Voltas (Alexander) Bay on the present day between South Africa and Namibia, which would have provided a staging port on the route to the East, an alternative to the Dutch-controlled Capetown. 

That investigation found an unsuitable climate and an infertile hinterland, which brings us to the Matra proposal, put forward in August 1783 by James Matra, who had sailed on the Endeavour with Cook, and supported by the influential Sir Joseph Banks, who apparently campaigned actively against some other possibilities in the region, notably New Zealand. Banks apparently didn’t like the place.

Matra’s proposal wasn’t, however, based on relocating convicts. He wanted somewhere to relocate those Americans (such as himself) who had remained loyal to Britain in the War of Independence, referring to good soil, the possibility of cultivating flax cultivation, the availability of timber for ships’ masts and spars as well as the possibility of trade with China, and it’s the question of flax and timber that, in Frost’s view, tilted the decision in Botany Bay’s favour.

He goes into the political, strategic and logistical considerations behind those issues in some detail, exploring the complex political warfare, diplomatic struggles and commercial rivalries involving England, France, Holland and Spain, and makes it clear England saw itself as under threat from the French and Dutch, with the strong possibility that the next war would be over India. In that eventuality an alternative source for spars, masts and rigging would be useful, if not vital.

In that light Botany Bay becomes more than a convenient or last resort (take your pick, it’s the same horse with a different jockey) avenue to remove some undesirables from the old country, it’s an opportunity to gain a strategic advantage over Britain’s continental rivals, assume control of strategic resources so sorely needed by the Royal Navy. 


© Ian Hughes 2012