Bedlam at Botany Bay by James Dunk

‘Madness has blurred edges.’

In this book, James Dunk writes about madness in the newly established colony of New South Wales.  Who determined who was mad, and how were they treated?  Picture this: a penal settlement, where people have been transported halfway around the world, under strict control, in an utterly foreign world.  Doubtless some of those transported were (already) mad, but the conditions surely increased the likelihood that more would become so?  But, as James Dunk writes:

‘Madness was largely overlooked until it became too disruptive, at which point masters, commandants and magistrates made decisions – summarily, perhaps, or in  consultation with the governor and the colonial secretary, but with little reference to medical opinion.’

The history is uncovered by reference to correspondence between governors and colonial secretaries, by judicial and medical records, and by letters.  There are glimpses of individuals on these pages, lives largely hidden away in most colonial histories.

Attitudes to insanity varied from the enlightened to the cruel.  Many in authority were suspicious of those they thought were feigning insanity.  Yes, Governor Macquarie established the Castle Hill Lunatic Asylum in 1811 (in a building previously used as a granary and a barracks) but it was hardly therapeutic.  An amateur botanist was in charge, it was served by a succession of disgruntled convict doctors.  How did the residents feel as the building disintegrated around them?  It operated until 1826.

The first real asylum opened in 1838, the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum at Gladesville on the Parramatta River, opened fifty years after the First Fleet arrived.

‘Insanity has always occupied an awkward place in criminal law, since it complicates the relationship between action and responsibility.’

Reading this book made me think about the history of how society responds to mental illness: how we treat people and try to look after them.  It’s another aspect of our history, another dimension of our society.

I added this book to my reading list after it was short-listed for the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2020. It was announced as the winner of the Australian History Prize on 4 September 2020.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith