OVER THE COURSE of eight years I researched and wrote a book, Bedlam at Botany Bay, about colonial madness in Australia. I read the records generated by the projects undertaken here – endeavours at every scale, from simple survival through to the efforts of empires to mobilise labour, capital and morality. Letters scratched out by the two outsized, Crown-appointed spiders working from the stone house on the rise above the eastern shore of Warrane (Sydney Harbour) and transmitted to the buildings thrown up around the edge of the water; the second settlement at Parramatta; the outstations in contested areas; the penal stations on far-flung islands; and the lair of the hulking old beast half a world away on Downing Street. I read case notes scribbled by half-trained doctors, case law by half-trained lawyers, editorials and newsprint written in the same inflated, pompous register in which it seems that many of the better-heeled colonists prosecuted their lives. The spiders spun without cease a taut, geometric thing strung over the uneven, ungainly contours of the colony, over the actual life of the world I was working to reconstruct. Somewhere within this close web, and the stray silken threads spun silent across the water by every person with access to ink and paper and language, somewhere within and inside all this lovely, suffocating gossamer lay the monstrous and mundane matter of colonisation: a thing so ordinary anyone could do it and so special some felt called to it and so awful that it continues to poison the land and everything on it.
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