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Alan Frost, Botany Bay: the real story.

Alan Frost, Botany Bay: the real story, Black Inc, Collingwood Vie, 2011, xiii + 276 pages; ISBN 978 1 86395 512 6.

Professor Alan Frost is nothing if not persistent. For 35 years he has researched the reasons for the British colonisation of Australia in 1788. Central to his argument is 'Heads of a Plan' (1786), effectively a cabinet submission for approval of the First Fleet venture. It lists reasons for the proposal, including crowded disease-ridden jails and obtaining supplies of flax and timber found by Cook.

A tiff amongst historians flared when Geoffrey Blainey's 1966 book, The tyranny of distance, argued that the 'convict dumping ground' motivation had been overemphasised; he saw the flax and timber provisions as evidence of a strategy for imperial expansion. The debate has at times been acrimonious, tendentious and pettifogging - on both sides. Frost has written a series of books supporting Blainey's view, opposing those he calls traditionalists, who ridiculed the flax/timber theory. They called it window dressing to justify a knee-jerk reaction to prison overcrowding following the loss of the American colonies, motivated only by domestic policy; nothing to do with strategy.

Botany Bay: the real story gives a valuable description of the workings of British government administration and legal procedure in the 1780s and demonstrates that the hulks run by contractor Duncan Campbell were, by the standards of the time, clean and well run (unlike the filthy jails). Frost describes the disastrous attempts to resume transportation to America and Africa, including the aborted 1785 plan to send convicts to Das Voltas [Alexander] Bay on the Namibia/South Africa border. He argues that the idea of a naval base in the Pacific was part of a strategy to contain France, left out of Heads of a Plan for reasons of secrecy and diplomacy.

Frost demonstrates that flax, hemp and timber (vital commodities for shipbuilding, in short supply) were a real factor, if not a primary one. He concedes that the prisons crisis was a major factor, but views it in a context of 'commercial ambition, international politics, strategic imperatives and naval needs'. Some traditionalists bristled: the brutal oppressiveness of an imperial power was glamorised into lofty and noble strategy in an attempt to airbrush Australia's grubby convict beginnings.

But why would a sane prime minister and cabinet commit to vast public expenditure on such a risky venture? Frost admires William Pitt, aged just 27 in 1786, depicting him as a visionary Prime Minister who, aided by the capable civil service mandarin Evan Nepean, was the real force behind plans for the colony, rather than the ineffectual Home Secretary, Lord Sydney.

Frost's view is far from a Kiplingesque eulogy on the glories of empire. He may be almost obsessive over the naval stores/naval base motivations, but there is merit in his argument. If anything his views might be developed in terms of the colony's envisaged role in the expansion of British trade. True, this motivation is not mentioned in Heads of a Plan but Frost demonstrates that Pitt and his ministers were actively interested in it.

Readers, teachers and historians should take careful note of Botany Bay: the real story, which places the Georgian colony in its Asia-Pacific context. Beyond Canada and the Caribbean, Britain's empire in the late 1780s mostly consisted of a series of trading depots in India, China and elsewhere. The powerful East India Company was jealous of its trading privileges, but had its arm twisted to allow convict ships to pick up cargoes in China and India on the homeward voyage from 1788.

The flax industry never materialised, but Sydney was soon hosting an active whaling and sealing industry and ships arrived from London, Boston, Canton, Cork and Calcutta. Pitt's gamble paid off.

Less convincing is Frost's claim that most convicts had committed 'serious crimes', contrary to their traditional portrayal as innocent victims of 'dastardly oppression'. Based on a tiny sample, he fails to substantiate this in the book, although his point is partly valid.

Frost feels his argument has not prevailed, citing Tom Keneally's recent Australians: origins to Eureka, which makes an albeit fleeting reference to the traditionalist view. Possibly the cantankerous 'it's my way or the highway' tone Frost sometimes adopts in this and earlier works has alienated some. He is impatient with the works of others. We see little of the views of overseas historians; Australians are disregarded, or smitten with the author's wrath.

His focus is on documents, chronology and context, but he makes judicious use of newspapers and employs inference with caution. His skill and effort in locating 2500 manuscript sources is breathtaking. They will be placed on the State Library of NSW website, forming perhaps the most significant collection of the kind seen for nearly a century. The gift of these records is a welcome prospect for which the citizens of New South Wales will be indebted to Professor Frost, a Victorian born in Queensland.

Michael Flynn


NSW Crown Solicitor's Office
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Author:Flynn, Michael
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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