Until 1782, English convicts were transported to America. However, in 1783 the American War of Independence ended. America refused to accept any more convicts so England had to find somewhere else to send their prisoners. Transportation to New South Wales was the solution.
Life in 18th century Britain was extremely hard – especially if you were not lucky enough to be born rich. Due to the introduction of technology and machinery many people lost their jobs and were forced to move into cities in order to find work. However, actually finding a job proved difficult and people were forced to steal in order to survive. Prisons quickly began to get over crowded, and new prisoners were made to spend their time in old, rotting ships called Hulks. Many prisoners who were spared execution were forced to make the 9,442 mile journey overseas to Australia – many have questioned which of these solutions would have been preferable.
The crimes committed which saw people enduring this life-changing trip were often petty – stealing items such as pieces of ribbon and books. Because of this, they had to spend 252 days on a rotten ship, 48 people did not make the journey – 5 being the children of convicts. The prisoners transported were mainly men – the British Government were finding it difficult to find a sufficient amount of female prisoners so started imposing much harsher punishments on them, not only this, but many female convicts were treated as whores, with The Lady Juliana being referred to as a ‘’floating brothel’’.
The native aboriginal Australians had possessed the land since time was immemorial, and at first Aboriginals saw the British Settlers as no threat, they welcomed them as visitors and there were even moments of cultural exchange. There was peace between the two parties, however the Aboriginals began to grow impatient with the new settlers on their land and were offended about the settlers overstaying their welcome. This turned into hostility on both sides and what was once civil turned into chaos.
Kate Grenville’s The Secret River foregrounds the struggles the convicts had with the native Aboriginals, and explores the difficulties that the settlers and aborigines had. The settlers were trapped by their status as convicts and cannot leave, and the Aborigines feel a spiritual connection to the land and will not voluntarily abandon it. The differences in culture is evident within the novel, as William Thornhill states ‘’There were no signs that the blacks felt that the place belonged to them. They had no fences that said this is mine.’’ this inability to understand ones culture demonstrates abyss separating the Western understanding of ownership from the Aboriginal conception that they and the land are one. Grenville presents Aboriginal culture as a lost idyll. Although the novel focuses on William’s journey from the gutters of London to Australian gentry, Grenville places almost equal weight on the Aborigines and their way of life. Throughout the novel, Grenville juxtaposes British and Aboriginal understandings of several important social concepts thus suggesting that in order to live in harmony we must learn to appreciate and acknowledge other ideology’s and ways of life.
Waters, Sarah. Affinity, 2008. London: Virago Press
The Founding of Australia, Jan. 26th 1788, by Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove
Original oil sketch  by Algernon Talmadge