James Dunk, (2019) Bedlam at Botany Bay, Sydney, Newsouth Publishing.

I have been pondering isolation. Not the personal state of mind as such, but the complaint often made by Australia’s early psychoanalysts about their isolation from the British and European Centres. In the process of forming psychoanalysis in Australia (Salo 2011) the question was about how to meet the necessary standards of practice and thought about psychoanalysis when it is believed these are not known – and it is all too far away to find out, let alone be in touch with the latest developments. Then there is isolation and distance within Australia and New Zealand… how does each separate state develop its practice as a member of the various bodies that constitute psychoanalysis in this country? For psychoanalysis, theory of mind begun by Freud, and in the century since, embodies a far reaching theory of experiencing and developmental formation. For the Australians in particular, psychoanalysis has not had an easy relationship with the medical profession – certainly not in its early decades of the twentieth century when the Australian based medicals spurned it in favour of organic approaches to mental distress. At base, I tentatively suggest, is not just the foundational story of convict settlement and the development of the land of the unwanted, ( Hook 2012), but also the very response of the Transportees and their overseers to the fact of forced rupture from a homeland, possibly never to return. Such a settlement on Mars would evoke phantasies of unassailable space, methinks. Perhaps this was so when Botany Bay was begun? This leads me to the University of Sydney’s James Dunk’s 2019 book, Bedlam at Botany Bay. This is a study not just of madness and insanity, but its causes and the way it expressed and reflected the structures of the Transportee plight, and the developing governance of the colony. Madness is another, hidden, dimension of settler invasion. It reaches for the fact that the year 1788 for the Australian First Nations people AND for the colonial invaders, that the trauma of personal internal rupture was experienced by members of both groups.

Unsurprisingly, some of the early settlers who arrived from 1788, in the prison colony at Port Jackson up the coast from the first landing point, Botany Bay, at what is now Sydney Harbour, Australia, lost their minds. Transported from Britain to an alien land at the far end of the earth, the al called ‘Antipodes’ on the other side of the globe, they were almost as far as one could go before beginning the return journey, Home. Picture their first sightings of a kangaroo, a wombat or a possum. Trees and foliage so different from anything at home, and the seasons back to front. During those first days a thunder storm cracked the skies open, pouring rain, as if God’s wrath found its expression upon these alienated people ‘perched at the edge of the Pacific’. Anyone who has experienced such a Sydney summer thunderstorm knows what that is like. Think how terrifying it would have been.

We have learned that the Eora people who lived around the landing space when the invading settlers arrived were pushed aside. That the initial ‘dancing with strangers’ described by the historian Inga Clendinnen, (2003) soon gave way to suspicion and hostility. The invaders felled trees, killed prey, and decimated the lands the Eora had cared for for centuries. There was violence, and retaliation alongside curiosity and some attempts at reconciliation. But in the end the invaders and First Nations people retreated to their different worlds as the invaders erected houses, made roads, mapping country according to their own traditions.

Historian James Dunk has added another dimension to the Botany Bay story. He draws out attention to peoples’ emotional reactions and how some were driven mad.

‘ If we slow down, however, and listen closely, we find that doubt, anxiety, grief and despair intrude into these familiar stories’,he writes. ‘ Some became irrational and could no longer govern themselves, or be governed by others. They erupted into mania, or lost themselves in memories and delusions. They cried in fury and tore at the walls of their cells, or stared slack eyed into the distance. Some were consumed by the pressures weighing upon them, and killed themselves. Others simply wandered away. These were all signal problems in such a setting, where discipline, security and industry were fundamental to the business of fragile government’ (pp.2-3).

Images of the gibbets hung with so called miscreants, the whipping posts, and, eventually another form of brutality transportation to outlying islands – Norfolk, Pitcairn, or Van Diemans Land, testify to another battle – between the administrators with their official forms and procedures and the convict groups. Among them were those deeply mentally distressed people who, as hope faded, tried to fight – or whose loss of mind was expressed by ‘anti social behaviours’. The punishment was severe for them. They didn’t have the luck to be overtly insane.

’Studying madness’, Dunk writes, ‘shows the fault lines of societies. It is a subject which never loses its relevance because these fault lines still run around us like scars, the outward signs of an endemic disorder which reaches not only down into the belly of who we are but back into the paths we followed to get there’ ( 8).

Dunk’s study of colonial insanity, the development of the Asylum, the use of former convicts as attendants also raises questions about the evolution of psychiatry in this land. Is the stress on organic factors in the aetiology of mental distress, and the sidelining of Freud, and the psychotherapies that we see in the Australian medical men during the 1920s, when Freud’s ideas were gaining currency, somehow an evolution of anxieties about the management of mental distress? So far from home, patient and doctor share an experience of profound loss and personal rupture. At the Australasian Medical Congress of 1924 the prominent Melbourne doctor, John Springthorpe was eager to place Freud’s ideas, so far away in Europe, as losing currency.

An asylum was built early on after settlement, hoping to restrain and contain the more observable effects of transportation: the depression, anxiety and sheer loss of minds the result of families and minds ruptured by the trauma of indefinite separation. Perhaps, for some, an underlying mental illness emerged into the open. Or the plain sheer irrationality of transportation and the experience of being at the mercy of despotic officials, was the cause. The question is about what it was like to be in such a place, and space as colonial settler Australia? But the agency and subjectivity of the Transportees, was rarely incorporated into a lexicon of understanding. Instead there was brutality and abuse by managers who thought little of the beatings they meted out to those they considered far lower, less than human than them. For here, at this classical stage of history, convicts may have been subjects of theories of being, rendering them lower on scales of humanity such as the Great Chain of Being. During the nineteenth century as Social Darwinist theory found its expression in theories of mind articulated by Henry Maudsley, asserting some inherent, inherited biological fault. It limited recognition of Transportee agency and experience, alongside the minds of free settlers. Such ideas have been inscribed into a history building rendering Australia as Antipodean, always peripheral and opposite a British Centre.

‘ In a society built around discipline, magistrates, officers, judges, and governors charged with establishing order saw madness not as an illness, but as a perilous chaos. If they were sometimes moved to deal gently with the insane, at other times they were not, and the shifting structures of law and government ( typical of a penal society) left room for their discretion. There were many who suffered doubly, from the discipline and from the internal damage it wrought in them. Compounded suffering appeared to be the price of the colonial order’ (238).

Dunk’s lens, exploring the experiences of those men, women, and children, sent abroad from their homeland, serves to challenge such phantasies. But also, he suggests that the iron rule of governance set firm boundaries around them, defining them yet again as outsiders whose experiencing was scarcely recognised. Australia, a land girt by sea, has mapped itself into a space with iron borders. The oceans unmapped, as Suvendrini Perera (2009) shows, are unmapped are hindrances to connection rather than a relational space with connections to Asian spaces. Phantasies of Australia’s and isolation and insularity prevail. Australia’s isolation is not much more than an a settler creation, and state of mind.


Inga Clendinnen, (2003) Dancing with strangers, Melbourne, Text Publishing.

Maria Therese Hook, (2012) The Tyranny of Distance: the early history of APAS, Psychoanalysis Downunder

Suvendrini Perera (2009), Australia and the insular imagination: beaches, borders, boats and bodies, Palgrave McMillan.

Frances Thomson Salo, (2011), Australia: the evolving relationship with the IPA, in Peter Loewenberg and Nellie L Thompson. 100 years of the IPA: The centenary history of the International Psychoanalytical Association 1910-1920, London, Karnac.

John Springthorpe, in the Proceedings of the Australasian Medical Congress, 1924.