BOOK REVIEW: ‘Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to Australia’.

90. Oz Convicts

Reviewer:  Michael Keith

Title: Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to Australia

Author: Lucy Williams

No. of Pages: 202

Rating Scale (1: very poor, 10: excellent): 5

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Writing in this volume’s Introduction, the authors states that, over a four-year period, ‘…She spent almost every day banished beyond the seas, out of time and space, in convict Australia’. She continues ‘This book is a collection of the tales I found there’. While an admirable precis of what is to follow, it must however be qualified by two of the author’s subsequent statements, both of which appear on page xiii of the volume. These are:

‘All the stories related here are based on original records’.

‘Using my knowledge of the period, places and criminal justice system, I have in some cases made suggestions for the most likely scenario…but…cannot know for sure’.

After reading these statements, this reviewer found himself asking ‘How much of what appears within this volume is in fact true (with ‘true’ being defined as ‘An accurate representation of what actually occurred’)? To state that ‘All the stories related here are based on original records’, implies very strongly that in fact ‘truth’ may be absent from the majority of the tales that are related, with the ‘original records’ have been used only as a foundation; the key word in this instance being ‘Based’. This is a definition supported by the Oxford Dictionary when it states that ‘Based on’ is as the foundation or starting point for something’, while the author, by then stating that ‘…I have in some cases made suggestions for the most likely scenario but cannot know for sure’, compounds the problem further. Against such a background, to question ‘How much of what is within the volume is true?’ is not unreasonable, and indeed, this reviewer found himself asking that question repeatedly during the review process. He believes that what has resulted from these two statements is a work of ‘Faction’ (defined as ‘A plausible mixture of fact and fiction’), but as there is no way to know which is which, and with ‘Scepticism’ now attending every word, the volume’s reputation and authority has inevitably suffered.

The volume opens with the expected Contents page, this is in turn being followed by an Acknowledgements section within-which the author thanks those individuals and organisations who assisted her in the creation of the work. The previously-mentioned Introduction follows. Subtitled The Lives of the Lagged, this summarises the narrative presented within the main part of the volume, while providing additional background concerning the records accessed during its writing, the individuals involved and the political and social circumstances which resulted in the ‘Transportation’ phenomenon. Where necessary, subheadings within the section deal with specific aspects of the story being presented.  The five Chapters which constitute the volume’s major section now appear. These take the reader from the process and reasons by which prisoners became ‘Transportees’, to descriptions of conditions within the penal colonies themselves. As with the Introduction, subheadings within each Chapter are used to detail specific individuals and events. A Conclusion section placed after Chapter Five (The Hothouse of Humanity on the Swan River) acts as a summary to what has gone before while presenting the author’s thoughts on the process. The Conclusion is in turn followed by a three-page Appendix. Although no background information is provided, its content appears to be three letters written by one Margaret Catchpole to two separate individuals in 1802. The Appendix is in turn followed by a five–page section titled Tracing Transportees: Resources for the Reader. The title is self-explanatory. A section titled Suggested Reading placed after that section is analogous to a Bibliography, and is followed by the Index; the volume’s final section. Twenty four Images appear in an eight-page section placed in the book’s centre. These are both colour and monochrome in format and contain reproductions of individual portraits, advertisements, documents, structures and ephemera relevant to the narrative. While each image is informatively captioned, not all carry citations to indicate their origins. Neither the Contents page nor the Index acknowledges the existence of the images section or its contents. The numerous Quotes that appear throughout the volume carry no authenticating citations and as a result could well be imaginary; there is no indication to the contrary. Curiously, and despite the immense distances involved in both the transportation process itself and on the continent of Australia, the volume contains no Maps.

As previously-noted (and by the author’s own admission), this volume is a work of faction; ‘actual’ history ‘embroidered’ and ‘imagined’ to create a pre-determined narrative. As such, it cannot be considered to be an authoritative historical work. The previously-mentioned lack of citations for any of the numerous quotes appearing within the book only serves to re-emphasise the point. The result is a potentially-valuable resource reduced to little more than a collection of interesting tales, some of which may actually be true. Regrettably, the Index does not help, being best described as ‘incomplete’ in its entries. When reviewing this volume, and in the course of random searching, this reviewer had occasion on to seek Index entries for  Millbank, Pentonville and Portland (all on page 21) and Ned Kelly (page 181). Nothing was found and subsequent equally-random searches, returned similar results. What other, similar, information may be missing cannot be known. The absence of Maps has already been alluded-to.

The difficulties’ mentioned above notwithstanding, while this volume may have little to offer for serious researchers, it is still a collection of ‘Convict Stories’, and as a result may appeal to readers seeking ‘Human interest’ tales about the transportee’s experiences. Readers seeking descriptions of ‘lower class’ life in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Great Britain, may also find its contents of interest, these suggestions being made with the qualification that what is appears before the reader may not in fact be true.

This is undoubtedly a ‘sincere’ book, written to explain a complicated situation and doing it well, but to present a narrative as ‘true’ when it is patently not, comes at a cost. Were that it was not so.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor, 10: excellent, I have given this volume a 5.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to Australia’.