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Botany Bay

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Botany Bay
The Real Story
By Alan Frost
Black Inc., 2011
ISBN: 978-1863955126

Reviewed by Herbert White - November 21, 2011

Australia was settled by British convicts who were sent far over the sea to relieve overcrowding in British jails and to save the British people from the cost of incarcerating, feeding, and rehabilitating the vast number of poor that were seen as a burden upon British society. This, at least, is the accepted theory. In Alan Frost's ground-breaking book, Botany Bay: The Real Story, Frost shows that the decision to colonize Australia was much more complex than simply using it as a dumping ground for criminals. Frost is Emeritus Professor of History at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and he has written extensively on Australian history. Using thousands of previous overlooked documents, Frost shows that British officials considered many locations, including locations in New Zealand, South American, and Africa, as a place to send their criminals. However, Australia was selected mainly due to economic, military, and political factors. The fact that it was vast and could accommodate as many criminals as Britain wanted to send there was simply an added bonus rather than the main reason that Australia was selected for colonization. As important, Frost clarifies the misconception that most of the people sent for transportation were poor and guilty of only minor indiscretions. While the bulk of those sentenced to transportation were indeed poor, by the standards of the time most of those sent overseas were considered to be hardened criminals, or at least guilty of more than a minor offense, and many were repeat offenders. While a sentence of seven or fourteen years transportation to a foreign land may sound harsh to modern ears, the alternative sentence for most of those sent for transportation would have been a date with the hangman's noose.

In writing this book, Frost explains what the transportation system was, how and why it evolved, and he explores the turmoil that ensued when transportation to the American colonies was cut off after the American Revolution. He then looks at the factors that caused the transportation system to be instituted in 1782 and how new locations were selected. The bulk of this book focuses on how the settlement of New South Wales, in Australia, became a priority with the British establishment, and why it was selected as the prime destination for criminals sent for transportation from the British Isles. Along the way he introduces readers to the key players in this scheme, including Evan Nepean (Under-Secretary of the Home Office), Duncan Campbell (who had been in charge of the Hulks - ships that were used to incarcerate prisoners who would have, before the American Revolution, been sent for transportation), and William Pitt the Younger who was Prime Minster when the final decision was made to begin transportation of criminals to Botany Bay. Along the way, Frost also looks at a number of other schemes that were proposed to deal with the problem of 'excess criminals'. These include a scheme organized by a group of merchants to have criminals sent to the Island of Lemain off the African Gold Coast, where the convicts would be left to their own devices to, if they survived, serve as the core of a new colony.

Throughout this book, Frost breaks much new ground chronicling the events leading up the sailing of the First Fleet to Botany Bay, as well as in regard to the imperial aspirations connected with the selection of Botany Bay as a British outpost. It will take time for academic community to digest Frost research and to make its collective decision as to whether or not his new interpretation, of the real motives and aspirations behind the colonization of New South Wales and the selection of Australia as location to transport convicts to, are valid. Many more historians will also need to read through the treasure trove of documents that Frost has uncovered in his thirty-five years of research on this subject to determine if his interpretation of these materials is correct, especially in regard to the commercial and military aspects of the venture. On the surface, however, it does appear that he has uncovered sufficient information to make both historians and general readers question the validity of the historiographic research that lead to our currently accepted 'facts' surrounding the founding of the settlement at Botany Bay.

Well written, extremely well researched, Frost's thesis is well reasoned and explained. Consequently, Botany Bay: The Real Story is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Australian History, 18th Century Penal Practice, British History, as well as British and Australian Social History. His end notes and the book's bibliography also provide a fertile ground for anyone seeking to explore Australian history in greater depth.


Related Reviews:

The Floating Brothel, By Sian Rees.
The extraordinary story of an eighteenth-century ship and its cargo of female convicts tho were transported from England to Australia.

An Awkward Truth, by Peter Grose.
The Bombing of Darwin, February 1942.

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