Rowland Bismark's Reviews > The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes
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's review
Jul 30, 10

really liked it
Read in January, 2006

This comprehensive history of the settlement of Australia as a penal colony is a fascinating read that I shall never forget. I am sure that I will be telling stories from it for the rest of my life.

The book has a unique voice, not just the voice of the author, which is done well, but also the voices of so many different people who are part of the story. Passages from letters, personal accounts, pleas for mercy, legal complaints, poems and even popular sons are used to help you hear he voices of those who are part of the drama. The author is also clear to indicate when there is silence or untruth in the tales these voices tell, as often documents did not exist (prisoners could be lashed for only having a piece of paper) and often people were asking for favors and obviously embellishing the truth. The result is not a cacophony, but a rich state of play in which many soloists come forward to provide their side of things.

The book is extremely comprehensive. It starts from the background in Britain, looks at the causes of crime and poverty, talks about the justice and law enforcement systems, discusses the lack of prison space for a spiraling crime problem, and then deals with the decision to send these people (this “criminal class”) to the other end of the world, probably never to come back. The picture painted of late 18th Century England was not a particularly good one, and one could come to understand that many of those sent to Australia in bondage ended up being better off.

Issues of gender, sex and identity were handled well in the book. The situation of women in England, the conditions and adventures of women on the long trip over, the rapacious environment they faced on arrival, the issues of separation between conjugal couples caused by transportation and the badge of “whore” and “prostitute” along with the casual nature of lower class marriages were also covered quite well. On the arrival of the first boat prisoners were finally unloaded and there were no quarters, so a flurry of spontaneous sexual activity took place that fist night, and Hughes notes that Australia’s sexual history got quite a first start that evening. Issues of homosexuality (both voluntary and imposed) along with the upper class horror at any thought of homosexuality were covered quite well. Many would use the existence of homosexuality among the convicts to justify more brutal treatment of them, even if it was no higher than the general population. The Irish were a group of prisoners that were even more victimized than the rest. They were discriminated against by the system and often by the other prisoners. Their religious needs were neglected but they tended to stick together and rarely informed on one another.

The author resisted the obvious temptation to talk about how the Australian “character” was influenced by the entire experience. Instead, he talked about how the artifacts of the system (like bushrangers) influenced the national character instead. He clearly does not belong to the genetic inheritance theory of crime (as did most contemporaries of this period) and showed very conclusively that a bunch of convicts became one of the most law-abiding societies in the world in fairly short order after many were set free and they started giving birth to new generations. There was some discussion of the need to stick together with your “mates” but I think that often comes out of any number of harsh frontier experiences. One of the points he does successfully make is that much of this era has been rubbed out and forgotten by Australians themselves, anxious to wash away the “convict stain.”

There is a string sense of “otherness” that he depicts, not so much from his perspective as the perspective of those who first came there. The countryside looked quite nice, but the soils were fairly unforgiving, the plants were often unfriendly and the animal life was a bit hard to understand. Huge quantities of whales and seals were slaughtered for fur and oil, and now most of those are gone from those regions. The enormity of the landscape was also an issue that stunned the settlers, and I think is still having an effect today.

No group was seen as “other” as much as the original population, the aborigines. Besides the obvious lack of technology that created a divide between the original people of Australia and the convicts and wardens that arrived, the major divide seemed to be over the issue of property. England at the time was all about property – it gave you status, class and privileges. The aboriginal peoples (there were many different groups and many different languages) had no sense of property and lived a nomadic wandering existence. This the arriving people could not understand, and the aborigines were treated as troublesome wildlife even though the official legal doctrine was that they had rights and should be respected. In places like Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) they were hunted down and exterminated in island-wide campaigns. Their story is, probably, the most tragic in this book.

If you do not like to read about suffering, then you should avoid this book. The conditions, punishments and procedures were cruel and excessive. Those controlling the convicts were quite often both sadistic and creative. This is especially true of the smaller “ultra punishment” colonies that were established for truly evil offenders and reoffenders. One of these, Norfolk Island, was a good 1000 miles from the mainland and served he purpose of scaring everyone who might be sent there. The descriptions of the floggings were especially horrible, but it seems as if no good history of this era could avoid those. The stories of the commandants of these ultra-prisons were also covered quite completely.

There are, of course, heroes. They take many forms: brave settlers who suffered to build a new life, prisoners who resisted sadism with courage, government figures who tried hard to reform a rotten system, newspaper writers who brought a free press to a new continent, aborigines who remained proud and independent, and many, many more. Hughes does a good job of telling their stories along with those of the cruel, heartless and predatory.

The book is large, small type and over 600 pages. Obviously, I have left much out of my review, but there is a lot more there. It is neither light reading nor textual drudgery, but a very engaging work of history that fascinated me.

I very much enjoyed this book. It will give me campfire stories and conversation sprinklers for years to come. I am not sure I can say that I better understand my friends from Australia, but I can say that I have a far better understanding of where they came from.

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