Casting off chains of thought

Australia's Birthstain, by Babette Smith, Allen & Unwin, $49.95

EVERY SOCIETY HAS A foundation story that reinforces its links to the land it happens to occupy. While the United States has its Pilgrim Fathers, Australia has had to suffice with a story of convicts being led ashore into captivity at Sydney Cove. It does not do much to reinforce Australian claims of ownership of the continent. Nor does it imbue Australians with a sense of collective pride in their origins.

As a result, generations of Australians spent more than a century in a state of denial about their nation's convict origins. At various national pageants, convicts were never remembered. Instead, commemorative parades and ceremonies celebrated the historic roles of the pioneers or the soldiers or even the bushrangers: anyone but the convicts, who had comprised the great majority of British Australians in the pre-gold rush decades.

When an American company proposed in 1926 to make a film of the convict novel, For the Term of his Natural Life, strenuous efforts were made to prevent it happening. It was feared that the film would remind the world of Australia's origins and thereby harm its campaign to attract investment and immigrants. As late as 1988, the Bicentenary saw a re-creation of the First Fleet, with sailing ships eerily empty of the convicts who had crowded the decks of the original fleet and who had gone on to lay the foundations of Australia.

This sense of shame about Australia's early history has been slow to dissipate. And the shame was heightened by many families who had a convict among their ancestors and who sought to hide it.

Not any more. As prime minister Kevin Rudd showed when talking of his own roots, people now point with pride to having a convict somewhere on their family tree.

Freelance historian Babette Smith is one of perhaps 2 million Australians who can claim a convict ancestor, with the story of Smith's ancestor being proudly told in her previous book, A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal.

Now Smith returns to examine the origins of the shame of "Australia's birthstain", which she dates to the 1837 House of Commons committee on transportation, chaired by the radical young dandy, Sir William Molesworth, and the subsequent movement in the colonies to campaign against transportation.

Until then, claims Smith, the inhabitants of the colonies were content to judge a person by their character rather than by their criminal convictions.

The committee's hearings changed all that, providing the opponents of the convict system with a soapbox from which to make lurid allegations about the depraved state of the Australian colonies, focusing particularly on the extent of homosexuality among the convicts and their slave-like working conditions.

The committee's damning report was published just as the colonies were being transformed by the wealth of the wool industry into places of considerable economic and social opportunity for convicts and free alike. It was that wealth, multiplied many times by the discovery of gold in 1851, which brought an end to the convict system in eastern Australia.

Even before then, as Smith relates with numerous examples, people were committing crimes in Britain in order to be transported to Australia and enjoy opportunities and higher living standards that the colonies now offered even its humblest citizens.

As free immigrants began in the second half of the 19th century to outnumber convicts and former convicts, those who had once been guests of the government began to conceal their convict past from public view. It was partly because of the stain of their collective past that Australians so welcomed the news from Gallipoli in 1915, believing that the stories of their soldiers' courage would begin to wash away the convict stain and provide a new foundation story for the nation.

In Australia's Birthstain, Smith blows the trumpet for the legion of family historians who have painstakingly worked away in libraries and archives over the past 30 or so years to uncover the individual stories of thousands of convicts and their descendants.

Collectively, their stories paint a quite different picture of early Australia from the gore-spattered picture of Robert Hughes' influential study, The Fatal Shore. The gibbet and the whipping post are still there, but they do not overshadow the images of those many convicts who found liberty and opportunity in Australia.

More importantly, Smith shows how the shame about Australia's convict origins was created by a combination of moralising religious leaders and radical nationalists, whose censorious judgements "left a wound at the heart of the nation" and continue to influence the way we view our history. This is an important book that deserves to be widely read. It should also inspire other historians to shed further light on our formative years, freed from the shackles of the past.

The Age, 5 July 2008