The Fatal Shore

by Robert Hughes

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

With Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes set out to retell Australia’s history using a broader perspective on the contributions of the transported British convicts in what was generally called “the System,” which encompassed transportation, assignment, and secondary punishment. A sense of shame had covered up those contributions, which he had learned little about while growing up, and efforts were made to shift the focus elsewhere, away from the 160,000 convicts “clanking their fetters in the penumbral darkness.”

The idea that convicts might have a history worth telling was foreign in the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s.... [O]n the feelings and experiences of these men and women, little was written. They were statistics, absences, and finally embarrassments.... The idea of the “convict stain,” a moral blot soaked into our fabric, dominated all argument about Australian selfhood....

Two of Hughes’s initiatives depart from recent historians’ works that fill many of those gaps and correct earlier misconceptions. One is his attention to the most extreme locations of further punishment once the convicts reached Australia, notably Norfolk Island and Macquarie Harbor. The other is the evidence he used. Hughes made a diligent effort to uncover documents that the convicts themselves wrote or created and thereby retrieved their own voices, which had formerly been a “missing element.”

I have tried, as far as possible, to see the System from below, through convicts’ testimony—in letters, depositions, petitions and memoirs—about their own experiences.... It turns out that one common assumption is quite wrong: far from being a mute mass, the convicts did have a voice, or rather many voices.

Hughes reviews the European conflicts that led to Britain gaining control over Australia. The importance of new colonies greatly increased in the 1780s following American independence. The strategic location of Pacific colonies was crucial to keeping the French and Dutch from shutting the British out of the Asian trade. The Botany Bay colony proved crucial for particular raw materials needed to maintain the sailing fleets: pine trees for masts and flax for sail canvas. The first British official to suggest that a new colony be established as a fortress and using convict labor was Sir George Young.

He advised [the prime minister] that Botany Bay would make a good base for British ships “should it prove necessary to send any into the South Seas”; that it should be established by convict labor; and that Pacific flax should replace that of Russia.

While the word “convict” usually conjures up an image of dangerous criminals such as thieves and murderers, Hughes carefully assembles a different picture. Many of the first convicts who were sent, or transported, from the British Isles to Australia were, in fact, political prisoners, primarily Irish dissidents—both Catholics and Protestants. The late eighteenth century was a time of great unrest, including widespread peasant opposition to new policies such as enclosure of the commons, and numerous dissident groups sprang up. The Society of United Irishmen, for example, promoted the formation of an Irish nation-state.

The English were quick to strike at these nationalist subversives. The first convict ship to carry known political prisoners from Ireland to Australia was the Marquis Cornwallis, which sailed from Cove in August 1795 with 168 male and 73 female prisoners.... The Irish began to plot mutiny as soon as the ship sailed.

The convicts who did arrive did not always settle peacefully into the residential and labor patterns imposed on them. Escapes were frequent, and some of the more successful ones became famous—such as those who managed to steal boats and sail considerable distances—or infamous, such those with sensational aspects such as...

(This entire section contains 707 words.)

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The sea route provided one epic escape in the early 1790s whose notoriety blossomed in London, reached back to Botany Bay, and gave heart to would-be absconders for years to come. It was led by a woman, Mary Bryant... who, with her two small children, her husband William Bryant, and seven other convicts, managed to sail a stolen boat all the way north from Sydney to Timor, a distance of 3,250 miles, in just under ten weeks.

After many adventures, they made it undetected to Timor, whence they hoped to return to England, but some imprudent talk was apparently overheard, and they were apprehended.