The convict experience helps us to understand the Australia of today. In Convict Colony, Hill provides a briskly paced, panoramic yet understated account of the first 30 years of what was to become Sydney. The nickname Sin City was applicable from the outset, since drugs (originally in the form of grog), prostitution, shady business deals and political corruption either arrived with the First Fleet or quickly became entrenched.

A painting of William Buckley by an unknown artist.

A painting of William Buckley by an unknown artist.Credit:State Library of Victoria

Hill portrays early Sydney as teetering on the brink of disaster due to the unsuitable location and the authorities’ unfamiliarity with the natural environment, as well as the disease and exploitation that was rife in convict society.

The colony was dependent on Britain for food and supplies for many years after it was established. All clothing and footwear had to be imported, meaning that some convicts had to labour without them when the supply ran out.

The effect of the colonists’ presence was devastating to the local Indigenous population, which rapidly went into steep decline due to murder, disease and dispossession. The lives of women, who in the early years were outnumbered by men, were especially grim. Judged by the standards of today, convict life was almost unbelievably harsh, brutal, painful and short.

The convicts would not have regarded themselves as inhabiting infinite space. The reality for them was severe mental and physical confinement and deprivation at tiny outposts within the vast expanse of the island to which they were transported, of whose geographical isolation they had no real comprehension.

Convict Colony by David Hill.

Convict Colony by David Hill.Credit:

As Hill relates, some of the early convict escapees were convinced that they could reach China overland just by crossing the Blue Mountains. While many absconding convicts vanished without trace or were hunted down, a few managed to survive for an amazing length of time in an environment that was alien to them. The penal settlement project only went ahead because the British had managed, under the catastrophic leadership of the mentally ill King George, to lose their American colonies and needed somewhere else to dump their unwanted people.

A lingering sense of rejection has ever since formed part of the Australian psyche, while the British long ago became accustomed to looking down on colonials. If you ever need to be reminded of the indelibility of the convict stain, just listen to the Barmy Army’s ‘‘Convict Song’’.

The fact that the gulag at Sydney not only lasted but was able to develop into an affluent, egalitarian democracy is credited by Hill principally to governors Arthur Phillip and Lachlan Macquarie. In particular, Macquarie – like so many of the most influential figures in Australian colonial history a Scot – tried to harmonise the competing, corrosive forces of self-interest for the benefit of the colony as a whole.

Perhaps the most enduring monument to the optimistic pragmatism with which Macquarie imbued the nascent Australian nation was the Sydney Hospital, an institution cleverly, albeit incongruously financed by the trade in grog.

Buckley's Chance by Garry Linnell.

Buckley’s Chance by Garry Linnell.Credit:

Where Hill, a former chairman of the ABC, describes convict society as a whole, Garry Linnell’s approach focuses on one convict who is both legendary and enigmatic. Buckley’s Chance explores what we do and don’t know about William Buckley, the escapee whom Linnell promotes as a founder figure, if not an outright hero.

Hill writes in the mode of a conventional omniscient narrator, while Linnell’s authorial voice is diegetic, meaning that the narrator comments outside the story as it is being told. In the introduction, Linnell declares that ‘‘Buckley’s Chance is not a conventional historical biography’’.

The fact that Buckley could live in the bush away from other Europeans for 32 years is a remarkable story and a tremendous tribute to the humanity and forbearance of the Wadawurrung people with whom he lived for half a lifetime. The Wadawurrung chose not to persecute Buckley for the atrocities being committed on their people by other Europeans.

An illiterate ex-soldier from Cheshire in the north-west of England who fought in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, Buckley, who stood well over six feet tall, had a reticence that, like his capacity for survival, appears to have been constitutional. Mostly he shunned publicity despite becoming famous following his return to white society so long after he was presumed dead.

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, published in 1852, was an account written for him by John Morgan, a newspaper man who embellished the tale with episodes that included a sighting of a bunyip and an encounter with a tribe of copper-coloured pygmies.

Linnell adds his own speculations to the bare facts of Buckley’s story in his own voice. Where Morgan seems to have shamelessly interpolated fantastic tales in order to boost sales, Linnell, a former editor of The Bulletin, editorial director of Fairfax and head of news and current affairs at Nine, owner of this masthead,  addresses Buckley across the centuries as though engaging in a doorstop interview with a reluctant subject. Other interventions by Linnell include modernising original quotations and narrating the events of the past in the present tense.

The way Linnell tells it, Buckley’s unique friendship with the local people was simply exploited by leading early Melbourne squatters John Batman, a free settler from England, and John Pascoe Faulkner, who was the son of a convict. Unfettered greed, cynicism and hypocrisy are nothing new, and Melbourne has had its fair share of amoral entrepreneurs, property developers and politicians since then.

Lacking wealth, position or a formal education, Buckley had limited agency and never set out to change the world. His bid for freedom from penal servitude was born of a natural desire to seek infinite space. Eventually, however, he chose to return to what he had known before and settled down in Tasmania with a younger widow and her child. It seems all Buckley really wanted to do was live in peace with his fellow human beings.

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