The Fatal Shore

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

In contrast to the United States, Australia as it is known today was founded not in hope but in despair. During a period of sixty years England shipped approximately 160,000 men and women convicted of crimes to a continental concentration camp, the world’s first gulag. It treated Australia as an opportunity for a dreadfully oppressive experiment, populating this obscure and wild land with what it regarded as a human trash heap of unwanted criminals.

Robert Hughes is almost the first historian to explore his native land’s convict origins, terming them “a moral blot soaked into our fabric.” Official amnesia and academic evasion marked Australia’s embarrassed nonrecognition of this story of suffering, shame, and brutality until C. M. H. Clark published in 1962 the first volume of A History of Australia, a monumental but dryly written work. Hughes deserves enormous credit for grasping his painful subject with passion, clarity, grace, boldness, and remarkable eloquence. His book unites the solid information derived from a decade’s painstaking research with a masterful command of narrative and scenic description. It will undoubtedly become what too many texts are undeservedly called—a classic.

Hughes was born and educated in Sydney, Australia, and studied art and architecture at Sydney University. In the 1960’s, he lived in London, working as an artist and writing The Art of Australia (1966). Since 1970, he has lived in the United States and served as Time magazine’s art critic. He both wrote and narrated the public television series on contemporary art, “The Shock of the New.” His background and training have come to full fruition in this epic account of his country’s anguished settlement, enabling him to emphasize the story of his country’s history in prose of verve and robust resonance, demonstrating an unerring eye for the moods of landscape and climate and for arresting anecdotes of individual ordeals.

In his opening chapters, Hughes renders an unforgettable description of Georgian England’s social stratification: London was not only the world’s greatest city, boasting beautiful parks, elegant townhouses, magnificent cathedrals, and the presence of Edmund Burke, David Garrick, James Boswell, and Samuel Johnson; it was also the ugliest and worst-smelling of cities with sewers running into open drains, armies of rats foraging through warrens of shacks, children put to labor as soon as they reached the age of six, and one resident in eight estimated to be living off crime. Under the stresses of a soaring birthrate and dehumanizing industrialization, many English workers were unable to find employment in a saturated labor market. Hence a “swinish multitude”—Burke’s phrase—engaged in theft, forgery, and prostitution; hence the Establishment enacted draconian laws to protect itself against what it regarded as serious assaults on social order, particularly property rights. Hence England’s jails proved inadequate for absorbing a swelling horde of prisoners. Where to put them? Transportation overseas was the obvious solution: “It conveyed evil to another world.”

After 1776, the former American colonies could no longer serve as a dumping ground for Britain’s undesirables. On the other hand, Captain James Cook had in 1770 discovered southeastern Australia, naming the territory New South Wales while calling his particular landfall harbor Botany Bay. By 1786, the cabinet of William Pitt the Younger decided to found a penal colony at Botany Bay, located near Sydney. Captain Arthur Phillip was appointed New South Wales’s first royal governor. He outfitted a transportation fleet of eleven small, aged vessels, which turned out to be under-victualled by a crooked contractor. More than seven hundred convicts went on this first fleet, their average age twenty-seven. Typhus broke out after two months at sea; no antiscorbutics were aboard; each prisoner received two slices of bread per day. When the boats landed at Botany Bay after 252 days at sea, forty-eight people had died en route.

Relations between the convicts and Aborigine tribes were bad from the beginning. The former, as England’s lowest social class, desperately needed even lower scapegoats; the natives of the new continent answered that need, and Australian racism began its virulent history from this encounter. The marines and sailors of the first fleet, in their turn, hated both the inhospitable new land and the convicts for being the cause of their coming to it. By 1790, the new settlement had sunk into the torpor and agony of slow starvation, since the land proved difficult to cultivate and no promised relief supplies had arrived. Food theft became endemic; punishment for it became extremely cruel: One man received three hundred lashes and six months in chains for having stolen twenty ounces of potatoes. Most of a second fleet was shipwrecked in 1790; a third fleet finally arrived in 1791, with many of its convicts too emaciated to work hard.

That year Governor Phillip gave a convict whose term had expired, James Ruse, the land and minimal equipment to set up a farm of his own. Ruse thereby became the ancestor of Australian agriculture, the founding member of what was to become a powerful new class: the Emancipists.

In 1800, the first of a series of horrendously sadistic penal commandants took charge of Norfolk Island: Major Joseph Foveaux. He ordered that after his flogging sentence—say, two hundred lashes—a prisoner’s back be splashed with salty seawater. Convicts’ leg irons were made smaller each month, so they would pinch flesh more severely; for slight infractions prisoners would often be locked into subterranean water pits for forty-eight-hour periods, alone, naked, unable to sleep for fear of drowning. No record of Foveaux’s viciousness was permitted to find its way into either prisoners’ letters (censored) or...

(The entire section is 2424 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Atlantic. CCLIX, January, 1987, p. 86.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, December 1, 1986, p. 1778.

Library Journal. CXI, November 1, 1986, p. 93.

London Review of Books. IX, March 19, 1987, p. 15.

The New Republic. CXCV, February 9, 1987, p. 33.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIV, March 12, 1987, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, January 25, 1987, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXIII, March 23, 1987, p. 92.

Newsweek. CIX, January 26, 1987, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, December 5, 1986, p. 59.

Time. CXXIX, February 2, 1987, p. 72.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, January 11, 1987, p. 3.