Most Australians will be aware of the background to the First Fleet of 1788 – that it was England's way of getting rid of her undesirables by sending them as far away from the mother country as possible. They may also know that prior to this, convicts were sent to America but that the practice was forcibly ended after the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
“A Merciless Place” by Emma Christopher tells the story of what happened to some of these men (and a handful of women) in the intervening years, and it makes for both powerful and disturbing reading. While the first years at Sydney Cove have often been described as hellish, they couldn't possibly have been as bad as West Africa.
The slave-exporting Gold Coast was feared by Europeans as one of the deadliest places on earth and became known as the “white man's grave”. Its intense heat and humidity were notorious. Diseases like yellow fever, dysentery and typhoid were rampant. Add the avarice, greed and brutal savagery of slave-dealing, plus superstition, tribal and racial conflicts, and it is inevitable that the worst of human behaviour will come to the fore.
Introduce to this already-deadly mix shiploads of harshly treated, poorly nourished men and boys from English cities who are forced to become convict soldiers rather than face the hulks or the gallows. Some of them are hardened criminals, others just innocent victims of fate and a cruel justice system. They are transported in slave ships, are expected to guard slaves, yet are slaves themselves - some even suffer the greatest indignity of all, flogging by slaves.
Most die within a few weeks or months of their arrival. Officers who survive become corrupt, dealing in slaves on the side. It is inevitable that mutiny threatens and discipline breaks down in the ranks, with even more suffering by way of starvation and punishment at the hands of guards who had themselves been thieves and murderers. The few who escape often do so by sheer luck, cunning or ruthlessness, by defecting to piracy or to Britain's enemies, the Dutch.
Emma Christopher's historical research is thorough, meticulous and detailed, but it is not light reading and the litany of disaster and inhumanity can numb the reader after a while. The impact of the book is best where she gives us insight into the stories of specific individuals such as the upper-class conman of many aliases, William Murray Mackenzie. He was transported first to Virginia, then Africa. His gruesome death at the hands of a relative and one of the scheme's founders, Kenneth Mackenzie, is particularly shocking even for the cruel age in which they lived.
A positive aspect to this enterprise - if there could be such a thing - is that the authorities were reluctant to send women convicts into this inferno of depravity and only a few women's names are mentioned. Another who had originally been sentenced to Africa was "Hell Fire Moll", or Mary Humphries. She was fortunate to be despatched to New South Wales instead where she later married another First Fleeter, John King.
This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand more of the background to the origins of the First Fleet. It also expands on the even lesser-known history that when the African experiment was seen to be failing, convict ships were diverted to the Mosquito Coast of Central America and Honduras (Belize). An exploration was also undertaken as to a possible convict settlement at the mouth of the Orange River on the border of what is now Namibia and South Africa, but the land proved too barren to support a colony.
In sheer desperation to solve the convict problem for once and all the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, took up the suggestion of Sir Joseph Banks and others to try Botany Bay, and thus it was that on 13 May 1787 the approximately 1,000 individuals destined to become Australia's founding fathers and mothers finally set sail for New South Wales.