The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes


I have had in mind to read this weighty book (600 pages) about the arrival of Europeans in Australia written by an art historian for a long time.

Between the original landing of Captain Cook in Botany Bay in 1770 and the arrival of the first wave of transported convicts in 1788, no British ships came to the area. The Botany Bay area would not have supported them; if Captain Phillip hadn’t gone north and found Sydney Harbor, they would have perished. As it was, they barely survived.

Many factors led the British to think this rash act was a good idea. Some of those factors:

  • There was an epidemic of lawlessness in Georgian England and there was no law enforcement in evidence until Sir Robert Peel established a police force in 1827.
  • At night the highwaymen were in control of the countryside, gin was consumed in great quantities, and the population growth in London resulted in widespread poverty and crime.
  • There was no system of penitentiaries in Britain. The punishment choices were limited to hanging or transportation.
  • Beginning around 1717 over the course of 60 years 40,000 felons were sent to America or the Caribbean by contracting with shippers who then sold their labor for seven or fourteen years to colonists. American independence ended this practice and the British needed someplace to send these folks.

I was surprised that Transportation lasted from 1788 to 1868. Transportation to New South Wales ended in 1840, but continued in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Western Australia.  The heaviest time was 1831-35. A total of 164,300 prisoners were transported.

Ireland was in nearly open rebellion against Britain during the period and though relatively few political prisoners were transported, the hatred between the British and Irish in Australia as evidenced in literature is not surprising.

Australia was built with convict labor. They built infrastructure for the government (clearing land, building roads, putting up buildings) or were assigned to settlers to work for them. The settlers were required to house, feed, and attend to their health in return for their labor for the period of assignment. The labor of the convicts created the economic base that made free emigrants want to go to Australia and made it possible for those who completed their sentences to succeed.

“Bushrangers” was one of the terms for escaped convicts who roamed the countryside. The gangs became romanticized in the public imagination as early as 1814. The death of Ned Kelly in 1880 marks the end of the era. Kelly remains an iconic figure in Australia, partly as an emblem of the oppressive treatment of the Irish by the British. The parallels between the bushrangers of Australia and the gangs of the Wild West in the US are remarkable.

I had thought of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, in charge from 1810 to 1821, as the fellow who spread his name thickly around the city and countryside, but he was much more. He was the first to act on the assumption that this undertaking was more than punishment for the wicked. As Hughes put it, he began the “conversion of a jail into a colony.” Britain was not ready for that and wanted Australia to be “an Object of real Terror,” so his reforms were limited.

Van Diemen’s Land and Norfolk Island were places of horror for the prisoners convicted of crimes in New South Wales. As word of the practices there made its way back to England, from 1835 on, opinion began to change and revulsion against the system of transportation grew among upper classes. At the same time “the opinion of the lower classes keep drifting the other way. The belief, or hope, that a convict could make his or her fortune in Australia (or at least, a better living than could be scratched from England) had become fixed in the popular imagination.” These two trends made the whole enterprise less viable.

It was awful to read about the sadistic torture that occurred on the two islands; with a brief exception of the reformer Alexander Maconochie of Norfolk Island, each one is described as worse than the last. I noted in particular the story of the Arctic explorer John Franklin, told in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting. His (and his wife’s) role in the death of all Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land is described.

In his Introduction Hughes says one impetus for writing the book was that the convict history of Australia was ignored in schools and given short shrift in universities. He says, “The idea that whether or not England should feel ashamed of creating the System, Australians certainly had cause to be proud of surviving it and of creating their own values despite it, was rarely heard.” A reasonable criticism of the book is that Hughes’ descriptions of the horrors on the islands used for secondary punishments overshadowed the success of the rehabilitation of so many felons by the assignment system. Though he writes about the success of those who came to New South Wales, it is the torture that one remembers.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, 603 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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