By Ellie Raftery
In October 2015, my three passions in life – history, music and theatre – came together at the National Theatre. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’, based on Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel ‘The Playmaker’, followed the remarkable true story of the first British penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia in 1788. This itself drew from Robert Hughes’ encyclopaedic work ‘The Fatal Shore’. Its colonial backdrop and legacy resonate with the current social climate and yearning for a better understanding of this huge part of our history.
The focus, through the eyes of Captain Ralph Clark (whose diary formed the basis of the plot), is very much on the real convicts themselves; their tales of hardship back in England, the (mostly) petty crimes that got them transported, and their brutal existence as labourers in a harsh new climate. Their solace was their enjoyment and enrichment in rehearsing a play (George Farquhar’s ‘The Recruiting Officer’), directed by Clark to the disapproval of his superiors. They had humoured him in the endeavour with the conviction that this underclass was inherently incapable of such high culture. The perception of such inferiority is apparent in the opening scene – a conversation of nature versus nurture between the officers, and their harsh treatment of the convicts throughout. This included whippings with the “cat o’nine tails” (up to fifty lashes in some cases). One particularly unpleasant scene captures a 21-year-old convict Liz (Nancy in real life), hanging shackled by the wrists and ankles for stealing food in the colony, whilst recounting a similarly hard life in Liverpool.
This brought home the title of the play and the reasons for Britain’s method of colonising this new (to Europeans) territory. Getting there before its largest imperial rivals, the French and Dutch, who were also voyaging in the Pacific at this time was one factor. Combined with losing America via revolution; Britain needed new territory to boost its image, extract wealth and resources… and send some of its criminals and political prisoners. The overcrowded prisons and rising crime rates in late eighteenth-century London were becoming a considerable problem for the state. Late-colonial America had been receiving British and Irish convicts as indentured labourers. Now as an independent nation they were no longer accepting of Britain’s social residue (and had a thriving economy built on slaves whom they were not required to emancipate). Moreover, the curiosity of scientists and botanists who had been present on or read reports of Captain’s Cook’s 1770 voyage (which had “acquired” the territory) added to the colonial incentive. With hopes for valuable goods and crops found in America such as silver and tobacco, Australia seemed to offer the perfect exchange – for Britain at least; its land, resources and power-boost for our riffraff. By increasing Britain’s wealth and thinning out its convict class over time, colonising Australia with convicts was arguably truly for ‘Our Country’s Good’.
This was the initial idea, of course. The truth was this endeavour was not profitable – there being very little in the way of food for sustenance and next to nothing for commercial gain. This did pick up slowly but with no great yields until the 1830s, the Huon Pine timber of Tasmania being used for shipbuilding for instance. The social dumping ground for economic exploitation was proving disastrous. Indeed, convict labour, whilst the fate of c.162,000 from 1788 to the abolition of transportation in 1868, was not the whole story. There was very little to work with in the scorching heat and damp soil, especially by mostly-Londoners with no experience in agriculture. The middle classes, as in most colonial territories, were from 1816 encouraged to invest and start new lives in a country not wishing to be defined by the convict stain.
Australia’s national identity and curiosity is shaped by this part of their heritage, inspiring works of literature that explore the experience of the poor convict forced from their home to a new terrain. There is not much, however, focusing on those whose home and terrain was forced from them. The aborigines were in some albeit problematic ways a bigger source of curiosity for the colonisers themselves, in typical fashion of Europeans encountering new peoples from the early modern period onwards. Reports by British officials racially profiling various tribes ranged from the beautiful noble savage at one with nature to the violent, animalistic brute.
In the class-oriented ‘Our Country’s Good’, the colonial theme is not explored so as to simplify the theatrical drive and focus on the convicts. However, the production did include between scenes an Aborigine standing centre stage, watching the development of this new colony on his native land. With each appearance he seemed visibly weaker, alluding to the violence and diseases brought over by European colonisers (entirely wiping out the natives in Tasmania by the 1860s), and possibly even symbolising the gradual takeover of the land to come. The effect was subtle yet powerful, illustrating and reminding us of this dual reality. Britain used Australia and New Zealand as a social dumping ground and eventual economic well – but the human effect went far beyond that.