A monarchy and ruling elite live in conspicuous excess while the majority get poorer. Financial scams, identity theft and unscrupulous moneylenders are rife. A sense of unfairness and desperation has collided with a ruthless and ingenious criminal class, in an age of chaos, confusion and international conflict. London is in flames from rioters and looters.
Sounds familiar? But this is 1781, when the brutal response of the law is to roll out a punishment like no other. And it is the centrepiece of Emma Christopher's riveting account of a truly horrible history lost for more than two centuries: the story of British soldiers and convicts sent to forts in West Africa to fight and guard the human cargo held in their dark cellars. As such, it is a story at the heart of the origins of the British Empire: first, in its proximity to the evil export of enslaved Africans; and second - because it was such a failure - in the role it played in the birth of Australia (and the near-demise of the Aborigines). It's also a tale of how ordinary people get shafted by big historical processes.
Following the loss of the US colonies as a destination of choice for dumping convicts and the Gordon Riots, jails were overflowing. Hanging them all, Edmund Burke warned, would look like a massacre. So the authorities first opted to send hardened criminals, petty thieves and troublemakers on to British ships anchored in the Thames. There, they lived in disease and squalor, and were made to work on the putrid, estuarine mud. Unsurprisingly, fatalities were astronomically high.
But soon there was a new plan. Why not kill a number of jailbirds with one stone: force more "dregs of society" into the Army and dispatch them with petty and violent criminals like "Billy the Flat" and "Black Lucy" to the struggling forts on the Gold Coast? Here they could work for the notorious Royal African Company, repelling the Dutch from their toeholds, manning the forts and guarding slaves. Thus far, the death rates of Europeans in West Africa had been catastrophic from fevers and the quackery prescribed to counter them. But why let a little matter of evidence spoil a good plan? It would be the mother-of-all-understatements to write: things did not turn out well ...
Christopher has written a highly accessible account of this history. It's a page-turner as well as a stomach-wrencher. Her readable narrative style offers a human and detailed account of this "dirty secret". It's an epic story full of shoddy individuals and we follow their progress, usually until death do us part. In the first chapters, the sordid spectacle of the gallows, the chutzpah of some criminals and the bedlam of London are the stuff of nightmares. For readers generally interested in British social history, convicts, prison and military history, as well as the birth of Empire, this book will grip you - by the neck. Word lovers won't be disappointed either. This is a world of coffles, gawkers, choke-pears, whirligigs and coxcombs.
We also get insights into a much greater human tragedy: the experience of African slaves and aborigines in the rise of European empires. Christopher rightly had to ask herself: is it right to focus on the suffering of hundreds and not millions? She argues that acknowledging that lost experience where possible, while documenting a lesser tragedy that can be retrieved from records, is worth doing. Anyone reading this fascinating book will surely agree.
A Merciless Place: The Lost Story of Britain's Convict Disaster in Africa
By Emma Christopher. Oxford University Press. 448pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780199695935. Published 11 August 2011.