Journal Of Australian Colonial History (University of New England), 2011

Review by Paula J Byrne

The Universityof Queensland Press has published a popular author, a writer of scripts and documentaries. The blurring of academic and popular history apparent in a number of publications in 2009 appears again to be followed in Tour to Hell.

However, Levell has detailed argument and debate in his endnotes and takes issue with recent history by Alan Atkinson and Grace Karskens. This makes the book very useful in teaching. What David Levell has also achieved is the writing of a contact history without that contact being the central theme or reason for the book. This is an advance on a historiography which, too often, reveals a selfconscious struggle with the occupation of Australia, with authors taking either far too much liberty with their sources or not enough.

Irish convicts from the earliest days of the colony had a real expectation they could walk to China, they could travel up the coast to Timor or that in some part of inland NSW there existed another colony of white persons who grew corn and potatoes and lived without care or work. Aboriginal people told them of all three possibilities, all that was needed was three day’s rations, some robberies and occasionally a compass drawn on paper to reach either this imaginary place or the Chinese or Timorese.

How Aboriginal people made it known to convicts that such destinations were indeed possible gives rise to Levell’s discussion of communication and manners between different Aboriginal groups and whites. Levell excels here. ‘Conjured on both sides of the frontier, escape mythology was a hybrid creation and the interaction that formed it represents the earliest intellectual exchange between the ordinary people of the two cultures’ (p. xi).

Levell draws on Irish mythology. The Irish dreamlands such as Tir-aa-rog, Tir Ni-all and Mag Mar were chimerical worlds where it was possible to obtain youth and happiness. They occupied a place in the way the Irish felt the world, an exhilarating possibility, anything might happen. At the same time as familiarising us with the Irish mental universe, Levell is enormously careful with sources concerning indigenous people.

The link with Australian-Irish historiography is not fully explored. The NSW Rebellion of 1803 was, for Levell, a very small affair. If we read Gallagher’s article in Push From the Bush there is another case to be made.1 The entangling of Irish mysticism with Catholicism is something that developed post-1916 and for those of us from Anglo-Irish background the cordite belonged as much to a protestant Irish tradition of rational revolutionism as it did to a folk tradition. Levell gives us something to think about here.

I did not lose faith once in Levell’s theoretical rigour concerning contact history, this is a rare thing. In his last chapter he muses perhaps beyond the strictness historians are meant to allow themselves, he does not however, damage his argument. Levell provides us with a number of subjects to ponder. Dogs are written about throughout the book, they are kept, killed, traded, used for the hunting of kangaroo, and brought from the settlements they are prized. The dog is a particular mediator in the history of contact and this subject is worth more exploration.

I recommend this book.

October 1st, 2008
The Australian Literary Review

Extracted from the essay Birthstain Has Become A Badge Of Honour by Jim Davidson

… David Levell’s Tour To Hell: Convict Australia’s Great Escape Myths is another book very much better than its title. His focus, with one exception, is New South Wales from 1788 to 1828, and his concern is the mythology impelling runaways. (Bush Chinas or Anywhere But Here would have indicated the contents better.) Skilfully, Levell shows how China, the main destination of ships sailing from Sydney in the earliest years and, later, Timor, thought to be nearer than it was, acted as a lure for the convict population. There were also persistent rumours of phantom colonies of Europeans deep in the interior. All of these were believed to be reachable by walking overland.

Although Levell runs the risk of working his evidence too hard, the book articulates many acute perceptions.

It turns out that the China fever was not an isolated outbreak, but in the first decade of settlement recurred after each fresh influx of Irish convicts. It even gave rise to a joke. After weeks spent roughing it in the bush, Paddy advanced hopefully on a clearing, oddly recognisable. He scarcely had time to put two and two together when the door of a cottage opened, and out stepped an army officer. ‘Long life to you, Colonel!’ hailed the Irishman. ‘And what has brought your honour to China, by the way?’

The English condescension inherent in all Irish jokes was a brutal fact of life around 1800, when even the Protestant gentry lost their separate Irish parliament. The peasantry, being Catholic and often still Gaelic-speaking, were regarded simply as primitives of the British Isles rather than the kernel of an Irish nation. With Ireland effectively an occupied [country], it took only a slight offence to result in transportation. Some of the Irish convict ships were the worst, both in mortality rates and sheer sadism. It was not unknown for convicts to be deliberately flogged to death.

Worse, once separated out as a convict, anything could follow. John Walsh, a 16-year-old Dublin errand boy, was sentenced for housebreaking. Under a harsh new policy he was sent on arrival almost straight to a road gang. Wilting under the tough conditions, he ran away, was recaptured and sentenced to hang. On his way to the gallows Walsh had to be lifted, since he was crying his eyes out from the sheer unfairness of it. No wonder the Irish prisoners fantasised about adjacent refuges, even conflating them: the common denominator was, if not an expectation of going home, then at least the hope of rest and kinder treatment. So residual anti-English feeling in Australia does not stem simply from a recollection of the wrongs of Erin. It comes from a folk memory of the cruel punishments inflicted on Irish people here.


This watercolour by Augustus Earle shows the road over the Blue Mountains in the 1820s: despite the opening of the interior, beliefs in mythical inland societies remained widespread. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an2818309-v)

This watercolour by Augustus Earle shows the road over the Blue Mountains in the 1820s: despite the opening of the interior, beliefs in mythical inland societies remained widespread. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an2818309-v)

October 4th, 2008
Launceston Examiner

Review by John Caples

Australia’s earliest convicts, mostly Irish, were not locked up or even closely supervised when not working. Despite the harsh conditions the greater fear of the wild and unknown bushland surrounding Sydney virtually eliminated any desire to escape. It was a system that suited the authorities but it was not to last.

By the 1790s, a series of myths had developed within the convict population. A combination of wishful thinking and a complete lack of any understanding of geography saw prisoners absconding from the convict camps in the belief that China was about 150 miles north of Sydney and within walking distance. Others thought that a mysterious white civilisation which would treat them kindly was only a short distance to their west. Most of those who followed these dreams were never seen again.

David Levell, a writer and television producer, gives a fascinating and very readable account of a little-known part of our early convict past.


January 2009
Fortean Times (issue 244)

Review by Tony Healy


In the late 18th century, amid the brutality and squalor of the infant colony of New South Wales, a remarkable delusion captured the imaginations of many desperate, half-starved, mostly illiterate convicts. Incredible as it now seems, they came to believe that if they could slip their chains, they could walk in just a week or so to China. Parties of ‘bolters’ soon took to the bush, heading in a vaguely northerly direction.

Most of them returned, starving, to be greeted with 200 lashes and years on a chain gang, but many disappeared for good. Although successive governors issued proclamations stating, quite accurately, that most or all of the missing had either starved to death or been killed by Aborigines, many convicts refused to believe it. To them, the fact that some had not returned suggested they had made it to freedom. The escape myth, to the frustration of the authorities, went from strength to strength.

Vilified as Papist troublemakers and treated as the lowest of the low, Irish convicts, many of whom were righteously resentful political prisoners, played a key role in the evolution of the myth. When their British overlords told them Australia was so large and so remote that it was utterly escape-proof, many of them almost reflexively refused to believe it: a classic conspiracy theory.

The ‘China walk’ was one of the very hardiest of mass delusions. Over the course of 30 years it induced hundreds of men (and quite a few women) to risk their lives. It went through several mutations. Some pedestrians aimed for Timor – a bit closer than China but still rather tricky unless they could walk on water – and some for a phantom white settlement, a utopia they fondly believed existed far inland. They hoped to find, as one convict put it rather wistfully, people who ‘treated each other kindly’.

Levell discusses every aspect of the phenomenon: how Aboriginal tales played a large part in the creation of the myths; how the first official journeys of inland exploration were a direct result of them and how the persistent belief (itself a major delusion that persisted for 40 years) among officials that Australia must contain a huge inland sea helped to sustain the convicts’ notion of the phantom white settlement.

How things have changed. Nowadays, many people, driven to desperation by tyrannical regimes in Asia and the Middle East, risk their lives attempting to escape to the former convict hell, where they yearn to find just what the ‘bolters’ of yore dreamt of finding in China, Timor or the phantom white settlement: a place where people are kind.

Levell’s clear, well referenced book will be of interest to historians and to anyone studying conspiracy theories and mass delusions. Full of colourful characters and harrowing tales of survival (and non-survival), it will also interest the general reader.


September 6th, 2008
Daily Telegraph

Review by David Bradbury

Subtitled Convict Australia’s Great Escape Myths, Levell does a competent job of not only retelling tales of escapes and myths, but also exploring how those myths arose. Beliefs that there was China, Timor or a white colony on the other side of the harsh bush seem to have arisen in a number of ways, including geographic confusion, sailors’ tales, misunderstood Aboriginal yarns and Irish republicanism.


August 2nd, 2008
Canberra Times

Extracted from the article Convict Escapes And Escapades In Early Days by Grant Hansen

…Far from being a mere collection of escape stories, let alone “Great Escapes”, this is an attempt to recover a lost convict counterculture through the traces it inscribed in the official record.

Those traces are the accounts of convicts’ belief in the existence of a nearby civilisation; either China or a vaguely identified European settlement, situated within a few days’ walk through the bush from Sydney. Levell analyses the surviving official accounts of numerous escape attempts for evidence of these ideas and shows that they had their inception in the Irish convict population and subsequently became more widely disseminated. He also recounts the government’s attempts to counter the escape myth by mounting expeditions designed to show that there was in fact nothing out there.

Tour to Hell provides access to some fascinating and little-known events from the early history of Georgian Sydney. Levell does well to unearth considerable detail about the expeditions to Sydney’s south-west of John Wilson in 1798 and of Francis Barrallier in 1802. The latter was remarkable for its extensive and wellhandled interaction with the local Aborigines. Levell also gives considerable space to the violent convict unrest focused on the government farm at Castle Hill in 1803 and 1804 which culminated in the so-called battle of Vinegar Hill.


September 20th, 2008
Geelong Advertiser

From the book: Irish convicts were also sure that an independent society of white people flourished a few hundred miles inland, somewhere across the thickly timbered Blue Mountains. In this unseen realm the land was better, the living was easier and hard labour was not required. This went beyond escapist fantasy; it was an article of faith upon which numerous runaways staked – and lost – their lives. The idea caught on outside Irish ranks, and three decades later some convicts were still seeking overland routes to other countries.

We Say: China was only a few days march away to the north, too, so why not give that a crack? What could such an expedition offer that was worse than living in a Port Jackson convict’s desperation, in the shadow of the noose and the bloody triangle, facing constant hunger and brutal punishment? No much, eh? Well, it wasn’t quite that simple because for every famished, wild-eyed convict who returned half-mad from the attempt, a story of success seemed to emerge for those blokes who didn’t return.


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