Thursday, 17 October 2013

Alan Frost,   Botany Bay: The Real Story, Black Inc (2012) (RRP $24.95)

As a child, my favourite story was The Emperor’s New Clothes. Rogues sell the hapless emperor, for a fabulous sum, a garment so fine it cannot be seen. He proudly models his new threads – only to have a little boy point out he’s buck naked.

In this modern re-telling of the tale, Alan Frost argues Botany Bay was not settled as a dumping ground for convicts. Instead, we are to believe, Britain went to great trouble and expense to ship about 160,000 criminals to the other side of the planet as part of Pitt the Younger’s vision for a British empire in the South Seas. Yet there’s not a scrap of direct evidence for it. Like the emperor, Frost is exposed.

Frost has done exceptional research. He has found many new documents about the plans to settle Botany Bay. But while Frost dispels some myths about those plans, he creates a new one.

The key government documents stress the benefits of transporting Britain’s criminals elsewhere as a deterrent to local crime. They also note the possibility of cultivating pine trees and flax here. At this time, Britain’s clout relied on its Navy. It needed pine wood for masts and flax for rope and sails. There were supplies in Norfolk Island and New Zealand. These resources certainly influenced the decision. But there’s not a word about grand imperial designs.

Frost admits his case is circumstantial. This is his second tilt at the mill, the first being Botany Bay Mirages, published in 1994. Since then his theory, and the sophistry used to support it, has grown more grandiose. We are told, for example, that convicts provided “the mode, but not the motive” for settling Botany Bay. But these things cannot be separated.

Worse, Frost blithely ignores later developments. By the mid-1810s, the British Government was concerned that Botany Bay was no longer a deterrent to crime. The royal commissioner it sent to investigate, John Bigge, recommended making it a more severe place of punishment. Bigge said nothing about a maritime empire, as it was never on the cards.

Frost’s patronising ‘you-must-be-stupid-to-disagree-with-me’ tone does him no favours. He is not an eloquent writer, but stamps up and down like a man whose suddenly realised something important is missing. Where’s that little boy when you need him ?

No comments:

Post a Comment