A MERCILESS PLACE:
The Lost Story of Britain’s Convict Disaster in Africa and How It Led to the Settlement of Australia
by Emma Christopher
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 304 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Like generations of students before and after me, as an 11-year-old in Grade Six I was taught that Australia was settled by Britain in 1788 as a place to transport convicts, because Britain was not able to transport them to North America after 1776.
What intrigued me as a student was — notwithstanding the fact that North America notionally remained an option until Britain lost the American War of Independence — why it took Britain so long to organise an alternative place for transportation.
The answer is to be found in Emma Christopher’s recent book, A Merciless Place. Dr Christopher, an historian and academic at the University of Sydney, whose chief research interest and previous publications are on the history of slavery, traces the history of transportation from its cessation to North America in the mid 1770s to the establishment of New South Wales.
Christopher begins her narrative by placing in historical context the failed transportation scheme to West Africa by surveying the extent of poverty and crime in England, particularly London, as well as the history of transportation hitherto.
With huge numbers of poor turning to crime in order to survive, the issue facing the British government was what to do with those found guilty of crimes such as theft. While many were executed, others were sentenced either to transportation or had their death sentences commuted to transportation.
After the American War of Independence commenced, and with British jails being unable to accommodate the increased numbers of those awaiting transportation, the first solution adopted by the government was to house prisoners in hulks and have them complete various public works.
However, contrary to what I and many other students had been led to believe or presume, the British government did not simply leave convicts confined in hulks while it awaited its hoped-for victory in North America. Instead, the British authorities adopted a proposal for transporting male convicts to West Africa, where they would serve as soldiers to guard forts at places such as the small island of Gorée, just off the coast of Senegal. This string of forts was an integral element of the slave trade.
What eventuated can be described as little less than an unmitigated disaster.
The major problem was the death rate of convicts from tropical diseases, this being one of the reasons why convicts were chosen to be the guards, as transportees were more dispensable than regular soldiers. Not only did those transported have little motivation to act as guards, but they were inclined on some occasions to engage in mutiny.
Apart from death, another major problem was that of desertion. It seems that many a captain of the slaving ships was only too willing to recruit as crew-members escaped convicts without asking too many questions in order to replace their crew-members who had died.
In the course of her book, Dr Christopher highlights the “careers” of two professional and notorious thieves, William Murray Mackenzie and Patrick Madan. Mackenzie had previously been transported to North America, from whence he absconded and returned to England. He was later murdered in West Africa. However, Madan made a successful getaway from West Africa and disappears from the record of history.
Other schemes to deport convicts to the Caribbean and even to Maryland after the conclusion of the War of Independence proved abortive. It was largely in the face of these failures that the British government ultimately decided upon establishing the colony of New South Wales.
Dr Christopher concludes her account with a brief foray into the colony’s subsequent role, making the observation that the British government had learned its lessons through its previous failed penal colonies.
New South Wales indeed was a successful venture. In fact, some convicts who had originally been transported to West Africa ended up there.
Whereas some of these convicts’ one-time comrades in West Africa died horrible deaths, some of the convicts who made it to New South Wales ended up leading prosperous lives and making positive contributions to the fledgling colony.
A Merciless Place is a thoroughly researched, absorbing, although at times lengthy, account of Britain’s failed transportation scheme to West Africa. It fills a gap in the story of the foundation of Australia, one that adds another dimension to the understanding of the rationale as to why New South Wales was founded.