Books

James Dunk
Bedlam at Botany Bay

In Bedlam at Botany Bay, James Dunk reveals the striking pervasiveness of mental illness in colonial Sydney. Every echelon of society was afflicted with outbreaks of “mania”, “madness” or “lunacy” – vague terms that were used interchangeably. Ex-convicts, settlers, officers and wealthy colonists were all hauled in front of courts that struggled to determine whether they were of sound or unsound mind.

While it is neither Dunk’s desire nor job to retrospectively diagnose these people, or “explain” their mental illness, he notes the contributing factors of penal-colony life, such as “the isolation of transportation; the harshness of law enforcement in a penal colony; the prosecution of a program of terror and class warfare; streets lit up by the fury of club law”. It was a fragile society, and as businesses failed, ships sank and fortunes disappeared, the wealthy were not immune from the cruelties of a precarious existence.

Many of these accounts are sad stories full of disappointment, bitterness and loss. But Bedlam at Botany Bay is more than “an anthology of suffering”; it also offers insight into the ambiguity of a society that was “a village as well as a prison”. Dunk exposes the inherent tensions in establishing the penal colony: the project required a “global terror” to emanate from Botany Bay without compromising “the prospects of … a settler society of growing economic and political value”. In essence, the book charts the human cost of these tensions.

The colony was not equipped to deal with mental illness. There was no asylum for the first two decades of colonisation, and those deemed insane were simply jailed. When asylums were established, the doctors in charge had no training in mental disorders, and a lot of so-called treatment resulted in “compounded suffering”.

This means good records were not kept, so Dunk relies instead on personal stories told predominantly through letters, diaries and court transcripts. It’s an effective approach, but also leads to absences: women’s stories were largely covered up by men, and Aboriginal people were not drawn into “European conceptions of madness” at the time. Despite its limitations, however, the book presents a fresh perspective on the colony: one that shows its peculiarity and, as Dunk puts it, its “contrariety”.

Luke Horton

NewSouth, 298pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "James Dunk, Bedlam at Botany Bay". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Luke Horton