Section 1 [Because Men Went Hungry, by Rex Ingamells]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige (1951) by Rex Ingamells.]

§ 1. The Botany Bay Smear

Every Australian history book tells something of the troubles at Sydney Cove, when the first settlers existed in hunger and dissension. The full significance of that wretched time, in its implication for the future, has, however, escaped the historians. As a phase of our history it was short; on top of it came security, and then prosperity. The Hunger Period has been cited almost solely in its contemporary context, as presenting Phillip with his gravest problems and endangering the venture. That it was once noted as a deterrent to free settlement has long since been forgotten, or considered not worth thinking about. Actually, the baleful influence of the Hunger Period can be traced through the whole of our subsequent history.

Cook and Banks had given New South Wales a good reputation. The first settlers, poorly equipped for settlement anywhere, gave it a black one immediately. They needed too much from the country at the outset, and could not make a fair trial. Had they been better catered for, and not so waited on by neglect and accident, stomachs must have been better provisioned, nerves less frayed, patience less sorely tried, morale healthier, the general outlook more optimistic; the country must have been subjected to less vilification as a site for settlement; and even the System must have acquired less vicious associations in Australian tradition. As it was, ill-fortune highlighted all the unpleasant ingredients of the situation, and fostered a virus of disfavour so inimical to the enterprise and its location — particularly its location — that two centuries would be required to offset the poisonous effects upon the cause of Australian prestige.

Not because of the Convict System, but because of hunger, New South Wales received its first smear.

“In this Extensive Country,” Cook had said, “it can never be doubted but what most sorts of Grain, Fruit, roots, etc., of every kind would flourish here were they brought hither, planted and Cultivated by the hands of Industry.” The soil about Sydney was poor, and proper cultivation by the hands of industry was lacking at the foundation; there were no expert farmers. The disinclination of convicts and soldiery alike to bend their backs in the crisis guaranteed the effects of inept Government oversight. Cook’s supposition was quickly a matter for doubt in the minds of most responsible persons in the Colony; and Lieutenant Governor Ross wrote of the country to Under Secretary Nepean, 10th July, 1788: “I am convinced that if ever it is able to maintain the people here it cannot be in less time than probably a hundred years hence.” Ross stretched truth, as well as grammar, when he informed Nepean, 16th November, 1788, that, apart from Governor Phillip and Judge Advocate Collins, “every person . . . . who came out with a design of remaining in the country are now most earnestly wishing to get way from it,” but he did express the gloomy dogmatism of the majority.

Storms of criticism against New South Wales as a place for settlement arose within the Colony, and evoked sympathetic attitudes in England. The British Government, which was thoroughly committed to the undertaking, or, at least, thoroughly disqualified for the time of effectively revoking it, had the consolation of Phillip’s faith at this critical stage; and a community largely hostile to New South Wales was constrained to colonize.

While it would be unreasonable to deny all colour to pessimistic predictions in the circumstances, History has roundly condemned those minds whose dissatisfactions went so far as to advocate abandonment of the territory. History has thoroughly vindicated those other rare minds who, from the first and through the worst, had faith in New South Wales as a place for British settlement. Vindication is monumental in the far-flung and tangible Australian communities of today. At the same time, the country itself, the fruits of which nourish these communities and other communities over the seas, is still fashionably looked upon askance by certain types of individuals, as being an inhospitable land, where nature is ludicrous and unlovely. Such people are the last and meanest relics of a vicious fashion which, unknown to them, began long ago in the more extenuating circumstances of the more masculine “Botany Bay” hatreds.

Australia as a country has come in for much and continuous criticism since the little foundation settlement clung perilously to existence between the water and virgin bush at Sydney Cove; but no more powerfully intense expressions of distaste, none more capable of impressing unfamiliar minds with absolute conviction, have ever been forthcoming than those made by persons enduring the travail of those days, those circumstances. An officer of marines, writing to Banks, spoke of “the badness of the country,” and added: “you may rely upon what I have advanced. Every gentleman here, two or three excepted, concur with me in opinion, and sincerely wish the expedition may be recalled.” Ross, of course, expressed himself forcibly: “I do not scruple to pronounce that in the whole world there is not a worse country than what we have seen of this. All that is contiguous to us is so very barren and forbidding that it may with truth be said here nature is reversed; and, if not so, she is nearly worn out, for almost all the seeds we have put into the ground has rotted, and I have no doubt but will, like the wood of this vile country when burned or rotten, turn to sand.” In London, the Public Advertiser, 28th December, 1790, stated: “The flourishing state of the colony at Botany Bay has certainly been contradicted by all private letters.”

A community made up of convicts and garrison must be regarded as a breeding ground for discontents; but circumstances assured that these should be brought to fever pitch. Under conditions of food shortage and rationing, both convicts and soldiers plundered the stores, and were hung for doing so. The absolutism of authority and the humiliation of the felon received more painful emphasis than would have been necessary or likely with better initial organization and happier subsequent fortune. The presence of experienced farmers would have averted the Governor’s endeavour, which was resented, to interest the garrison in practical details of agriculture. Avoidance of famine would have relieved Phillip — whose prudence survives criticism — of the necessity of that single-minded monopoly of the whole undertaking which went far to alienate the sympathy of important officers like Ross.

If it is not surprising that a country so different from England should sometimes unsettle English minds with unexpected aspects of nature, it is also certain that considerable mortifications, in no may attributable to the country, but peculiar to the venture and its management, imposed, by transference, a special gloom upon the scene. The reports that poured privately into England, when occasion allowed, candidly and convincingly portrayed New South Wales with almost unanimous vilification.

Exceptions, although too rare to ameliorate effectively the darkness of the general picture transmitted to England, are yet conclusive proof that an unsympathetic view of the Australian scene in New South Wales, on first colonizing acquaintance, was not inevitable for the British mind. Captain Watkin Tench could write, in his Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, the Introduction to which bears the same address and date as those of the first letter of Ross to Nepean quoted above: “The general face of the country is certainly pleasing, being diversified with gentle ascents, little winding vallies, covered for the most part with large spreading trees, which afford a succession of leaves in all seasons. In those places where trees are scarce, a variety of flowering shrubs abound, most of them entirely new to an European, and surpassing in beauty, fragrance and number, all I ever saw in an uncultivated state.” Tench agreed with the general complaint that the wood was bad in grain, and he reports other causes of dissatisfaction — but what a different attitude he had to the scene! His was positive appreciation of beauty in the landscape. Moreover, he did not share the general disposition to condemn the soil out of hand: “there seems no reason to doubt, that many large tracts of land around us will bring to perfection whatever shall be sown in them. To give this matter a fair trial, some practical farmers capable of such an undertaking should be sent out; for the spots we have chosen for experiments in agriculture, in which we can scarce be supposed adepts, have hitherto but ill repaid our toil, which may be imputable to our having chosen such as are unfavourable for our purpose.”

Watkin Tench was not alone with that seeing eye and that open mind. Captain Hill, writing ecstatically, 26th July, 1790, of “this beautiful heavenly clime,” while outlining the sad predicament of the settlers amid sandy surroundings, declared: “There can be no doubt that some of this immense tract . . . . . has a diversity of soil and country equal to any.”

Finding such occasional and eloquent accounts of natural beauty in the scene, and the rare inclination to give the soil “a fair trial,” it is logical to ask: How much more of such appreciative and open-minded attitudes would there have been in the community but for the dire misfortunes of the situation? It is surely an entirely proper conclusion that the misfortunes experienced adversely affected the perception of the settlers. It is inescapable that these misfortunes sharpened to the nth degree any perceptions in antipathy.

However the faith of Cook, Banks, Phillip, Hunter, Tench and men like Hill may resound today, when the genteel fashion of condemning Australia is at last expiring, the fashion was, at that time, being firmly established, and was not genteel in origin.

Those of the disgruntled colonists who returned to England at an early date were glad of the release and must have said so plainly, with vivid chapter and verse. In England, ideas of Australia became rapidly and basically aligned with those expressed by Dampier, touching the West Coast, rather than with those of Cook, touching the East. So thoroughly was the disposition to view Australia unfavourably impressed upon the British mind that neither the best wool in the world, nor a reputation for radiant health, nor the romantic compulsion of gold, nor excellent refrigerated beef, nor Australian infantry and light horse, nor Melba, nor Bradman, nor a hundred and one other creditable things could make the average Britisher and the Anglo-centric Australian forget that Australia was essentially a deplorable place with barbarous inhabitants.

If a particular set of circumstances be vividly enough impressed upon popular imagination, such a set of circumstances will condition the mental attitudes of an epoch. So it was with the foundation of “Botany Bay.” The Botany Bay hatreds were extreme and implacable. The Land was given its first striking popular definition, in connection with settlement, under conditions of hatred that, incited by mismanagement, were highly prejudicial against a fair judgment. Within a very short time, the pace had been set in what was to become almost the universal fashion of maligning Australia and the Australian community. “Botany Bay” achieved its characteristic reputation early, a reputation only too humanly feasible, considering what British people had had to endure there. The misfortunes of the foundation sharpened antipathy in perception, enlarged to a baleful extent the capacity to denounce, induced a fashionable appetite for reports of horrors and anomalies. New South Wales became synonomous with crime and punishment, on the one hand, and, on the other, an insufferable aridity and ludicrousness in nature. It did not matter that, very early in the history of settlement, matters transpired which, considered without prejudice, would discredit much of the incriminatory vogue. Prejudice was ingrained in the minds of the majority of those who had had experience of initial settlement, and ingrained in the British conception of the Colony.

* * *

Colonial disparagement normally becomes a fashionable social investment as a colony begins to show crude distinction in a new way of life. Even had its foundation been happier, New South Wales settlement could not have advanced beyond a certain point without being assailed with fashionable jibes on the convict theme, and fashionable jibes on the rawness of its life. Sooner or later, the obvious difference between the English and New South Wales natural environments would have been fashionably instanced, to the glorification of the parent country and the disparagement of the Colony. There is a world of difference, however, between a campaign of humiliation against a stripling colonial pride that is beginning to feel its feet and a campaign of humiliation that precedes and envelops its earliest evidence.

Owing to the Botany Bay Smear, the Colony of New South Wales was denied an initial period of nonentity in reputation, during which it might begin to evolve, despite the convict handicap, comparatively unnoticed. Before the Colony could take one step forward, a formula for potent opprobrium against it was popularly established. Not only was the country robbed, at one stroke, of the good character which Cook had given it, while a wretched one was substituted, but the penal community settled in it was dramatized in disrepute by association with an environment so miserable.

The identity of the Colony was only too well marked — in immediate and practically unmitigated disparagement. Were it not for the Botany Bay Smear, the Colony of New South Wales would hardly have been deemed important enough to be accorded, so soon, such weight in disrepute. By reason of the Smear, it qualified for notoriety from the very beginning.

Give a dog a bad name, and it sticks.

Where a colony is concerned, the effective opinion of the parent country is a fiat of Destiny. British opinion with regard to New South Wales, was firmly channelled into antipathy from the start. There was nothing casual in its rise and direction. That it involved erroneous ideas and attitudes, wished upon a credulous British Public, could not render it ineffective — did render it perverse to the roots. British opinion — through no fault of those resident in England, beyond Government mismanagement of settlement — was perverted at the outset. Next, social evils in the Colony, demonstrably fathered by the Smear, ministered to the disfavour the Smear first created. Thereafter, British opinion, ignorant of New South Wales and absorbing but fitful gleams of enlightenment, became periodically adjusted in perversion, rather than progressively better informed. British ideas of Australia, relayed to Britain in the first place by Botany Bay malcontents, became a ruthless norm to which, throughout and beyond the nineteenth century, fashionable opinion in Australia largely conformed.

* * *

The psychological legacy of the Hunger Period at Sydney Cove — inhering in a maximum of humiliation implicit in the Convict System, and a maximum of malignity in definition of the country — has operated variously upon all later generations of Australians until now. From the Botany Bay Smear, by traceable infection, through social mutations, has developed the Great Australian Inferiority Complex, as variously evidenced in twentieth century Australian life and debited to our prestige.

Rex Ingamells, Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige, Jindyworobak, Melbourne, 1951, pages 3-12

Editor’s notes:
inhering = to be inherent; to be an intrinsic part or essential element of something

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