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05 April 2013

D, Manning Richards: Destiny in Sydney

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"Destiny in Sydney" is a significant piece of historical "faction" by D. Manning Richards about European settlement of Australia from 1788 through to 1902 just after the six Australian colonies became the Commonwealth of Australia. It is a long book and IMHO the early chapters up to about 1850 were a lot more meaningful to me, as an Aussie, than the latter ones.

The first part of the book is a good record of the amazing saga of the beginning of colonisation of Australia by Great Britain in early 1788 through the transportation of convicts to Botany Bay. This is seen through the eyes of a fictional Scottish marine Lieutenant Nathaniel Armstrong who arrived with the "First Fleet" after an arduous 8 month voyage from England. The settlers were immediately faced with a major survival challenge when Botany Bay didn't have sufficient fresh water and soil to sustain the new colony and were very lucky to find a great location for settlement only a few miles north at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour).

Richards then pens a scholarly account of the first years of settlement and the immense struggle to survive in a harsh, foreign and distant environment. At the start, a census counted 7 horses, 29 sheep, 74 swine, 6 rabbits, 7 cattle, and a white population of 1,030. There was little good soil, inadequate rainfall and few of the military, free settlers and convicts had any agricultural skills. This is one of the greatest survival stories in history.

Nathaniel works closely with all the early Governors' of New South Wales (Phillip, Hunter, King, Bligh and Macquarie) which gives us an insightful account of early politics and relations with the mother country and with the indigenous population. Nathaniel chooses Moira, an Irish convict, for sexual comfort and housekeeping and marries her when she is pardoned. They set up a farm close to Elizabeth Farm of Captain John Macarthur, credited with the establishment of the Merino Sheep industry in Australia. Despite his long-term fame, Macarthur was a difficult and argumentative man and quarrelled with many of his neighbours and successive Governors. Macarthur's influence on the growing Colony and the impact of his private enterprise approach to survival and development are a more important legacy than his flawed personality.

While there is extensive character development for Nathaniel, who becomes a rich and influential person, I would have liked to have known more about Moira, who would have faced major adjustments, firstly through transportation, then in building a relationship with a military man with a totally different social and educational background and having to cope for a long time with exclusion from society because of her convict background.

Richards says little about the end of transportation of convicts to NSW in 1850, an extremely important landmark that almost coincided with the start of the Gold Rush. The twenty years of the 1851-1871 gold rush ushered in a period of great population and economic expansion of settlement during which the Australian population almost quadrupled. Daniel Armstrong, a grandson of Nathaniel, gets gold fever and happens to be in the Eureka Stockade but didn't support the aims of the rebellion. He was badly wounded and uses his Eureka background as a stepping stone to an important right-wing political career.

IMO Chinese immigration to the Gold-fields was given more attention than it deserved to the exclusion of the important pastoral and agricultural advances during this time that made Australia an economic power strong enough to become an independent country. Little or nothing is said about the creation and settlement of the other 5 colonies that joined with NSW to become founding States of the Commonwealth of Australia

The main problem that I had with the book is that it concentrated on the lives of military and free settlers and almost ignored the cruel situation in the early days for the convicts who were used by both the military and free settlers as free labour, sometimes in poorer conditions than American slaves.

It is creditable that D. Manning Richards, an American, can produce such a scholarly coverage of the early years of European settlement in Australia. All in all I enjoyed the book, especially the first part, which has added another important dimension to the fictional coverage of early years of settlement in Australia.

Another reviewer commented that on the quality of the cover. While the artistry is not outstanding, the thing that annoyed me was that it showed Nathaniel and Moira in the foreground, clearly from the early days of the colony in Sydney, as part of a scene of Chinese trekking to the gold-fields more than 50 years later.

Note: A copy of this book was given to me by the publisher for my unbiased review.


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