The real story? Really?

(See also, Alan Frost, The First Fleet: The Real Story. Collingwood ,Melbourne, Black Inc, June 2011.)

Review of Alan Frost, Botany Bay: The Real Story. Collingwood, Melbourne, Black Inc, January 2011.

By Dan Byrnes

In early 2011, Emeritus Professor Alan Frost of Latrobe University, Melbourne, Australia, took it upon himself to decry most other Australian historians by way of issuing a book titled Botany Bay: The Real Story. Implying of course, that his competitors have other than the real story. Whether we should blame Frost or his publishers for this absurd book title, I really care not. I blame Frost, because it’s easier.

This is Frost´s first sin with this book, to start by downplaying his rivals, who evidently, after so many research years have gone by, have still not yet cottoned onto ¨the real story¨. That today, by 2010 or 2011, any professor of anything, anywhere in the world, could profess to have ¨the real story¨ about anything is simply a juvenile and uncivilized nonsense. The best a historian can do is present a coherent theory about his topic, and/or present some facts, and hope for sales and encouraging reviews. So what on earth is Frost on about here?

Frost is simply a participant in The Great Australian Botany Bay Debate, a notorious academic artefact (just ask anyone in Australia with a convict ancestor). This debate, which finally becomes sterile and futile since so much of its material fails to feed usefully into subsequent (or actual) history in New South Wales, is about how and why Britain decided to both to send convicts as far away from England, as the known ends of the earth, to Botany Bay, ¨Australia¨.

The debate does however become complex, labyrinthine and finally sterile, as we shall see here. Some of the complexity can be re-researched and cast into a variety of perspectives. The final sterility is disappointing but is something Australians have to live with. It is a labyrinth which remains most frustrating and perplexing, but such is the environment into which convicted criminals are cast.

Frost is greatly part of the sterility. The complexities of the arguments, suffused as they are with the virtues or otherwise of transportable convicts, are perhaps the only reason to bother with any of it, if one has a taste for that, and most people do not share this taste. And in this book, Frost reduces the complexities to ¨the real story¨. For the record, the present reviewer sees the British settlement of eastern Australia as, initially, a convict colony, as an aftermath of the American Revolution (following the work of Eris O´Brien, published by 1937).

By Frost´s lights, this puts the present reviewer behind the eight ball, a proponent of the traditional view, and yes, correct, since Frost starts with Blainey (Tyranny of Distance etc, published as long ago as the 1960s).

Frost in Botany Bay however has said little that is new to historians about the colony-planners of the past. What is new is that his academic language is a little more raw, and he credits the work of Blainey and Dallas a little more bluntly. The British historian Harlow is not in his Select Bibliography, a strange omission since Harlow first rather vaguely said, in his Second Founding of the British Empire, what Frost expands on.

Harlow´s view was that after the loss of the American colonies, Britain set about renovating its empire, giving it a second founding. Harlow gave little specific attention though to Britain´s Australian adventure. Frost saw this as an opportunity for an Australian, and took up the cudgel, without being especially interested in the history of convict transportation as a penal-history topic. The Imperial material appealed far more to Frost.

But oddly enough, many of the historians becoming involved with The Botany Bay Debate pay scant attention to the maritime record, which has its own sets of interest. One might have thought that the maritime record would closely accompany, if not assist, the development of theoretical approaches to this Australian history. Australian historians seem not to take this view. My own view is that the maritime record fits very well with the theory of penal colonization, more so if one takes the “Imperial stuff” as mere window dressing, which may or may not be advisable.

It is true as Frost says, that some grand plans were advanced to support ideas that convicts should be transported to Botany Bay. How far these ideas were balloons sent up by politicians to induce the East India Company to co-operate remains a moot point. If grand plans were involved, Frost would be very hard put to explain why when Britain offered British merchants access to the Pacific Ocean by way of shipping out prisoners, so few merchants grasped any such opportunities, whatever resources the Pacific offered in theory or practice. The groups of merchants who were most enthusiastic about shipping felons to eastern Australia are not treated by Frost. In my view, giving London-based shipowners new access to an entire ocean, earlier explored by Cook, would have been a grand enough plan in itself. Frost would not agree, apparently.

Over time from 1788, the actual British shipping which did enter Sydney Harbour took home disillusioning reports which within 20-odd years or so scotched any grand plans that might ever have been mentioned. Before 1800, the whalers had departed the eastern Australian coasts and preferred the West coasts of South America for their industry. There was a trail of disappointment for any grand plans about flax, or naval timber, which faded away till there was left only the apparently traditional view, that the main exercise had been a plan to transport convicts and leave them in Australia once their term expired.

The maritime record more or less tracks this trail of disappointment, which suggests that there are reasons why Frost overlooks the maritime record. But to do so with a book subtitled ¨the real story¨ does seem odd. Could it be that Frost treats these grand plans in too limited a time frame, while he ignores the actual maritime records?

Given his research findings delivered with an earlier and at-first-sight, impressive set of books, any present idea that Frost could ever with his First Fleet (real story) present anything startlingly new on the relevant British maritime history is a nonsense. My own idea is that Australians only enhance the sterility of the Botany Bay Debate when they treat the first three fleets of convict ships (the only ¨fleets¨ to be spoken of anyway), as individual fleets, because the point is missed. The point being that the first three fleets are best regarded as a single burst of shipping, split into three broadsides, as it were. The ships involved were associated, in different ways, with, basically, a set of linked shipping men in London, most of whom were well-known in their day. And by the way, ask almost any Australian why there was no fourth fleet of convict ships, and you will probably get a very blank look.

If there were any merchants in London who could have justified any grand plans, tried to build such plans up, or to deliberately damage them by neglect, it would have been this group of men actually involved. Seen as a group, they are an ideal lens through which to examine the reality, or not, of any grand plans, and inspection of their careers reveals only disappointment as it was realised that any grand plans, if they indeed existed, would probably fail to materialise. Before 1800, and later, there were found no useful flax supplies, no tough naval masts, no interesting naval stores, nor a thriving whaling industry.

Of these ship men, Frost in particular neglects the whalers, who were led by Samuel Enderby Senior of Blackheath, London, where he died in 1797. I have written and published especially on the whalers, but to little avail, it seems. But since whaling in 1786 and later was an important British industry, it only needs to be asked, why would Frost neglect the role that British whalers had in shipping convicts to Australia before 1800?

To discuss ¨grand plans”and to overlook an industry as important to Britain as whaling in the 1780s, 1790s, simply makes no sense. At least, not to a maritime historian who values the integrity of Pacific maritime history. In terms of historian-reputations, The Botany Bay Debate will not be healthier to be involved with until such time as Australians start to delve into convict history seen at least partly as maritime history. That maritime history will link to later minor histories of marine exploration and re-exploration, and more or less prove itself in its own terms. Those terms are not well-shown in Frostś book at all. We await The First Fleet: the real story, with unbated breath, then. (Ends)

Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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