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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...

(The entire section is 2,497 words.)