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Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals transported to Australia

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As Premier John Brumby signals that his government will take action in Victoria to advance Australia becoming a republic as part of his re-election campaign, a new book was launched by the Hon. Lindsay Tanner MP in Melbourne on June 29, entitled Death or Liberty, which reveals the history of the many British, Irish and North American republicans transported to Australia as political prisoners in colonial times.

"THOSE SEEKING a republic can draw inspiration from political prisoners who introduced the republican idea into Australia’s political culture from the earliest years of settlement in the 1790s to the last convict ship that arrived in 1868" said Dr Tony Moore, Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

Dr Tony Moore is a writer, historian and academic based in Melbourne. He has a PhD in Australian history from the University of Sydney and is Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. He was awarded the NSW History Fellowship by NSW Government-Arts NSW to help research and write Death or Liberty.

Front cover of new book 'Death or Liberty'


"Far from an alien or American implant, republicanism was sown into Australian soil by thinkers, rebels and reformers exiled to our shores, many of whom decided to remain here to build a new nation," said Mr Moore.

As well as republicans, Australia’s political prisoners included a who’s who of the empire’s dissenters: liberals and democrats; English machine breakers, trade unionists and Chartists; radical journalists, preachers and intellectuals; and of course Irish, Canadian and even American revolutionaries.

"This important and dramatic era of Australian, Irish and British Empire history has been too often only partially told. Now we have the whole vivid tale, told by an excellent historian and an engrossing narrator," said leading Australian writer, Thomas Keneally.

Death or Liberty offers hope to school pupils who claim Australian history is boring and irrelevant. It not only connects Australia to the revolutionary movements sweeping the world and draws parallels between modern day activists and the political prisoners, but brings colour and character to some genuinely interesting and inspiring individuals and causes built modern day democracy in Australia and the western world.

Dr Moore raises the questions: will these martyrs to democracy be part of the new National Curriculum and will our political prisoners be accorded an official national memorial to remind us that our rights and system of government had to be fought for?

"Those calling for ANZAC Day to be supplemented with commemoration of Australian nation-builders, need look no further than the martyrs to liberty, universal suffrage, free speech, colonial autonomy and workers rights who sacrificed their own freedom, and frequently their lives, for rights we today take for granted," said Dr Moore.

Death or Liberty is a narrative and character based history that also draws out parallels with political debates today. Transported political radicals became the focus of mass campaigns for their release not unlike the movement to free Nelson Mandela. A key theme is how the political prisoners contributed to Australian traditions such as the ‘fair go’, larrikinism and the early achievement of colonial democracy.

Many of the principles for which the political prisoners were transported; freedom of speech and assembly, universal suffrage, one person one vote, responsible government, animate both sides of modern Australian politics and the ALP and union movement can take pride in the principled stand of six banished trade unionists from Dorchester known to history as the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’.

The book has drawn praise from many leading Australian's, including ex-Opposition leader and passionate republican, Malcolm Turnbull, who said: "Tony’s history of the many political rebels and radicals who the British Government exiled in to their antipodean gulag, Australia, for their political crimes, is colourful, it’s scholarly, it’s interesting, entertaining and it is long overdue."  
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