The moral imperative
Hilary Carey's research into the anti-Transportation movement provides new insight into an important aspect of Australia's colonial history.
It is ideas, rather than events, that capture the imagination of historian Professor Hilary Carey.
"I am interested in what makes people do what they do," Carey says. "To me that is a far more compelling side of history than wars and political events. I suppose, like Arnold Toynbee, I think it is boring and provincial to imagine the past as 'just one damned thing after another'. Real history happens inside people's heads. I look at the rest of it as the marginal stuff."
Carey, a distinguished religious and cultural historian, has been on the academic staff of the University of Newcastle since 1991, has held additional research appointments at universities in Britain and Australia and was the Keith Cameron Professor of Australian History at University College, Dublin, from 2005 to 2006.
Carey's doctoral studies at the University of Oxford were in astrology and its role in medieval society but her research took on new directions after she returned to Australia and received a commission to write a history of the Catholic Women's League in the Archdiocese of Sydney.
"It was quite a departure from where I had started but I was surprised at how interesting it was," Carey recalls. "It really got me hooked on cultural history in general and opened the doors into religious and colonial Australian history and British imperial religious history more generally."
Those fields of expertise have serendipitously come together in an Australian Research Council Discovery Project Carey is leading investigating religious influence within the colonial anti-transportation movement.
Her work, in collaboration with one of her former PhD students, Dr David Roberts of the University of New England, is shedding light on a curious but little-explored aspect of Australian convict history: the role of clergy in the movement that brought transportation to an end.
"What has emerged from my studies is that many of the people who campaigned for the end of transportation, including the influential Congregationalist and journalist John West, were clergy," Carey says.
"What we are looking at is the connection between these religious agents and transportation and what motivated their attitudes towards it."
Carey, who authored the substantial ecclesiastical history God's Empire, Religion and Colonialism in the British World, has a passionate interest in the way religion and colonialism have interacted historically. Something she finds fascinating about the convict era is the apparent change in stance of many within the religious establishment, who initially supported the system, seeing it as an opportunity to create a 'moral empire' from the cast-offs of British society.
"Australia's convict history is an essential part of our national identity so it is important for us to understand all the forces at work behind it," Carey says.
"Not only is it important but it is interesting and it is dramatic - every human suffering you can imagine is part of it. As a cultural historian I am interested in what made decent people - religious people - believe that transportation was morally defensible, usually because they thought it gave people a second chance in a new country, then decide later to rally against it."