The British Empire Library


Across Great Divides
True Stories of Life at Sydney Cove

by Susan Elizabeth Boyer

Susan Boyer has written a highly empathetic book about the British sending of the First Convict Fleets to Australia from 1788 to 1792. What makes this book stand out from others is the inordinate length the author has gone to in order to examine this significant event from a wide variety of perspectives from those involved in the enterprise. Whether this is from the point of view of the Governor and his officers, the Royal Marines, the prisoners themselves or from those on the receiving end of the incursion; from the perspective of the Aboriginal tribes most influenced by the British arrival. It should also be emphasised that this is a book which tries to include voices not always heard in traditional histories. It is very gratifying to see the amount of space dedicated to the experiences of women and children throughout the book and even Aboriginal women and children whose historical voices have been extremely muted over the intervening years. It is always a challenge for the historian to bring to the fore the lives of people who wrote little or nothing at all or who were relatively powerless in their existence. The great and the good often get the lion's share of attention simply because they committed more of their experiences to paper. In the case of the First Fleets to Australia, the convicts were very much on the powerless side of the scales and the Aborigines even more so. And yet the author has done a masterful job at pulling out relevant observations about their lives from those who did write down their experiences. Additionally, in the case of the Aboriginal experiences the author has combined them with a sensitivity to contemporary Aboriginal cultural experiences, knowledge and understanding to provide a compelling and more importantly an inclusive history of this transformational event. Some of the commentary provides what you might call an 'imagining' of how various actors involved in the story may have felt, but I have to say that these are nearly always within the realms of believability and seem supported more often than not by extracts of journals or from cultural expectations of the era or the group. It should also be pointed out that each chapter comes with a healthy number of notes at the back of the book which usually explain the context, rationale or reasons for any extrapolations or subjective comments made.

The sheer audacity of the undertaking should not be underestimated. To send convicts, literally to the other side of the world, to build an isolated colony in an unknown continent and a hostile environment is almost beyond our comprehension. The only parallels I could think of lie in the realms of science fiction. Imagine sending convict space ships to the other side of the solar system to create a convict colony on some planet that had only been visited once by a friendly space ship and leave them for several years to get on with the project entirely by themselves. Needless to say, you would have to have a lot of faith in the personnel charged to undertake this ambitious undertaking. Fortunately for the First Fleet and the fledgeling colony, they did seem to hit the jackpot thanks to the remarkable leadership of Governor Phillip. Indeed, despite the unsavoury nature of establishing this convict colony, you come away from this book with the feeling that the leadership was remarkably progressive for its era. Nobody should underestimate the magnitude of the responsibility and the isolation for Governor Phillip in making this colony work. He could not call upon any outside help and any mistakes risked the lives of everybody there. The fact that he had hundreds of reluctant settlers who would prefer to be anywhere other than in Sydney Cove and some of whom were proven dangerous criminals was an added complication. The justice meted out in the earliest days of the colony for anyone caught stealing food was perhaps understandable, if very harsh, as the Governor had to preserve their precious food supplies for an unspecified period of time. In fact, as events would later show, food supplies would indeed fall to perilous levels when ships from Britain did not arrive when scheduled or were delayed significantly. In hindsight, this harsh treatment seemed to be justified in establishing expectations of behaviour to allow the colony as a whole to survive and later to thrive. 'Firm but fair' would best describe Governor Phillip' governance style.

Many more years ago than I care to remember I read Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore which covers the same period but in much harsher terms. I recall that book as a bleak account of the undertaking although it did cover a significantly longer period of time going beyond Governor Phillip period of stewardship and looking at subsequent, and often less enlightened, leadership of the fledgeling colonies in Australia including Norfolk Island and Tasmania. I suppose if you were to level some criticism at this book you might say that it glosses over (although I would not say that it ignores) some of the harsh realities for the convicts themselves and in particular the sexual predation that befell many of the female convicts. Perhaps that helps to make this a more accessible book to a wider audience but on a few occasions I was left contemplating the full psychological and physical impact of some of these enforced sexual liaisons. I wholly understand how difficult it is to compare current attitudes and sensibilities to those of the Eighteenth Century, but the book definitely refrains from laying bare some of the ugly realities in such an inherently unbalanced society. Having said that, the author does try to explain the realities of women choosing to have a protector or an influential mate to help make their existence more bearable. It is interesting to consider how the social climbing instinct from Britain travelled out to Sydney Cove with the First Fleet. We also read later though how the children from such liaisons were incorporated into more traditional marital units by what must have been truly remarkable and forgiving women. Again, I return to the theme of this being an empathetic book and whilst it will not shock you it will at least force you to pause to think how you might respond to the realities of such an existence and such a society. And I for one appreciate books which make me think in such a way even if it is done subtly rather than with a sledgehammer.

I feel that this review would not do the book justice without emphasising just how well it brings the Aboriginal experience into the narrative of that first colony. Again, it does not overly simplify the situation and quite accurately explains that the responses of Aboriginals varied from tribe to tribe and from individual to individual. At first, some of them certainly appeared curious and friendly. Then even these seemed to withdraw and give the settlers a wide berth, perhaps understandably so. It is interesting that the British Government had specifically asked Governor Phillip to try and build good relations with any peoples he encountered. This completely undercuts the later 'Terra Nullius' concept of an empty continent that was often cited, incorrectly, as a cause and a reason for British settlement in Australia. This book confirms the extraordinary lengths that Governor Phillip personally went to in order to build up positive relations with the Aborigines. Of course, he could not fully comprehend that the very success of his enterprise would have such long term consequences for the Aborigines in the area. You can not help but be impressed by his humanitarian concerns and that certainly at the level of the colony's government it appeared remarkably non-racist and in fact very respectful of the Aboriginal tribes with which they came in to contact with. These 'Enlightenment men' though felt that their European standards of 'Civilisation' were inherently superior and felt that they would be doing the Aborigines a favour by bringing them the fruits of British endeavour and progress. And as the author makes clear that some, and I stress some, Aborigines would indeed over time see the advantages of this 'Civilisation' and appreciate the variety of agricultural foods, clothes and specialist tools and equipment available in the new settlement. However, the way that the first Aborigines were 'exposed' to the benefits of this colonial society were unfortunate to say the least as the author explains what were effectively kidnappings of individual Aborigines who seemed to have an in-built suspicion of the motives of these first settlers. Indeed, you could hardly think of a worse set of ambassadors for Western Civilisation as the convicts and guards of a penal colony. Britain was hardly sending its best and brightest to Australia in 1788! Nevertheless, the leadership was indeed remarkably enlightened for the circumstances it found itself in. Other Aborigines were brought in to the settlement as a result of a smallpox epidemic that must have surely been spread by the arrival of Europeans in general, although the fact that its effect was way beyond the known incubation period for the diesase and that none of the settlers showed evidence of smallpox themselves perplexed the Europeans as much as later generations of scientists. However, the epidemic did much to disrupt the local tribes and had the effect that more Aborigines, including some young and vulnerable children were brought inside the settlement and brought up in a more European style. The book makes it clear though that there were indeed myriad cultural misunderstandings and clearly differing expectations between the two communities. None of these was perhaps as serious as when Governor Phillip himself was speared whilst conversing with an Aborigine he had trusted and considered a friend. Although once more, Phillip's strength of character shone through by his refusal to take punitive measures despite his near death experience. We do read later on though that his patience did snap with the murder of a convict by an Aborigine causing him to launch an uncharacteristic military expedition to find and execute Aborigines. Perhaps fortunately for all concerned, the skill of the Aborigines at avoiding the cloghopping redcoats in the unfamiliar Australian terrain meant that an unbridgeable chasm was not created - at least not in the period of Governor Phillip's rule. Death was indeed a familiar character to the British and Aborigines alike as disease, childbirth, infections, hunger, wildlife all took their toll. It was interesting to read how at least some of the Aborigines began to appreciate western medical care for all its limitations of the era. The practical aspects of splints, medicines and bandages seemed to give those Aborigines who interacted with the British a sense of confidence and inspired trust. I was also touched by the accounts of dealing with those Aborigines who died whilst in the care or presence of the settlers. There seems to have been a genuine dignity offered to the men, women and children who were disposed of in a manner of what you could only say was culturally compassionate. There was no untrammelled Christianity imposed on people who clearly had their own sophisticated belief systems. It was also interesting to read just how cosmopolitan the initial settlements became with more and more Aborigines feeling at ease in the company of these interlopers. Although, the author makes it abundantly clear that this was not the only response from Aborigines and that many others gave them a wide berth and that others still were positively hostile at the loss of their hunting grounds and resources at the hands of what appeared to them to be rapacious invaders.

This book does not only dwell with the First Fleet despite it forming a majority of the account. It goes on to explain just how precarious this settlement's continued existence had become as problems such as a supply ship failing to arrive, unpredictable weather patterns, unfamiliar soil quality, as one of their only two ships was shipwrecked off Norfolk Island and the significant delay of the Second Fleet's arrival. Food supplies became perilously low as soldiers and convicts alike had rations reduced and were walking around in threadbare rags and with no word from home for over two years must have had a devastating impact on the morale of all the Europeans. Yet again Governor Phillip added his own personal foodstocks to the community at large so that they should suffer together as equals. Perhaps it was actions like this that subconsciously lowered the social barriers which would later go on to define a key difference between Australians and the British.

When the Second Fleet did finally arrive some two and a half years after the First Fleet had arrived it seemed to only change the challenges facing Governor Phillip. They may have brought vital supplies, but they also brought emaciated and weakened convicts who had had a far rougher time in their extended voyage than even the First Fleet had experienced. The fledgeling colony's resources would be overwhelmed in the short term dealing with this fresh infusion of reluctant colonists! Yet again though, the organisational talent of Governor Phillip slowly but surely dealt with this challenge as he had all the previous ones. The book makes it clear that he used the carrot every bit as much as the stick. He was very generous at encouraging both soldiers coming to the end of their term of service and convicts whose sentences had expired to set themselves up as settlers on farms and land of their own. In addition to land grants, he also had huts built by convict labour, donated his own livestock to the would be farmers, assigned convict labour and promised to feed them for up to 18 months whilst they established themselves. This enlightened policy certainly gave opportunities which would have been unheard of back in Britain to the majority of the now ex-convicts for sure and they went a long way to encouraging many to stay and help the process of turning the penal colony into a settler colony.

At heart this book gives you an understanding of the inherent contradictions contained within this remarkable colonial experiment. One group was always going to win and one group was always going to lose. The colonists could well have been on the failing side of the ledger of history themselves and under the leadership of someone other than Governor Phillip may well have died off for a variety of reasons before the Second Fleet arrived. And yet, their very success was at the cost of the Aborigines who regarded that land as their own. Now, some of those Aborigines would reconcile themselves to these new realities but others were resentful. Some of these latter just moved away from the problem but yet others would resort to hostile action in the future. You come away from this book wondering what might have been if the enlightened attitudes of Governor Phillip's regime had continued for far longer than it did. Could there ever have been an effective reconciliation of the competing demands for land between the two cultures? You also come away from the book wanting the author to take the story through successor governors to try and understand the process that eventually lead to Australia being the successful colony for the Europeans who arrived, voluntarily or otherwise, there but also it would become a colony that would bring much pain and loss to many, many Aborigines over the following years. But what I like best about this book is that it does not stereotype and pigeonhole the actors involved in this remarkable story. It shows that there were a multiplicity of aims, ambitions, respect, understanding, grievances, motivations, etc... on all sides of the equation. These were all human beings and like human beings everywhere and throughout history they were all unique and had their own perspective on the world. The author tries to allow us to peer through some of the cultural prisms that they may have tried to comprehend the world that they lived in, whether they were the convicts, Aborigines or administrators, and yet even within these respective 'tribes', for want of a better word, they were all individuals who were just trying to do the best for themselves, their loved ones, or their community in what were truly amazing circumstances. It is one thing to be sent to the other side of the world, but to be sent so far with so little knowledge of what was there and with no friends there to greet you and to have to build an infrastructure from scratch in an strange landscape with local peoples of unknown strength or motivations and all to be accomplished by people who almost entirely do not wish to be there in the first place must surely rank as one of the greatest endeavours ever undertaken. Although to go back to the sci-fi analogy though, were the British going to an 'Alien' land as such? Or perhaps were they the 'Aliens' themselves, going to someone else's land! This book helps you appreciate the magnitude of the project whilst empathising with all those involved and that is some achievement in itself!

Young Reader Edition

Just an addendum to explain that this book has even greater educational value for younger children by the author adapting a young reader edition of the above book. It covers much the same material but with simplified language, more pictures, maps and illustrations and the highlighting of some very compelling primary quotes. I should actually have commended the author on the adult edition above on providing such a clear structure to the book with pictures of many of the protagonists, the extensive notes, bibliography and even what you might call a family tree of the relationships of the many people mentioned throughout the book. You get all these and even more in the young reader edition. The chapters are also of an agreeably short length but not lacking in content. They are meaningful and would make a great launching pad for any teacher or parent who wished to use this book as an aid to educating children about this event. I would love to see many more authors follow this example and make their work available to as wide an audience as possible.

British Empire Book
Author
Susan Elizabeth Boyer
Published
2013
Pages
334
Publisher
Birrong Books
ISBN
187707442X
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon
British Empire Book
Author
Susan Elizabeth Boyer
Published
2016
Pages
262
Publisher
Birrong Books
ISBN
1877074497
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon


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