A Merciless Place is a story lost to history for over two hundred years; a dirty secret of failure, fatal misjudgement and desperate measures which the British Empire chose to forget almost as soon as it was over.
In the wake of its most crushing defeat, the American War of Independence, the British Government began shipping its criminals to West Africa. Some were transported aboard ships going to pick up their other human cargo: African slaves. When they arrived at their destination, soldiers and even convicts were forced to work in the region’s slave-trading forts guarding the human merchandise. In a few short years the scheme brought death, wholesale desertions, mutiny, piracy, and even murder. Some of the most egregious crimes were not committed by the exported criminals but by those sent out to guard them. Acts of wanton desperation added to rash transgressions as those whom society had already thrown out realised that they had nothing left to lose.
As jails and prison hulks overflowed, and as every other alternative settlement proved unsuitable, the British Government gambled and decided to send its criminals as far away as possible, to the great south land sighted years before by Captain James Cook. Out of the embers of the African debacle came the modern nation of Australia.
In the video below, author Emma Christopher talks more about this astonishing story.
Emma Christopher gained her PhD from University College London, and now holds an Australian Council Research Fellowship at the University of Sydney. A Merciless Place was the Joint Winner of the 2011 Ernest Scott Prize for Australian History.