David Hill, Convict Colony

Allen & Unwin, 2019, 356 pp., ISBN: 9781760528669, p/bk, AUS$32.99

David Hill’s new book Convict Colony is positioned as a story of a settlement that survived against all the odds, covering the first thirty years of the colonisation of New South Wales .

The work is predominantly celebratory. Hill outlines how a British plan to send a bunch of crooks, some overseers and a few extras to the far side of the world—which must have looked like pure madness once detailed on paper—was put into action. Hill also unpacks some of the major challenges that faced those on the First Fleet as well as the men and women who arrived on the ships that followed. The compression of so much tragedy and trauma clearly highlights how survival must have surely been a surprise for some of the colonisers in the first three decades from 1788.

Hill is an extraordinarily compassionate writer and works to humanise the ambitious, the emotionally distant, the loyal, the poor, the social climbers. The men and women who descended on the Southern Continent were certainly not without their faults and all had to overcome circumstances and character flaws (of themselves and others). Governor Arthur Phillip, for example, is presented in a balanced way. He is a ‘surprisingly tolerant’ leader but a man who could not live up to his own expectations; he believed that only ‘two crimes warranted the death penalty’, murder and sodomy, but such resolve would not last and the first man hanged in the settlement was Thomas Barrett, just over a month after setting up camp, for stealing food (pp.23, 91). And—while Hill offers an endorsement of Governor Lachlan Macquarie that is possibly too enthusiastic to suit all readers, referring to him as ‘the Father of Australia’ (p.273)—he does not shy away from acknowledging that there are some figures who cannot be redeemed, describing my least-favourite First Fleeter, Major Robert Ross, as ‘cantankerous and opinionated … disliked even by his own officers and men’ (p.37). Indeed.

The focus of this volume, as noted, is on the ‘success story’ of the colony. Of course, the First Nations peoples were desperately hoping that the plan would fail, and the impact of colonisation upon the traditional owners of the land is not ignored. Hill makes this point and returns to it regularly, situating what was inflicted upon Aboriginal Australians as part of a pattern of Britain’s colonial expansion and a sense of entitlement to lands and resources beyond the borders of the small island off continental Europe:

White settlement in Australia was to have dire consequences for the Indigenous population, just as it had in other places where European colonists had dispossessed local peoples of their ancient lands, driven them from their traditional sources of food and exposed them to devastating diseases to which they had no immunity. (p.113)

Hill consistently selects meaningful quotes to drive his narrative forward, deftly integrating his voice with the voices of those who were involved in establishing the colony of Sydney, expanding its reach and transforming a prison with no walls into something far more sophisticated than could have been imagined in the early days of crude huts and starvation. In this way, the text is more like a conversation lifted from the past. This, combined with Hill’s ability to strike the right balance between enough detail to make people and places real, but not so much as to overwhelm the reader, makes for an engaging and thoughtful tale. The story of modern Australia has been told many times, but this should not dissuade readers from picking up Hill’s iteration of an important period in this shared history.

There are detailed notes, a bibliography, a good selection of illustrations and an index. Those who have enjoyed Hill’s other works of history will appreciate Convict Colony, while those who are reading Hill’s storytelling for the first time, will surely go and seek out his earlier titles.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, October 2019

For a preview of the book or to purchase online, visit the publisher’s website here.

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