James Dunk, Bedlam at Botany Bay

NewSouth Books, 2019, 244 pp. (plus notes, select bibliography and index), ISBN: 9781742236179, p/bk, AUS$34.99


Looking at the great corpus of works that exist on Australia’s colonial history, there are so many available to inspire (and inflame) readers that it would be easy to assume that the colonial-focused archives documenting New South Wales have been exhausted. Yet, new interpretations of these records can still rattle some of our assumptions. Such narratives are invitations to look differently, or much more closely, at the past. There are books that we cannot imagine not having access to, like Grace Karskens’ 2009 work The Colony, and those that pick up a particular thread and pursue it relentlessly, for example Meredith Lake’s The Bible in Australia from 2018: books that not only allow us to know our past but are essential in helping us to understand that past. The archives have been cajoled into giving the careful investigator something new. James Dunk’s new book, Bedlam at Botany Bay, is an excellent addition to this list.

The matter of madness has certainly not been ignored by previous scholars but Dunk has taken on this important topic and delivered a text of scale and scope that compels us to review the role of madness in colonial Sydney. “Madness is a beguiling and bewildering idea clothed in an expansive and unwieldly word” (p. 5). The archive, clearly, has many more stories to share. Indeed, as Dunk writes: “If we slow down […] and listen closely we find that doubt, anxiety, grief, and despair intrude into these familiar stories. Some became irrational and could no longer govern themselves, or be governed by others. They erupted in mania, or lost themselves in memories and delusions. They cried in fury and tore at the walls of their cells, or stared slack-eyed into the distance” (p. 2).

The trauma of mental illness—for the sufferer, their families, their business partners and their workmates as well as for the budding society, including the men responsible for law and order—could be hidden behind closed doors or on full display in the public arena. This suffering was also unpacked in graphic detail at Commissions of Lunacy, basically a trial in which a person was “examined for lunacy or idiocy” (p. 57).

The afflictions of such illnesses have long-lasting and wide-ranging ramifications. In colonial Sydney one of the more obvious impacts was reflected in the question: who would pay? Someone needed to cover the costs of repatriating madness back to its point of origin or in facilitating local incarceration of some type. Conversations of professional and sympathetic care were had but administrative ambitions and cash available were rarely in neat alignment.

Madness can be mildly disruptive or absolutely brutal, and this is a difficult issue to address either up close or from a distance. To his great credit, Dunk has produced an extraordinary book that offers sufficient light on the subjects within Bedlam at Botany Bay to disrupt the confused and ever-darkening shadows that are generated by madness. One way in which Dunk has made these complex stories accessible is his choice to present his research as a suite of essays, allowing the text to be read as presented or out of sequence.

The prose is exceptional. There is a clarity of expression that allows the reader to engage deeply with the chaos that is so central to our conceptions of madness, but also to sit to one side and review the interactions madness has with family and society, with medicine and the law as well as with the economics and politics that are so essential to the storytelling of Sydney. There is also a sense of the conversational as Dunk routinely cites the observations and research of others in a way that introduces a great number of scholars into the text (instead of being relegated to an endnote). This works well and really serves to orientate the reader with the archival voices, the work of various historians and Dunk’s analysis all easily distinguished. This multitude asserts an important truth: madness was, and remains, an issue for all of us.

There are extensive notes and a solid index. There are, unfortunately, a few copyediting errors and these will distract some readers. My only genuine complaint about Dunk’s work is that it is too short. More essays on different aspects of madness and those who were, obviously, mad but also incredibly influential during Sydney’s formative years. For example, Robert Lowe and John Knatchbull challenged commonly held ideas about madness in 1844, when Knatchbull killed a Sydney shopkeeper with a tomahawk and Lowe based his client’s defence on the concept of moral insanity (the great lawyer’s initiative failed and the murderer met the hangman). There will, hopefully, be more scholarship from Dunk on this topic for madness “is a subject which never loses its relevance because these fault lines still run around us like scars, the outward signs of an endemic disorder which reaches not only down into the belly of who we are but back into the paths we followed to get here” (p. 8).

Bedlam at Botany Bay will comfortably share shelf space with the classic Australian histories that we all (re)turn to.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, June 2019

Visit the publisher’s website: https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/bedlam-botany-bay/

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