Publisher: Amberley 2016.
In 1811 a book was published in France presenting the findings of a scientific exploration of southern Australia. But the name on the maps read, Terre Napoleon and the inlets and bays had names like Bonaparte and Josephine. It was a visual representation that showed how global the rivalry between France and Britain truly was. Newly discovered trade routes had made the east an area of great strategic interest.
Captain Cook might have claimed Australia but that wasn’t the reason Australia became, or rather stayed British, after all the British had also claimed America and we all know how that turned out. In a strange irony, that typifies much about colonialism the bulk of this story occurs away from Australia in the courts and battlefields of Europe and in the sea lanes of the Malaysian archipelago. It’s not a dirt under the nails expose of how Australia became a British colony, its the bit before that, it’s about the geopolitical reason this southern continent became important enough for the British to claim its entirety.
Funnily enough it’s not all to do with penal convicts either. It’s to do with trade and the rivalry between Britain and France. And the high stakes game of survival that was being played out during the 7 years war, the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The latter of which is particularly important. After the American Revolution the British began planning for the next war. Knowing that their global reach would be a tempting target for the enemy, they began searching for alternate trade routes with China that would keep East India traders out of the way of the then hostile powers.
It was a game of one upmanship that lasted right down to Waterloo, the French building up their navy, only to have all their work squandered by the French Revolution. But the appearance of Napoleon changed everything, and this last biggest war, a war fought mostly for imperial legitimacy, and commercial supremacy. Just as the British thinkers feared, Napoleon honed in on Britain’s eastern trade, and all of a sudden both powers were eying the still unexplored, fragmentary map of Australia.
Napoleon saw it as a brilliant way to overstretch the Royal Navy, if not one day make into a “Terre Napoleon”, while the British, needing somewhere to replace America as a place to transport criminals and at the same time conserve their trade links in the east, had already honed in on the continent for their own use.
How Australia became British is a sweeping, authoritative look at how events playing out thousands of miles away affected Australia’s future. Rather than any explorer, cook included, it was the winner take all nature of the conflict that ultimately decided who would colonise her, ensured that she had a European future. Howard T. Fry analyses key moments in the wider European struggle that allowed he British to stamp her authority on the continent.
It doesn’t so much focus on people, though the cast is vast, it’s much more focused on cause and effect. It is academic and confident, piercing some long held conceptions that treat British domination as a foregone conclusion, due to convict transportation, and challenging those who see Napoleon’s aspirations in the antipodes at face value.
To some it is probably surprising that anapoleon had any aspirations this far from home. But it is often forgotten that the Napoleonic Wars was not just played out in Europe, it was a global conflict by two global powers with vested interests from various points of the compass.
Fry does therefore dwell perhaps a little indulgently on the European theatre. But this is a book that deals in ripples that all start with the twists and turns in Europe and spread outwards. And it actually zooms out allowing us a glimpse of what was going on beyond the European strategic and political sphere, presenting a concise, authoritative and enlightening read.