Challenge to age-old conviction

July 19, 2002

Australia was settled as a penal colony, right? Ex-policeman Dan Foley disagrees, arguing that deportees were in fact the victims of a far more ambitious scheme. Caroline Davis reports.

Paddington Green police station has a high-security unit where suspected terrorists are questioned. It is also the site of the London rapid-support group and has a number of crime investigation teams. When you get a call from the chief superintendent saying he wants to speak to you, you call him back. Quick.

But when Dan Foley called King's College London's Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, the investigation he was pursuing involved events that occurred 216 years ago.

Foley is about to start writing his doctoral thesis after a swift transformation from policeman to academic historian. He joined the police on leaving his north London grammar school in the 1960s. His career as an officer took him through almost every type of police job, from bobby on the beat, policing ceremonial events and public order to the CID and the vice squad. He later worked for Her Majesty's Inspector of the Constabulary and was responsible for inspecting ten constabularies from Lincolnshire to London.

In 1991, while still an officer, he took a masters in the psychology of decision-making at London Guildhall University, which he says helped him to "question groups and the politics behind certain decisions, not always successfully". Before retiring at 51, he worked as chief superintendent at Paddington Green, managing a budget of £25 million.

Foley had been interested in Australia for several years, and its connection with criminals was clearly of interest to someone who had worked in crime-fighting for 32 years. But the accepted wisdom that the country had been founded as a penal colony to rid Britain of its convicts did not add up for him. So he called Carl Bridge, professor of Australian studies and head of the Menzies Centre and explained his police background and his masters. Foley told him he wanted to research the decision to settle criminals in Botany Bay, made by the government of William Pitt the Younger with home secretary Lord Sydney.

"I felt that research was no different from policing," Foley says. "Something has happened and you go back and try to find out why it happened. It doesn't matter whether it's a crime that happened last night or one that took place 40 years ago.

"The way I've approached it is to ask what is the scene of the crime and when did it take place. Some historians said it was when the first fleet landed in Australia in January 1788, some said it was when the first fleet left here in May 1787. Very few have said it was actually the (deportation) decision of 1786."

For Foley, what happened after this date, August 18 1786, is inconsequential: it is what took place before and the factors leading to the decision that are the key.

Bridge, although impressed by Foley's approach and enthusiasm, was cautious of taking on someone who lacked undergraduate history training. So he set Foley three 5,000-word essays. Foley got stuck in and was accepted on an MPhil in October 1999. He was upgraded to a PhD last year.

Although experienced at gathering evidence for court, academia posed a new challenge to Foley. There was no way he was going to be able to get the criminal burden of proof - evidence beyond reasonable doubt. All he could hope for was a civil burden of proof - a preponderance of probabilities, enough to convince six and a half jurymen - or at least a team of doctoral examiners.

Moreover, he had to start thinking like an academic. Working alone rather than in the police teams he was used to, he found his supervisor a hard taskmaster. "He has caused me to produce essays or draft chapters of my thesis at very regular intervals, to get me away from writing like a policeman to writing like a historian and to distil the information I've got properly as a historian would. The research is basically the same as in my former life; the difficulty was expressing my views in an academic way. This took over two years if I'm honest with myself."

The predominant urban wisdom that Australia was a dumping ground for convicts was put forward by E. C. K. Gonner in his 1888 work The Settlement of Australia . Foley suggests that this ignored evidence from the private letters he has been researching, but since these were in the UK, Australian historians had not challenged Gonner's view.

It was not until the 1960s that the theory was disputed and since then, three main arguments have been put forward.

First, hard labour was needed to clear the land to settle Australia, especially as the slave trade was coming to an end. Second, the prison system in Britain at the time was purely for debtors and people awaiting execution. With many young men returning to the country from war in America and the industrial revolution removing the need for agricultural labour, there were fewer jobs available, and crime was beginning to rise.

Finally, Australia provided a much needed strategic base in the route to the Far East. Port Jackson, which later became Sydney, served as a safe shelter and port where fleets could be repaired as well as a trading base.

In his research, Foley turns the tables to examine the decision-makers as perpetrators of the act, with the convicts as its victims. His thesis asks the question, "Who made the decision to go ahead with the policy of transportation?" His sources are hundreds of letters in the Public Record Office and the British Library, not all of which have been examined by historians.

He found no "holy grail" but Foley concentrated on letters connecting the Pitt government's and the home secretary's decisions. On a visit to Australia last year, Foley met Alan Frost, one of the foremost scholars of Australian history. Frost believes that Australia was founded as a naval base. He aruges that the decision was made by four eminent politicians backed by skilled civil servants, a coterie of ready intrepid explorers and the president of the Royal Society, who wanted to push forward scientific knowledge.

Foley discussed his research with Frost, who, he says, encouraged him to take the idea forward. Indeed, he gave Foley the confidence to criticise his naval theories.

"I think he's gone slightly askew from the primary reason," Foley says. He suggests the power and influence of the City of London has so far been ignored in the debate. "I believe I've proved that the committee that actually sat to discuss transportation was not a committee of lawyers as the committee six or seven years earlier was. It was a committee of merchants who were only there for their own ends."

Foley believes historians considered the founding of Australia only in terms of short-term gain. "That's not the way the City of London works. It has never worked like that in its 800-year existence. They put those measures down and they may reap immense profits in 20 or 30 years' time. And that is eventually what happened in Australia. The children of some of those people involved in the early decision-making went on to be immensely powerful people in Australia."

He likens the factions at work influencing the House of Commons to mafia and gang warfare. "I've tried to analyse every single person involved in that decision, where they were coming from, what their interests were, where that was going to lead them."

Foley believes his work has taken the debate further, moving it from the microscopic world of the academic historian to the macro scale. "Historians have frequently used events and materials post-August 1786 to support their viewpoint, in some cases as far forward as the Molesworth Committee hearings in 1832. Is it right that we should use Tony Blair's views to support or criticise Atlee?" the new historian asks.

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