Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore reads as a vital opus on the convict years of Australia, the establishment of a country as a prison. His lushly detailed, painstakingly-researched, beautifully written book investigates the “Stain” of Australia’s convict settlement, explaining so much of the character of my country.
While, academically, I of course knew about our nation’s “birth pangs” as a penal settlement, I did not know the detail that Hughes shows us: the Georgian and Victorian English context, the international and local politics, the abject cruelty and luck of the draw for assignees, the terror and she sheer brutality the countryside itself played on settlers’ minds, the class divisions. The assignment system was essentially slavery, and this slavery built the new nation’s institutions and infrastructure, and ran the burgeoning farming economy.
For a very, very long time, nothing of Australian history pre-1850, when most transportation ended, was taught in schools, and this is to speak nothing of the recognition of Indigenous Australians and the nations they had for centuries before white arrival. So, I knew our history was dark, but the scrupulously factual The Fatal Shore put a lot of my inherited cultural knowledge into stark perspective. Hughes tells history deliberately from the convicts’ perspective, where possible quoting first sources, and focusing on the implications policy decisions made on the other side of the world would have on the lives of those in the new nation. At the time of his writing – 1974 – there had been enough glorified stories told about Australia’s founding: that of great men, founding fathers, battlers against the harsh Australian bush. The fact is England made a decision to turn a huge island it had discovered into a prison, the sparkling ocean it was surrounded by its immutable walls.
Archaic ideas around a “criminal class”, “bad blood”, and the contagion of the “Stain” informed their idea: the priority when sending the First Fleet was not to settle a new colony and start a new country, but to get rid of their criminals where they couldn’t be seen or heard of again. While Whitehall busied itself with the latest branding of their transportation policy, settlements across Australia starved, were subject to chronic diseases including dysentry, and were lead by corrupt soldiers only good at pointing a gun and not starting a viable community – prison or no.
An immediate transplantation of English culture and approaches did not work, but policy-makers “back home” in England did not care. However, slowly, an idea of Australia emerged: not several separate penal colonies down the east side of the country but a single continent, an identity of ‘Australian’, as distinct from ‘English’ just in a different country. This is an important idea, a separation from the ‘mother’ with the realisation that what is good for England is not always good for Australia. With this Legislative Councils and lobbyist leagues formed, and while these are easily ignored they showed the distinct step toward the formation of an Australian identity. Despite this, at the Centenary of James Cook’s 1788 landing in Sydney Cove, the country was covered in Union Jack bunting; commemorative books noted nothing of the country before 1850; songs, poems and art referenced the shadow (of the past) behind the wattle, but looked forward to the sun (of the future).
And there is real darkness in the shadows of Australia’s history. Hughes does not shy away from the total genocide of the Indigenous population of Van Diemen’s Land; the murder and torture by successive commanders of the colony on Norfolk Island; the claustrophobic sense of the fabled Eden turning against settlers in Sydney and Brisbane; the psychological hell established by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur in now-Tasmania. It is horrific but so important to know how our country was born, because this nature informs where we are today. Hughes also examines popular myths – egalitarianism, the bush ranger – and gives real pause for thought about where we pull our identity from, and why. Hughes’ writing style makes this an enthralling historical account of Australian white settlement: painstakingly-researched, appalling, full of human detail, vivid, compelling. I feel his background as an art and culture critic informed not only his style, but also some areas of focus on what informed the formation of this society. He makes no bones about it either: he sees the origin of Australia as the precursor to the Gulag.
Most men in this book – the Governors, the Ministers, the Captains, the Commanders: the ones with power – have things named after them now. Bridges, cities, harbours. These are the founders of the Australia we know today who inflicted abject human misery on generations of people: both the convicts and even more so the Indigenous peoples. I knew the history of Australia – the dates, the basic facts – but this is the detail we should all know: the scope, facts, tone, imagery of this book make it such important reading.