A BRIEF HISTORIOGRAPHY OF CONVICT ESCAPE MYTHOLOGY 

In history’s pages, the efforts that runaway convicts in colonial Australia made to reach mythical bush sanctuaries is a topic almost as obscure as the phantom colonies themselves.   

When I came to write Tour To Hell I soon found that, for well over a century, commentary on the topic had barely gone further than an incredulous escape anecdote or two, along with brief mention of the ignorance and desperation that clearly drove such attempts.  While no-one seems to have attempted the full story, over the years several writers have considered aspects of escape mythology that fall within the orbit of their primary concerns. 

The pattern was set in the 19th century. Ernest Favenc’s History of Australian Exploration From 1788 To 1888 briefly presented the journeys of the earliest myth-inspired escapees – mostly Irish and ‘panting for liberty’ – as a weird prelude to more conventional exploration of Australia. Favenc, who was an explorer himself, was sufficiently fascinated by the idea of mystery outback civilisations to write a Rider Haggard-type novel, The Secret of the Australian Desert (1895).

A decade later, George Boxall (Story Of The Australian Bushrangers) acknowledged escape myths in another context, noting that some of the earliest bushrangers were runaways with ‘incredible’ notions of nearby settlements. He reminded his late-Victorian readers that ‘the majority of the working classes at the beginning of the century could not read and had no knowledge of geography’.  

Fast forward to The Fatal Shore (1988) by Robert Hughes, perhaps the most famous general convict history. Hughes confines most of his brief escape myth commentary to one lengthy footnote, stating that ‘the fantasy of escape to China was one of the obsessive images of early transportation’, and that Irish runaways had created a ‘Paradise myth to alleviate their antipodean Purgatory’. Patrick O’Farrell (The Irish In Australia, 1986) regrets the convicts’ error offered such rich fodder for Irish stereotyping, which he finds echoing through our national story ever since.  

In 1987, Paul Carter’s Road To Botany Bay offered a new approach. Carter used the earliest examples of these escapes to illustrate a wider point that the colony’s ‘law and order were not self-fulfilling, but the offspring of the convicts’ collusion in the dream’. In other words, to go bush was to subvert the convict-driven empire-building which England’s plans for Australia required.  

Carter adopts a revisionist perspective that the convict myth was merely a story to hoodwink colonial officials. To me this is a false trail, untenable given the full weight of evidence, as Tour To Hell details. But to his credit Carter seems to have been the first writer to deeply consider the nature of the convict myth. As a poet preoccupied with his own idiosyncratic notion of ‘spatial history’, Carter prefers to see ‘Chinas and inland kingdoms’ as ‘metaphors which concealed, rather than revealed a plot to travel’. 

Martin Thomas, within the context of his Blue Mountains historiography The Artificial Horizon (2004) sees the convict myths of place as, ‘despite their indeterminacy, among the most important fragments that survive from the colonial period’. In them, he argues, we see how the colony was not just developed by ‘rational enterprise’, but by ‘the fictional, the fantastic, the imagined’. 

Thomas includes a rare acknowledgement that the myth outlasted the first Blue Mountains crossing, and also thoughtful consideration of the Aboriginal use of phantom settlements. He spends 18 pages on mythical settlements, delving more deeply than most other accounts.

In Tour To Hell my intention was complete immersion in the story of what was, above all else, itself a story, a convict story, probably the first piece of lasting folklore to arise in the Australian colonies.

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