‘Robert Forrester, First Fleeter’
Speech given to descendants of convicts at ‘Forrester Court’, the home of John, Brad, Ariane & Andre Forrester,
Norfolk Island, 3 March 2010
This is my first visit to Norfolk Island and I am thoroughly enjoying it.
I have two people to thank for my presence here today – John Forrester and Agnes Hain.
In the front of the Robert Forrester book I have made many acknowledgments of the help received from a large number of people. One of those was John Forrester. He sent me very helpful material and has always taken a great interest in the progress of the book. I found out after the Forrester book was published that John Forrester had a lot to do with organising and financing the restoration of the Forrester headstones in the churchyard of St Matthew’s at Windsor, and I plan to mention that role of his in the book about the Forrester children.
I think John received and read my book and then had a few words with Agnes Hain of The Travel Centre. She seems to have an inexhaustible supply of enthusiasm for creating novel and meaningful visitor experiences for those coming to Norfolk Island. That germ of an idea from John led to an email from Agnes, lunch with Agnes in Melbourne last year, and here I am, thanks to Agnes, enjoying the opportunity to see for myself the place where my First Fleet forebear spent time in the early 1790s.
Had I been familiar with Norfolk Island before this week I might have prepared and written a different speech. Since that was not the case, today I will give you a brief overview of how I wrote this book and what I learned from it.
Hiding our Convict Origins
People tend to look down their noses at anyone who mentions a convict forebear, but due to the introduction into families of new lines by dint of marriage, they lurk within the family trees of almost every family with members present in Australia before the First World War. So I know I’m in good company, even in Melbourne, where I live. There, many people are convinced that Victoria’s reputation has never been tarnished by convict arrivals and feel that they can safely look down their noses at the inferior breeding of people from other states, especially NSW. I’m sure they would get a big surprise if they cared to investigate their forebears.
Today’s lingering attitudes of prejudice might explain why, for decades, everyone with convict forebears kept quiet about it.
Babette Smith’s book ‘Australia’s Birthstain’ highlighted the community pride and self-confidence in their achievements felt by the convicts who founded Australia, up to the middle of the nineteenth century. But then the UK’s anti-slavery movement fuelled Australia’s anti-transportation movement - generating such distortions in the arguments, and painting pictures of such horrifying depravity among the convict ‘class’, that people became ashamed to mention convict beginnings.
Starting with Marcus Clarke’s 1874 book ‘For the Term of His Natural Life’ and continuing through to Robert Hughes’ 1988 book ‘The Fatal Shore’, we’ve had over a century of these lurid tales. The public perception of being a convict evoked images of the lash, of chains, of cruel task masters, of slave labour, of supposed homosexuality and bestiality, of women as prostitutes, of Port Arthur’s gaol, and of Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay as secondary penal colonies.
Although the experiences of the earliest convict settlers of Australia were generally quite different, these lurid images continue to be presented up to the present day as the convict experience. Take, for example, Sian Prior’s book entitled ‘The Floating Brothel’, about the women transported on the Lady Juliana, or David Hill’s book ‘1788 – the Brutal Truth of the First Fleet’. Why did those recent titles include the words brothel, or brutal? Think about ‘The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce’, the recent ABC TV programme about the cannibal convicts in Tasmania.
Do you think the ABC would ever make a story about Robert Forrester, who overcame almost insuperable obstacles in Sydney, at Norfolk Island and at the Hawkesbury and built a solid family life? Fat chance. Where is the audience titillation in that approach? Even the Norfolk Island experience has been distorted, so that few people realise that in its earliest days from 1788 it was not a place for the irredeemably bad but was a strategic resource, and an agricultural settlement providing a safety haven for starving convicts. My own misunderstanding was corrected by the research for the Forrester book, and I tried to make that point very clear when writing the Norfolk Island chapter.
For me the journey towards publication of a book on Robert Forrester has been a long one, but there have been plenty of humorous moments along the way. For example, there was the woman in the library who had just discovered an unpalatable truth. Startling all of us quiet little mice working around her, she fiercely slammed her microfiche reader slide into the machine and loudly exclaimed ‘OH! Another lie exposed! If he was alive, I’d kill him.’
And of course there are the jokes – like the one about a talkback radio show in Sydney. The prize was a mystery trip. It could have been a trip to anywhere – Melbourne or Mumbai. A woman answered the final quiz question correctly and the announcer said ‘Congratulations, you’ve won!! And what’s more, you hit the jackpot. It’s a great prize - you’ve won a trip to England’. But in her broad Australian accent the Sydney woman wailed ‘Oh, but I don’t want to go THERE. THAT’s the dreadful place where all the convicts came from.’
To me that joke proves that being founded by criminals has brought Australians an appreciation of irony and black comedy.
And it reveals how little we understand our own history, even if we have studied it. Convicts = dreadful. Right? I think not.
Limited Source Material
Around 1500 people came to Australia in 1788 as part of the First Fleet. Less than two dozen of these people actually wrote about their experiences in a form that survives today:
• Nine men kept journals
• Eight individuals wrote letters home.
• Seven individuals wrote published accounts, some based on their journal.
Apart from Collins’ journal, most of the material about the First Fleet covers life in Sydney during its first four years, before the various scribes returned to England. From this material we obtain the perspective of the leader, various naval officers under his command, a few marine officers and men, several surgeons cum naturalists, and the chaplain.
Of those 1500 First Fleeters, more than 700 were convicts, but they left little or no written accounts of their experience and there are very few books about their lives as individuals. This creates a huge gap in the story of Australia’s early European settlement, a story which to date has relied heavily on the one-sided perspectives of those in charge.
But think about it. Those writers back in 1788 and thereabouts focused on the things that preoccupied them. They were mostly aware of the significance of their writing and naturally keen to write themselves into history in the best possible light, while portraying everyone else as an idiot. Would we rely today on a memoir by John Howard or Kevin Rudd to tell us the complete history of our times? No, because their personal interest distorts it.
Rigorous family history is free of that bias, especially the history of an illiterate person who left no personal records. Almost everything we know about Robert Forrester was sourced independently of him, in some kind of government record. As long as the writer tries to remain objective and stick to the known facts, the conclusions are less biased as the sources are not self-interested.
The Value of Family Historians
Family historians encompass a whole spectrum of players, ranging from dabblers through amateur enthusiasts to fully professional researchers, for whom their work is serious history.
Good family history gets the chronology precisely right, and this can give you an excellent insight into what was cause and what was effect. In that way rigorous family history can actually contribute significantly to our understanding of Australian history.
The research required for a family history is extremely frustrating, and is a long, boring grind. Sorting out who was who among people with the same names, or working out that people whose names are spelt differently each time are one and the same person, requires a great deal of patience, and detective skills.
Accordingly, very few biographies of the 1500 people on the First Fleet have ever been published. Being extremely difficult and time-consuming to research, only someone with a passionate interest, such as a descendant, would ever bother.
I have located six books about First Fleet marines, and twenty three about First Fleet convicts. Although catalogued by the National Library as books, some of these publications are little more than a few pages long, offering just snippets of information cobbled together, not always even in sequential order. Others contain lists of descendants with very little biographical material. There are several websites containing information of varying accuracy and credibility about First Fleeters. So a book like mine, telling the life story of a First Fleet convict, is not as run-of-the-mill as you might think.
Ignoring our Convict Heritage
Although Australia’s archival sources have been fully opened up for about forty years, academic historians in recent times have largely ignored our convict history, focusing instead on women’s issues, aborigines and multiculturalism. Yet for the first sixty years of Australia’s European history, convicts and their children formed the bulk of Australia’s population. This means that, as a nation we still have a rather distorted view of our history.
Serious researchers among the descendants of convicts are probably ahead of academic historians and the general public in understanding the true nature of those first sixty years. Some claim that there is no country in the world where family historians are more important than in Australia’, where they ‘work at the cutting edge of historical research’. I like to believe that my book ‘Robert Forrester, First Fleeter’ is at this cutting edge. Certainly it was published eight months prior to another book by the professional historian Jan Barkley Jack. Jan claimed breakthrough analysis, proving that settlers at the Hawkesbury have been falsely maligned for two centuries. My own book had already proved that point in great detail for Robert Forrester, one of the most-criticised of all Hawkesbury settlers.
I was in my early fifties before I ever knew that I had convict forebears. That was in 1999. My long-suffering friends and family know that I have been buried in family history work ever since. The Forrester book took me ten years of elapsed time to research and write. It is hard to believe that I got into the whole project by accident.
The lure of unearthing the names of previous generations of forebears is quite addictive. But from the moment I realised that one of my forebears was a convict who arrived with the First Fleet, I found my true vocation –as a detective.
Each research day spent in a library or archives office usually meant 3 or 4 days of work at my desk. Sometimes I spent a whole day making sure that just one line of my book was accurate. Sometimes the discovery of a single small piece of information meant that whole sections of the book had to be rewritten or rearranged.
The task of investigating the character of Robert Forrester was a challenging one. He was almost the invisible man to begin with, with very few mentions anywhere, and all of them unflattering. He did not seem a forebear to be proud of.
This was very depressing at first, as I am fascinated by heroes. And my heroes are of a particular kind. They are people who have left a positive mark on this world, especially those who have taken a long time to build something worthwhile.
As I worked on this book, Governor Arthur Phillip became one of my heroes. But it was very hard to see Robert Forrester as a candidate for hero status, and this was certainly NOT how I viewed him at the start of my project, or what I set out to achieve in writing about him. So how was it that his story evolved into the much more positive view of his character presented in this biography?
For a start, I examined all the archival evidence for the unflattering statements. ‘Thinking’ proved to be a major investigative tool. I disproved most of the claims and discovered another way of looking at the remainder, when set in the context of Robert’s times.
Second, his headstone (with its spelling mistake) always told its own tale. It said -
Sleep on dear father in this grave
Let not our sigh awake you
We only wait untill our turn
Then we all shall overtake you
I kept thinking to myself that a man with so much bad press could not have been THAT bad, if his children loved him enough to organise that headstone, and somehow found the money to pay for it. And if he could attract three women at a time when the men vastly outnumbered the women, he must have had the X factor!
The headstone was what impelled me to keep looking for more. Eventually it dawned on me that the dearth of references to him was probably a mark in his favour. The writers of the time concerned themselves greatly with the doings of people behaving badly, or those making lots of money such as merchants and graziers, or those performing deeds of note such as explorers, but never seemed to make any comment at all about those who just quietly got on with things, like Robert.
So I looked for him in all the humdrum administrative returns of the day. Painstakingly, I matched up the records of debts and property transactions with the floods and other disasters at the Hawkesbury, looked for clues in the statements by various governors and magistrates about the character of those at the Hawkesbury, tied everything into strict logical sequence, and out of all of this Robert’s rather dramatic life and his industrious nature emerged from the shadows.
The capacity to recreate a life from Australia’s convict records has meant that these records have been placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in recognition of their unique archival value. In most countries it is not possible to recreate nineteenth century lives in this way.
In writing the book, one of my challenges was Bella Ramsay, the mother of Robert’s children. Women are too often the invisible characters of history. I am the eldest of four girls, so could not ignore the female angle. I have tried to bring Bella out of the shadows by discovering her origins, considering her likely friends and her hard work looking after a large number of young children and the garden. I have solved the long-standing mystery of what happened to her. Hopefully she will now have her own identity.
There will be many people who will resist some of my findings. They are the people who think that once something has appeared in a book it is the gospel truth. They have been reading adverse sentences about Robert Forrester for the past twenty years, ever since they were written and published in the run-up to the bicentennial celebrations. All I ask is that people consider the evidence, as I have. A lot of it has not been uncovered before now, but that is because I have done a lot of deep delving into the records. The evidence tells its own tale. I have just tried to present it in an accessible way.
What did I learn from my own book?
Now I’d like to tell you what I discovered about our history because of Robert Forrester, and what I think are the historically significant conclusions from my book.
1. Our unique colonisation
Australian colonisation was unique in world history, apart from the obvious point of difference that we began as a gigantic gaol. When the colonists arrived in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia, even in PNG, there was already an established agriculture, even if primitive, a practice of tilling the soil and harvesting crops often extending back for thousands of years. To work out how to survive in unfamiliar surroundings, the incoming settlers only needed to copy the local inhabitants. In America, at Plymouth, the Puritans on the Mayflower even found two English-speaking Indians to guide them. But in Australia the new settlers found a stone-age hunter-gatherer society.
What made it even more unique was that very few of our first settlers even knew how to grow a crop back in England.
So our first settlers, faced with a totally alien environment in every way you could think of, had to work out how to survive for themselves. It must have bred something unique into our national psyche.
2. Overcoming the food challenge
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the most basic level of need is for survival - food, water, shelter and clothing.
Food – how could the colony overcome that first and most important challenge?
Enter James Ruse, you say? It is true that he had been a Cornish farmer, and he did grow the first crop of wheat, in 1791, and he did develop a successful farm at the Hawkesbury after 1794 – but after 1798 he apparently succumbed to the grog. His wife ended up being the real farmer – a bit like the John Macarthur story. The significance of James Ruse in our history is vastly exaggerated.
No, the colony survived because Phillip’s search parties eventually found the fertile but high-risk Hawkesbury flood plain north west of Sydney, and because a few men like Robert Forrester then persevered from 1794 for decades with their farms there. That’s why his story is significant. It should have been told long ago.
Aborigines were a focus of my book because in 1794 Robert Forrester was the first man in Australia to be brought before a court for killing an aborigine – one of the main reasons for all the criticism directed at him.
It is clear that the question of whether or not aborigines resisted white settlement is answered by the Hawkesbury experience – there was definitely a frontier war there. But friendships eventually developed between aborigines and white settlers.
We keep making mistakes about aborigines, even today, because of the way our history is taught. We think that aborigines were a homogeneous group, and they were all victims, but the topic is much more complex than that.
4. Convicts = Dreadful?
Many accounts of early Sydney portray the convict class as ignorant, unskilled, lazy, rum-soaked ne’er-do-wells of greedy or dishonest character, a theme which is tediously recycled. If that had been the case, the settlement of Sydney Cove would have failed.
By contrast, I discovered that many men on the First Fleet were fine, upstanding, hard-working men who made a conscious choice to become an Australian. My book ultimately is the story of one such man’s very adventure-filled life.
Since its publication, I have discovered that my book is helping some ordinary Australians to feel pride, not shame, in being who they are. I myself have walked taller for knowing that a part of me stepped ashore at Sydney Cove in January 1788.
I have a website www.louisewilson.com.au which gives a range of reader reactions to the book, covering a wide range of topics. The University of Wollongong’s First Fleet Online website also includes a link to my book, in recognition that ‘while the book tells the story of one man, it is intended for general readership’. It is pleasing that both websites demonstrate that you do not need to be a descendant of Robert Forrester to read his story, about one of our founding fathers.