The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (1987) 688 p.

A few years ago I was visiting Bath Abbey and fell into conversation with one of the priests. When he found out I was from Australia, he mentioned there was a bridge nearby which still, to this day, has a worn and faded sign warning people that if they vandalise or steal from the bridge they may be “subject to transportation” to New Holland. “Perhaps,” he said jocularly, “one of your ancestors vandalised that bridge!”

“Nah,” I said casually, and with some relish. “He killed a guy.”

The story, as I understand it, is that he and his brothers were poaching deer on a lord’s estate. The gamekeeper caught them in the act, and in the ensuing fight they accidentally killed him. One was hung, one was imprisoned, and one was transported to Australia.

Like most Australians, I consider my convict ancestry to be nothing more than an interesting anecdote, one you can use to discomfit reverends in Somerset. Apparently it was not always so. Although the transportation system was winding down by the 1840s, and the very last convict ship landed in 1868, and more free settlers arrived in the gold rush years (in 1852 alone, more than twice as many free settlers arrived than the total number of convicts ever transported), Australians were for many years ashamed and embarrassed about what they considered “the convict stain.” The ludicrous concept that criminal behaviour is genetically hereditary evidently took a long time to die.

In more recent years – prompted, in part, by reasonable historical examinations like Hughes’ – Australians have grown less reticent about recognising their past. I only vaguely remember hearing a small amount of convict history, only in primary school, and mostly about the First Fleet. Specifically – and this is a common thread when I ask people of my age – I remember being taught something along the lines of, “The first settlers in Australia were English convicts, but that’s OK, because back then you could be sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread.” (It’s always a loaf of bread). It seemed to me that my Australian history education could do with some fleshing out, and The Fatal Shore is commonly regarded as one of the best histories on colonial Australia.

I expected to find this book quite difficult, and it did take me several weeks to read, but it was far easier than I thought. Hughes tells history in a narrative fashion, and has a strong talent for prose; some of his decriptions are wonderful. Here, he describes the sight that awaited convicts sent to the ultra-harsh gulag of Macquarie Harbour:

Past the entrance, past another rust-streaked rock named Bonnet Island, the harbour opens to view. It is so long that its far end is lost in the greyness. The water is tobacco-brown with a urinous froth, dyed by the peat and bark washed into it by Australia’s last wild river, the Gordon, which flows into the eastern end of the harbour. The sky is grey, the headlands grey, receding one behind the other like flat paper cut-outs. It is an utterly primordial landscape of unceasing interchange, shafts of pallid light reaching down from the low sky, scarves of mist streaming up from impenetrable valleys, water sifting forever down and fuming perpetually back. Macquarie Harbour is the wettest place in Australia, receiving 80 inches of rain a year.

(He claims, though, that “no-one has ever lived there or ever will,” which isn’t true – I’ve met the caretaker.)

Hughes has a keen eye for detail, selecting interesting journal entries and letters and ship’s logs, and and amid the vast sweep of history there are dozens of fascinating individual stories. I particularly liked that of James Porter, a convict who escaped from Van Diemen’s Land with several compatriots by comandeering a naval ship they had been building, sailing across the Pacific to Chile, convincing the locals they were British aristocracy and living happily there for several years until the Royal Navy finally tracked them down. Hauled back to Australia to face trial, Porter knew that he would be hanged, because the British took their navy very seriously and piracy was one of the worst crimes that could be committed. He escaped execution with one of the most awesome legal defences ever: because he’d stolen the ship before it was officially launched, he had not in fact stolen a ship at all, legally speaking – merely a collection of wood and sailcloth in the shape of a ship. The tales of Mary Bryant, Alexander Pearce, and Michael Howe were equally fascinating.

This is, of course, still a history book, and about halfway through I was getting a little weary of being buried under statistics. But there is far more of an emphasis on social attitudes and cause and effect, rather than dates and figures, which is of course the most important aspect of history. Hughes begins his story in England, examining why there was such a crime wave in England in the mid-19th century (the Industrial Revolution caused widespread unemployment among tradesmen, coupled with an unprecedented population boom, which drove people into cities and plunged them into poverty), why transportation was seen as the solution (because of Victorian attitudes of a “criminal class,” which could not be reformed, only purged), and why it was Australia that was chosen (the American colonies were gone, Australia was satisfyingly remote, and its natives were passive and easy to deal with).

The thing about The Fatal Shore is that it’s not a comprehensive history of early Australia. It’s a comprehensive history of the convict system, which comprises about 80% of early Australia’s history, but not all of it. Virtually the entire book is focused on New South Wales and Tasmania, because that was where the bulk of the convicts were transported. Queensland gets only a brief chapter, and only relating to Brisbane. Victoria is mentioned only in the last 50 pages, and Western Australia only in the last 30. South Australia, the only state that never received convicts, is not mentioned at all. There is only one chapter on the Aborigines, and while it’s more sympathetic to them than a book of that time might otherwise be (yes, it was written in 1987; yes, Australia really is that backward) it still gives short shrift to Australia’s first people. Virtually nothing is mentioned of the Rum Rebellion, and Hughes is utterly silent about New Zealand – a different country, yes, but one in such close proximity to New South Wales, in such a distant part of the world, that surely it must have figured prominently in Australian society in the 19th century. The gold rush is discussed, but only in relation to how it was a factor in the end of the transportation system. One should be clear, when embarking upon this book, that it’s not a history of colonial Australia but rather a history of the British convict transportation system.

Apart from that misunderstanding (which was my problem, not Hughes’) I also felt that sometimes Hughes was stuck in an awkward place between being a dry textbook and being a historical narrative; his timeline jumps awkwardly, the book divided into chapters examining different aspects of the convict system (women, bushrangers, free settlers etc) rather than flowing chronologically. There’s also quite a bit of repetition; I certainly read far more about convicts getting flogged on Norfolk Island than I ever needed to.

The Fatal Shore is thus not a perfect book, but still a good one. I have a much better understanding of Australian convict history now than I did from school (in particular, the fact that it’s a very small part of our history; that fact about the gold rush settlers in 1852 really surprised me). It’s not the last book you’d ever want to read to understand Australian history, but it’s certainly a good place to start – and an enjoyable one, too.

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