Dreams of freedom
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Tom Morton
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Tom Morton's biography and other articles by this writer
I’m lying propped up on one elbow at Kyeemagh beach, looking out over Botany Bay. I love this utterly urban seascape; less than a kilometre away, planes taxi out to the water's edge, turn and lumber into the air, in steady, unbroken lines. A tanker eases its way through the mouth of the bay and heads for mooring; on the north side of the bay, the red cranes of Botany docks raise their arms in salute to the Kurnell refinery across the water, not far from where the Endeavour dropped anchor in 1770.
A dry, gritty easterly is blowing up. There's hardly anyone on the beach on this Saturday morning, but on stiller days teenage Lebanese girls swim in jeans, long sleeved tops and hijab, while family groups sit in circles in the park behind the sandhills, eating and smoking scented tobacco from a hookah. A little further inland, in the market gardens along the Cooks River canal, Chinese and Vietnamese women bend over long beds of herbs and vegetables. No doubt Sir Joseph Banks would approve if he were to amble along the canal path today; he and the Swedish naturalist Solander gathered between three and four hundred specimens of previously unknown plants during their sojourn here, and persuaded Cook to change the name of their anchorage from Stingray Harbour to Botany Bay, assuming (wrongly) that the soil must be fertile and would make good farmland.
Perhaps few people would let their eyes rove over the bay today and imagine they were living in utopia. But that's pretty well how Europeans imagined the colony of New Holland in its earliest years. Take this essay published in 1787 - a year before the establishment of the colony - by the German traveller, writer and revolutionary Georg Forster:
The British authorities see themselves with no other choice but to return to the long-accustomed method of transportation, and and to populate the new land with convicts and the unfortunate victims of lust who shame the streets of the capital ... Much, perhaps everything depends on the vision of the wise man who can discover even in the most vulgar and depraved persons the sparks of a higher purpose, and who knows how to gather and concentrate them in order to shape and perfect their humanity.
As a young man, Forster had accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage around the world on the Resolution. Under orders from the Admiralty, Cook took his ship further south than any man had sailed before, deep into the Antarctic Ocean, in order to determine whether or not the great southern continent about whose existence many explorers had speculated actually existed. Cook was convinced that it did not and, having satisfied himself that he was right, spent another two years exploring the islands of the South Pacific, from New Zealand to Easter Island. A year after the Resolution returned to England, the young Georg Forster published A Voyage Round the World, which rapidly became a bestseller across Europe. The Voyage is one of the first modern works of travel literature, combining meticulous observation of the natural and human world with philosophical speculation.
It is also the first great ethnography of the Pacific; there is no comparable work that records the earliest encounters between Europeans and the the cultures of the Pacific Islands with such a keen and dispassionate eye.
Forster himself never saw Australia; on his second voyage, Cook chose to sail past the continent he had claimed for Britain. But it's clear that he was fascinated by the promise which the new colony held out - of a kind of social laboratory, where the wrongs and injustices of the old world could be wiped away, and men and women could be remade:
It may be true to say that the first settlers of New Holland are a depraved pile, whom neither the law nor the fear of punishment could hold in check in their homeland. But that would be to ignore the fact that the thief is more often than not the victim of deficient education, a blind adherence to the letter of the law, and a lack of proper care by the state. Both ancient and modern history tell us that such a man will cease to be an enemy of society once he is reinstated in the full rights of a human being, and allowed to become a landowner and a tiller of the soil.