Images of an Australian Enlightenment

Austin Lovegrove

Unicorn, £30

Review by Hugh MacDonald

This is a curious book. Indeed, it is more curious than a particularly nosey cat who has just graduated summa cum laude in investigative science from Inquisitive College, Oxford.

Forgive the jaded colours of a Blackadder joke, but this investigation of an episode of early 19th century Australian history might seem ripe for gentle humour given its arcane nature, the dated if engaging style of the writing and the sheer chutzpah of launching such a venture on the commercial market.

This, the subtitle states, is the story of Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie’s treatment of the convicts as a history tale for today. And it generates three immediate questions: who were the Maquaries, who were the convicts and why does it matter today?

Lovegrove answers these in a style that betrays his background as an academic. Much of the book is constructed and executed in the manner of a doctoral thesis. Lovegrove, correctly, cherishes evidence but he also values form. He has, too, a winning habit of explaining to the reader when and where certain evidence will be introduced. The book has sound academic foundations.

The project is saved for the general reader, however, by Lovegrove’s idiosyncratic style and by the strength and significance of the story.

Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie were Highlanders who travelled to Australia in 1810 on his appointment as governor of New South Wales. Lachlan, a soldier who had served under the Duke of Wellington, was given the post after the previous incumbent left after an insurrection. He had, therefore, to pacify even mollify. Instead, over a tenure of 11 years, he and his wife introduced a revolutionary way treating prisoners in line with their beliefs, which were traditionally Christian but marvellously modern.

The Macquaries believed in compassion. Crucially, they backed this credo with action. Their starting point was the belief that the convicts had been sent to Australia as punishment, not for punishment. They looked to improve the living conditions and prospects of the convicts, believing that many of the crimes were committed because of deprivation, whether material or spiritual, and that those who had sinned could be redeemed.

The Macquaries needed the government at home, the convicts and the judiciary in New South Wales to support their strategy. Lovegrove is assiduous and gently fascinating as he explores not only the customs of the time but the characteristics and beliefs of those who inhabited them.

Crudely, it was a case of rehabilitation versus punishment. The latter had strong, influential supporters. The Macquaries were largely isolated but dogged, committed. The battle had an effect on their health and the career of the governor. It ended in failure.

Lovegrove, though, makes the case that it would have been better surely if the Macquarie philosophy had prevailed, not only in the early 19th century but through succeeding generations. He is a subtle prosecutor, preferring evidence to speak for itself and for the reader to form his or her own conclusions. But the mass of argument redounds to the credit of the Highland couple who might clearly be said to have been ahead of their time in attitude and method.

The mass incarceration that blights modern society, with rehabilitation a notion rather than imperative, makes Lovegrove’s work timely. His committed process of explaining every nuance of the conditions of New South Wales is not only commendable but educational. There are times when his phrasing can be infelicitous, his use of imagined conversations downright daft and his construction somewhat laborious. But there is enough of fascination to lure the reader on, whether it be the introduction of a celebrity like Samuel Johnston or the deft portrayal of a recalcitrant judge.

There is also the wonderful use of a series of illustrations that offer bright and necessary punctuation to a narrative that necessarily must be heavy with fact.

There are fallibilities. Lachlan Macquarie’s early life of deception, perhaps theft, are inadequately examined, particularly as they may have influenced his attitude of compassion towards the convicts. The lives of the First Peoples, the Aboriginals of Australia, are also not fully discussed. There is but a fleeting appearance at the beginning of the book but they quickly fade from the narrative.

However, these complaints cannot detract from an otherwise dedicated, committed and engrossing tale that has lessons for today. The triumph of Lovegrove is that he has written an odd, unusual book that would seem to have only a niche audience but, in actuality, has the ability to engross the general reader.

This reviewer came to the book with an air of bafflement at its premise and purpose. Yet it applied an increasingly strong grip. Curious that.