Home > History, Literature, Politics > Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore: The Stain of History in Convict-Era Australia

Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore: The Stain of History in Convict-Era Australia

All colonial societies have a dark history of violence, plunder, and disenfranchisement entwined inextricably with the usual romantic mythos of hardiness, ingenuity, and perseverence that forms their national narrative. The darkness is customarily disavowed, forgotten, or ignored in historical memory, especially when that darkness involves official policies towards indigenous inhabitants of colonized lands. Enforced suffering, fleecing indigenes of their lands and tearing out the nurturing roots of their centuries-old culture; these are all inconvenient truths of colonization in the United States, Canada, Africa, India, New Zealand, Australia, and the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific that underscore the national character and image of all of those countries (in some, such as the U.S., subsequent/concurrent machines of exploitation such as African slavery are added to the rolls of infamy). These were mass crimes, products of social and governmental machinery attributable not to faults but to purposeful design, not to flaws but to function. As such, they have no effective answer but ignorance, forgetting. But they will not be completely forgotten.

One of those modern colonial nations mentioned above has, like America, a historical stain distinct from its ill treatment of indigenous peoples. The Stain, in fact, the capitalization imparting a weight of unsettling memory never quite purged or even properly comprehended, considering the relative silence of the country’s historical and educational discourse on this particular but absolutely vital aspect of its founding. The country is Australia, and the Stain is the convict transportation system which, in little under a century, saw England banish around 165,000 people to the far side of the world to labour and often be brutally punished in a continent-sized jail which is now one of the richest and most desirable countries in the world to live.

fatalshoreOften glossed over in the discourse of Australian history, the convict era gets its own scholarly exacting and gruffly erudite Gibbon in Robert Hughes. Best known as an art critic for the New York Times and on the BBC and PBS, the Aussie Hughes researched, wrote, and published perhaps the definitive (and certainly the most forceful) popular historical account of Australia’s first 80 years of European settlement in 1986, almost exactly 200 years after the first English ships bearing convicts and their jailers arrived in Botany Bay to stay. The Fatal Shore is certainly the best book on Australian history that you would ever want to read, and might indeed be the finest historical non-fiction volume you would ever want to read as well. Above all, it is a tremendous and self-supporting argument for historical remembrance of uncomfortable truths in a post-modern era dedicated to burying such truths under jingoism, romanticism, and any other ism that neutralizes negative effects on profit.

One hesitates to detail the origins, practices, supporting structure, and eventual decline of the System, as the infrastructure of transportation to Australia came to be called. This is not because it is troubling and sometimes terrifying (though it certainly was) but because Hughes himself synergizes primary sources, key characters, descriptions of landscape and architecture, political and social analyses, and deeper notions of Australian identity into a gripping narrative of masterful thematic and psychological heft. Summarizing does Hughes’ self-claimed epic great injustice, and reduces the grasp of the written word and the great ocean of ideas that underlies it that allows Hughes to make that claim with absolute rightness.

Nonetheless, suffice it to say for the layman that transportation to Australia stemmed from a crime problem in Georgian Britain that was popularly understood as innate to the nature of its perpetrators but that Hughes traces to familiar liberal sociological sources of poverty and inequality as well as to the legal framework of prosecution in the British Isles. With popular appetites for public hangings over every property crime conviction waning in the mid-18th Century and in-country prisons in short supply, Britain required a dump for the human refuse its no-longer capital laws was creating. Australia, “discovered” by Captain James Cook in 1770, was selected as an experimental penal colony for English convicts, practically sight unseen.

These convicts were mostly thieves, forgers, fraudsters, and other perpetrators of property crime (as well as some political prisoners, though not as many as the Edge might have us believe), considered by mercantile Englishmen with a harshness that should seem familiar (if a mite harsh) to modern North American eyes. They were not the murderers, rapists, or prostitutes of lurid sensationalist legend, though many became those things with sufficient exposure to the difficult climate and landscape of Australia and the pitiless grindhouse of punishment and “reform” that their overseers erected there.

Hughes provides as superb a portrait of Georgian England as he does of penal Australia, but the latter picture is the one of the most value. Hughes details how convicts were sentenced, imprisoned on hulks in the Thames and then in unimaginable shipboard conditions on a nightmarish months-long passage to a land where few English folk had been and fewer still returned from. He delineates the vagaries of the assignment system by which convicts were given to free masters to work their way towards freedom, building the nascent foundations of a modern state in the process. He depicts the horrors of the System in vivid detail: infamous penal outstations for re-offenders such as Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur, and Norfolk Island rise like malevolent demons from the miasmatic swamp of history, the reader can almost see the bloody gore inflicted by the lash oozing from convicts’ backs. Martinets, psychopaths, reformers, hard men, bushrangers, merchants, explorers, cannibals, and many other memorable characters populate the panorama. Hughes holds the entire sweeping, complex historical canvas together, its narrative strong but ambivalent like a sprawling novel by Tolstoy or Pynchon.

What makes The Fatal Shore such a truly great book is not merely that it tells an epic story well and with animating detail (though the inclusion of anecdotes like the convict who tried to slip by a checkpoint disguised as a kangaroo don’t hurt the colour of the piece). Hughes summons an unshakeable moral centre and refuses to relinquish it while also allowing a variety of views and perspectives to emerge and be given a fair airing. The System, you never once doubt, was wrong. It was based on misconceptions about the nature of crime and of criminals that dog public perceptions to this day, conservative notions of vengeful punishment and classification of mercy and kindness as weakness whose ideological ancestors pervade contemporary criminal justice to the present day. Its brutality had no reforming function and was never really intended to, just as fanciful notions of Norfolk Island pines and flax outfitting the Royal Navy with new ships for its titanic struggle against Napoleon were never a serious consideration in the colonial project of Australia.

To whatever extent English convicts were reformed in Australia, they were reformed by being treated as honest working men, afforded opportunities to advance their meagre lives by their industry that the boiling social pit of England callously denied them (and inspired their misdeeds in the first place). The prisoners of Australia were reformed by building Australia, Hughes finds, and their efforts and complicated, morally ambiguous legacy is ignored by his modern countrymen. The Stain, as the memory of Australia’s convict lineage is known, should perhaps not inspire shame but tempered pride, or at least a conflicted recognition of vital formative influence. There are deeper stains on Australian history, after all; the nation’s treatment of its Aborigines has only begun to be accounted for (and the fate of native Tasmanians, virtually wiped out during the convict era, can never be atoned for). Having convicts for ancestors is not terribly bad, and not nearly as bad as what was done to those convicts in the name of law and order.

National consciousness privileges historical accounts that instill pride, but Robert Hughes composes an account in The Fatal Shore stripped of privilege and disdainful of simplistic pride. The act of remembrance and the effort of understanding is more important than feeling good about what is being remembered and understood. It’s more difficult and more unsettling, but Hughes’ magnificent account of early penal Australia leaves not the slightest doubt that this more difficult path of historical recognition is much more worthwhile and valuable than the superhighway of disavowed, forgetful propaganda.

Categories: History, Literature, Politics

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