History : Mar-Apr 2016
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 17 NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM/AGE FOTOSTOCK meager consignment of provisions, the fledgling colony of New South Wales was on the edge of collapse from starvation and disease. Despite these hardships, the British government did not suspend, or review, its policy of sending convicts to Austra- lia. Prisoners continued to arrive in the thousands. Men and women were packed into ships’ holds. Occasionally on the long, hazardous crossing they would be allowed up on deck, where they always remained under close guard. Other than these brief interludes, the deportees had almost no opportunity to breathe fresh air for the whole voyage, which lasted for months. Worse still, the government paid the ship owners a fee per prisoner regard- less of whether they arrived in Australia alive or dead. The ship’s guards had no economic incentive to guarantee even the most basic of conditions, which yielded terrible consequences for those on board. In addition to adult men, women, children, and the elderly were also pas- sengers. The British penal code set a minimum age of nine years for depor- tation. Some women ended up resort- ing to prostitution to survive the jour- ney during the long months of the sea crossing. In cramped and filthy quarters, dis- ease rapidly spread through the human cargo, often not long after setting out from Britain. Typhoid, cholera, and yel- low fever killed huge numbers of de- portees before they’d even set foot on Australian soil. Among the passengers, it was common practice to conceal the deaths in the hope of getting hold of the dead’s food rations. Corporal punish- ment was routine, and most inmates were at an absolute breaking point long before they even arrived. Many of those who managed to survive the journey died soon after. A Nation Takes Hold Many years later, after overcoming the initial chaos, New South Wales did begin to prosper and start to set up its own trade routes. The opportunities in this vast continent soon attracted new colonists from Britain who came not as deportees but as entrepreneurs, attracted by the offer of cheap prison labor. By 1825 the European population surpassed 50,000. By 1851 it had grown to 450,000. Ten years later, it had al- most tripled. As the new nation began to grow, it was hard to overlook that its foundations were built on the suffering of its first convict settlers, a complicated legacy that lingers today. —Íñigo Bolinaga Aboriginals of the Eora people. The man indicated by the musket appears to be comforting a wounded companion. Three armed colonists approach. Are they confronting the wounded man or offering him medical assistance? A detachment of 13 British troops. Are they there to protect their colleagues or to attack the Aboriginals? A Clash of Worlds in Botany Bay FIRST ENCOUNTERS between colonists and Aboriginals boded ill for Australia’s future. This anonymous drawing, now at London’s Natural History Museum, has prompted differing interpretations. It is known the armed men approaching the Aboriginals were surgeons, but are they coming to punish or to help?