Criminal Transport: George Barrington and the Colonial Cure

By Benis, ToR. | Australian Literary Studies, May 2002 | Go to article overview
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Criminal Transport: George Barrington and the Colonial Cure


Benis, ToR., Australian Literary Studies


GEORGE Barrington's celebrity during the 1780s and 1790s was, according to his most recent editor, `without precedent' in his time, making him `one of the eighteenth century's most talked-about lawbreakers' (Rickard 3, 4). An Irish thief of legendary skill, he gained access to the best society by assuming an elegant alias (his birth name was apparently Waldron) and posing as a gentleman, earning him the nickname `the prince of pickpockets'. Barrington's long criminal career was widely followed by the press and his exploits inspired memoirs, broadsheets and other unofficial histories. After being transported to Botany Bay in 1791 for stealing a gentleman's watch, Barrington was credited with writing the wildly successful Voyage to Botany Bay, an account probably edited heavily by London publishers. Later in the decade A Voyage to Botany Bay Part II, as well as a History of New South Wales, were also attributed to him. Critics of Australian literature generally agree that Barrington himself had little, if anything, to do with these later productions, which were probably written by hacks trading on his notoriety. Largely forgotten by literary scholars today, A Voyage and its sequel were `two of the most popular books--if one can judge by the number of contemporary editions--among readers at the very end of the eighteenth century'; editions appeared in London, Manchester, Dublin, Cork, Paris, New York, and Philadelphia (Walker i).

Critics concerned with A Voyage to Botany Bay have tended to focus either on Barrington's sensational life history or on differentiating what was actually written by Barrington from what was plagiarised or added by others. My interest, however, lies in mapping the ways in which this remarkable document speaks to one of the galvanising fears of its era: how Britain could cleanse itself of a convict population whose ranks were swollen by the economic fallout of wars against American colonists and France. (1) After American independence ended transatlantic transportation, a backlog of convicts in the 1780s overcrowded gaols in which disease and alarms over prisoner uprisings were endemic. The solution for disposing of the criminals created by economic and political crisis, who were often viewed as irrevocably minted, became the Australian colonies. Speaking of the earliest Australian transportees, historian Frank McLynn notes, `Some were veterans of the Woolwich hulks like George Barrington, who had fulfilled the direst prophecies about future recidivism by graduating from petty pickpocketing to the more skilled variety at racetracks' (293). What is most striking about Barrington's narrative, however, is the ways in which it unequivocally contradicts the `direst prophecies' about convict rehabilitation McLynn gestures toward. Refuting the commonplace that a convict could never be fully reintegrated into respectable British society, A Voyage to Botany Bay seizes on transportation's new colonial context at the geographical antipodes to critique the assumption that convicts, damned at home, could only hope to regain society's trust after years of punishing hardship in exile. For some, the convict mint can be purged or `cured' through the experience of transportation itself. This essay contends that Barrington's Voyage is, therefore, a significant response to the popular anxiety that convicts are carriers of social contamination and physical disease, as well as the implicit association that was made between criminals and colonial subjects, who needed to be physically segregated from Britain in order to maintain the stability of the domestic order.

Barrington's stunning success in infiltrating fashionable society confirmed popular fears that criminals were successfully violating crucial social and economic boundaries. But his narrative aims to demonstrate that the voyage to the penal colony could offer the genteel criminal the chance to purify his reputation.

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