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The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

The Fatal Shore (1986)

by Robert Hughes

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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There's nothing like reading history to make you grateful. The past is a dark place.

Hughes doesn't strike me as entirely reliable, but he has a tremendous turn of phrase and eye for the novelistic detail. Highly recommended. ( )
  ben_a | Aug 1, 2014 |
History of Australia’s beginning as a penal colony. Well written but lengthy and detailed, with altogether way too much flogging. Wouldn’t recommend it for casual reading but it’s an impressive source for understanding the founding of modern Australia and Tasmania. ( )
  jdjdjd | Feb 8, 2014 |
This book fascinates me for its scope and depth of reporting/analysis, no matter how many times I've dipped into a chapter. ( )
  BethCamp | Dec 6, 2013 |
This is what a non-fiction books should be: a wonderful, absorbing history book. He starts by describing Georgian England and the many crimes that could get you locked up or hanged. (He points out that there were more slang words associated with hanging than with sex.) The jails were full, so they put hulks of battleships in the Thames and filled them with prisoners. (Any of this sound familiar?) Still not enough room. I know – let’s send them “beyond the seas” to this new land we just discovered, and make them support themselves. They can send back flax and timber from Norfolk Island, plus this will keep Boney and the Frenchies from claiming this part of the world! Win-win! Well, it didn’t work out quite like that, but it’s a fascinating story.
Tons of interesting facts from primary sources – letters, criminal records, etc. One example: apparently descendents of Irish convicts in Australia pride themselves on being the scion of political prisoners, when in fact political prisoners were only a tiny percentage – most Irish sentenced to transportation were common criminals. The Irish were treated more harshly than other convicts; there was one rebellion that was quickly crushed. Political uprising was easily quashed by dispersing the rebels – ending up on a remote farm where none of the other convicts had the energy to care pretty much put an end to that.
Australians also get a kick out of the idea that their formothers were whores, but that actually wasn’t a transportable offence. They were just thieves, mostly.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff about class issues and how historians disagree about whether the convicts can be considered a class; there was much loyalty amoung them, but as time went by some of them acquired wealth and disassociated themselves. Of course the military people and the folks who came over to farm (with land grants and convict labor) never saw them as anything but convicts, and the children of convicts were just as bad as their parents.
Along the way he mentions a bunch of stories of people that deserve to be made into books or movies: bushrangers; Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked, along with her husband, on an island off the Australian coast, married a convict who’d lived with the Aborigines, and eventually returned to England (there is a book about that one, Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves); William Buckley, who escaped and was taken in by a group of Aborigines because they thought he was the returned spirit of one woman’s husband and lived with them for thirty-two years; Mary Bryant and her family, who rowed to Timor in a six-oar cutter they stole from the harbor and claimed to be shipwreck survivors. James Boswell gave her a pension. ( )
  piemouth | Sep 4, 2013 |

All I know for sure about Australia is that it has cool birds. Everything else I’ve had to learn from Hollywood. Here’s what I’ve ascertained so far:
1) Tina Turner makes people fight on trapeezes.
2) Bowie knife-wielding Outback types turn into delightful fish-out-of-water characters, when you bring them to the big city.
3) Alligator wrestling and Great White Shark hunting are enormously popular.
4)This is the temple where Australians sacrifice kangaroos to a vengeful goddess they call “Olivia Newton-John”:

Fatal Shore turned out to be a wonderful book to help fill whatever gaps might still remain in my knowledge about the Land Down Under. This is the way I like history written- not too much detail about this king or that governor- more about the social trends and economic activity that drove events. Robert Hughes masterfully relates Australia’s early history as a British penal colony from 1790-1840. Looking at stock images of Australia‘s beautiful scenery now, it seems tragic that it was once used as a prison, but that’s how it started.

How could such a thing happen?
The answer is really a convergence of several factors. One thing that surprised me was the extent to which American independence prompted Australia‘s colonization. In 1790, America had just recently won her independence. Prior to this, British convicts frequently worked sentences of indentured labor on American farms in Virginia, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. With American independence, this was no longer an option. England turned to warehousing criminals in hulking prison barges on the Thames. This soon proved expensive, however, and was a breeding ground for disease.

While some worried themselves about the convict problem, senior leadership in government was more preoccupied with the state of the navy. The loss of the American colonies created a strategic vulnerability, in that America had been Britain’s main source of quality shipbuilding materials. For over 100 years, the Crown felled America’s ancient forests to construct its world-dominating fleet. Denied that, the best alternative woods lay in Russia… a decidedly less eager supplier. Likewise, the best flax for canvass and hemp for ropes also came from the American colonies. Another source was needed urgently. As if ordained by the stars, promising timber and flax were both discovered on Norfolk Island, off the Australian coast in 1784. Suddenly, establishing a British presence there became a national security priority- both to develop the resources, and to deter French claims on the land (the French possessing territories in “nearby” Tahiti). But how could Britons be convinced to leave their friends and family for a remote continent filled with unknown challenges? Scientist and explorer Joseph Banks hit on an elegant solution: why not use convicts? His proposal came to the attention of the Secretary of State, Viscount Sydney, who aggressively championed the scheme. Thus began the era of “transportation”, as it was called …and none too soon; Britain was in the throes of a crime wave. Loss of American markets precipitated a dramatic falloff of exports, as well as a concurrent rise in commodity prices (Americas being the supplier of many raw materials). Massive unemployment resulted, starting in manufacturing, but spreading to other areas. Hired labor in the agricultural sector was hit hard; unlanded farm workers literally began to starve in the countryside. Crimes of desperation (stealing food, killing for food, and prostitution for food) broke out everywhere. Although many of these offenses were previously punishable by hanging, British judges were encouraged to commute the sentences to “transporation”. Hughes’ research here is impressive- he uncovers a wealth of letters bidding loved ones farewell forever from convicts embarking on the 14,000 mile one-way journey. That’s a long trip even in today’s small world; in 1790 it must have sounded the equivalent of being sent to the moon!

…And then it got complicated
But not in a bad way. Having established all this background information about why Australia was colonized with convicts, Hughes launches into how the grand social experiment played out. It starts with the brutal 14k mile journey from London to Botany Bay. Prisoners were packed below decks in squalor- fighting, hustling one another, getting seasick, killing and raping each other, stealing food, singing songs, telling stories, getting it on, bemoaning their fate, planning and attempting mutinies (2 attempted in the history of Transporation, neither successful), and passing the time in a thousand other ways. The text is peppered with song lyrics, dirty limericks, and excerpts from the ships’ logs. It reads like a novel- I seriously forgot this was nonfiction.

Once on land, the whole raison d'être for the colonies fell apart. The timber and flax on Norfolk Island had entirely different properties than those grown in America, and proved unsuitable for shipbuilding. No matter- England’s convict disposal problem was being relieved; alternative work would need to be found for them. At first, this meant construction of government buildings and the governor’s home. Later on, labor was directed to agriculture- which met with variable degrees of success, as colonists experimented with which crops took to the local soil and which did not. Free and convicted alike almost starved to death those first few years. If you like tales of survival (I’m looking at you, Karen) there is plenty here to satisfy. Eventually, wool became the first bumper export. With few natural predators, and practically limitless grazing land, raising sheep was extremely profitable. It was also a relatively unskilled endevor, so was easy to teach convicts, regardless of their previous education (or lack thereof).

The deal with transportation is that once a prisoner served his sentence (no less than 7 years, and more commonly 14 to 21 years), he would have an additional period of probation, where he was treated as an essentially free man, except he was not permitted to return to England. As a practical matter, most convicts shipped off to Australia never made it back to Britain. Their experiences in Australia varied from pastoral to unspeakably brutal. It mostly depended on the attitude of the local overseers and wardens, who were given wide latitude on how they treated their charges. Some, like the fair-minded and humane Alexander Macononchie regarded the isolation of Australia to be punishment enough. He administered a labor camp with a mind toward rehabilitation, and allocated a fair portion of the camp’s budget to teaching inmates trade skills to use when they got out. He was naturally beloved, and even received fan mail from prisoners after he left his station! In stark contrast, John Giles Price was a mean-spirited sadist who used every slightest excuse to have prisoners tortured in a sickening variety of creative ways. He was naturally not beloved, and died in a prison uprising when inmates beat him with their work tools until he resembled a gritty blood-colored paste on the cobblestones in front of his residence.

One point of curiosity I was hoping would be covered in Fatal Shorewas the matter of English-Aboriginal interaction. Hughes does quite well on this count, and again condensed obviously extensive research into pleasurable reading. The aborigines have inhabited Australia for at least 40,000 years, and live in small groups as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Their population was sparse, and the state of their technology ill-equipped to stand up to the British. On many occasions, they were slaughtered, mistreated, and otherwise abused in all the ways indigenous peoples have been by empires through the ages. But to leave it at that would be a bit of an oversimplification. In the British settlements, males outnumbered females eight to one, so it is not shocking to read that on gaining their freedom, a lot of ex-cons took up with “native” women, if opportunity allowed. Then there are cases of escaped convicts who were only able to survive in the unfamiliar environment by “going native” and joining up with aborigines as members of their community, living with them side-by-side in their traditional lifestyle. This wasn’t a common occurrence, but it happened. For the most part, contact with the British was not a positive thing, and the fate of the aborigines has many parallels with that of Native Americans. One interesting twist, though: whereas Native American populations were decimated by Europeans killing off buffalo herds, a sort of reverse dynamic played out in Australia…while the aborigines stood little chance of successfully fighting settlers directly, they soon learned they could destroy a settler’s livelihood by relentlessly picking off his sheep when he wasn’t around. Some settlers were bankrupted by this, and forced to abandon their lands. Unfortunately, the response to this was frequently organized colonial posses hunting aborigines, and even official payouts for killing them. Convicts could even earn reduced time from their sentences, and free settlers could earn cash rewards by turning in the heads of aborigines to local government offices.


If I know my GoodReaders (and I think I do) there’s two things they love to read about: incest and cannibalism. Well come and get it! This is the infamous true story of Alexander Pearce and his gang. They escaped the savagely punitive prison in Macquarie Harbor, Tasmania (then called “Van Diemen’s Land”), and planned to live off the land. Unfortunately, none of these city boys had the skills to do so. They stumbled around the wilderness for several days, until the supplies they brought with them ran out. There were seven of them at first… then one of them got the bright idea they should draw lots and consume the loser. What’s that? That isn’t how you were taught camping in the Boy Scouts? Well, don’t judge- by all accounts, the unlucky Thomas Cox was delicious. Unfortunately, he didn’t last that long. When the gang started to get hungry again, some members weren’t so sure they liked the diminishing odds of drawing straws again. I don’t want to ruin the story here; it’s a good one, and it’s all true. You really should read this book!

Oh damn.. there’s a bunch of other stuff I want to talk about, but as usual my review is running long… long enough to test the patience of even the most determined reader. To show you how much more great stuff is packed into this book, I’m just going to throw together a little list of fun and fascinating subjects contained on these pages:
1) The plight (mostly) and delight (sometimes) of being a woman (free or convict) in early Australia
2) Irish solidarity among the convict population
3) Governors lying to the Colonial Office back in London
4) Fooling the French
5) Sad songs
6) Official vs. unofficial policies regarding homosexuality among the convicts
7) The insane, truth-is-stranger-than fiction tale of James Porter’s escape from Tasmania and his miraculous journey to Chile, where he managed to pass himself off as a nobleman (for a while)
8) The evolution of the Australian dialect as a distinct entity
9) Pirates, stowaways, and one amazing escape to Java on a homemade raft!
10) Cool birds
11) Australia’s first train (powered by convicts!)
12) Out-of-touch British nobles trying to live opulent lifestyles in the middle of a prison camp
13) Snarky tattoos
14) Sex in the great outdoors
15) Meddlesome American whalers
16) How some places got their names

What more can I say to convince you to read this? Looking back on it, I can’t believe how much information Hughes packed into 600 pages… and I also can’t believe how much fun this was to read! I must admit I came to this book in a state of almost complete ignorance about Australia. I have no illusions of expertise now, but Fatal Shore has at least hinted at how much more there is to learn about the place… the book is, after all, only a history of Australia’s first fifty years!

-G’day Mates!
( )
2 vote BirdBrian | Apr 1, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
Hughes' descriptions of sadism and suffering, desperate escape attempts, rape, murder, cannibalism, and forays into the bush to exterminate the aboriginal and other indigenous peoples, become, in their accumulation, wearying, mind-numbing. Yet it is the story of the founding of a modern nation whose development was coetaneous with the last century of America's slave period, if even more savage and barbaric. "The Fatal Shore" is an unexpected, original and important work of history.
In the early 1970's, while filming a television program on Australian art in Port Arthur, Tasmania, the Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes became curious about the city's prisons, which date from the period (1788-1868) when criminals were shipped from the British Isles to Australia. The prisons are ''the monuments of Australia - the Paestums,'' he said recently in his New York apartment, and the period ''was an extraordinary time - an effort to exile en masse a whole class. The English felt that just as shoemakers make shoes, this class produced crime.''

» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert Hughesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Verheydt, J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And, for because the world is populous,
And here is not creature but myself,
I cannot do it; - yet I'll hammer't out.

Shakespeare, Richard II, V.v.
The very day we landed upon the Fatal Shore,
The planters stood around us, full twenty score or more;
They ranked us up like horses and sold us out of hand,
They chained us up to pull the plough, upon Van Dieman's Land.

Convict ballad, ca. 1825-30
che 'n la mente m'e fitta, e or m'accora,
For my Godson
Alexander Bligh Turnbull, B. 1982
a seventh-generation Australian
and for my son's godparents
Alan Moorehead, 1910-1983
Lucy Moorehead, 1908-1979
First words
INTRODUCTION -- The idea for this book occurred to me in 1974, when I was working on a series of television documentaries about Australian art.
In 1787, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King George III, the British Government sent a fleet to colonize Australia.
che 'n la mente m'e fitta, e or m'accora,

la cara e buona imagine paterna

di voi...

e quant'io l'abbia in grado, mentr'io vivo,

convien che nella mia lingua si scerna

-- Dante, Inferno, XV, 82-87
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0394753666, Paperback)

An extraordinary volume--even a masterpiece--about the early history of Australia that reads like the finest of novels. Hughes captures everything in this complex tableau with narrative finesse that drives the reader ever-deeper into specific facts and greater understanding. He presents compassionate understanding of the plights of colonists--both freemen and convicts--and the Aboriginal peoples they displaced. One of the very best works of history I have ever read.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:24 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Draws on diverse original materials to recount the European settlement of Australia, from the 1788 landing of the first prison fleet to 1868.

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