The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australias Founding by Robert HughesThis is a book I’ve been meaning to get to for years. I listened to this as an audio book, but about half way through it became very clear that I was going to need to buy the damn thing.
Kids in Australian schools – both when I was growing up and also now from talking to my daughters – tend to learn basically bugger all about Australian History. You know, kids are told something about Captain Cook, maybe a bit about the fact that there were convicts (although generally they are told these were mostly sent out for minor crimes – poor things – during the Great UK Hanky Shortage, it is surprising how many were supposed to have been transported for stealing hankies or bread) and then straight onto the gold rush and everything is just dandy.
This book is certainly not the kind of stuff we were taught in high school. It is an utterly devastating read. The recounting of the horrors of Norfolk Island is like reading about Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib on steroids. Commandant after commandant arrived and, it seemed, tried to outdo the previous one in barbarity. Each time you would think things simply couldn’t get worse, and yet they always seemed to.
Price, a new commandant set to outdo all of the previous monsters of the island, was simply perverse. When ships would arrive with convicts the captain might say to him, ‘That man is quiet and has been no trouble at all’ – now, any normal person might be expected to show some kindness towards such a prisoner – but Price did the exact opposite, believing that such a recommendation only showed the hypocritical nature of the convict. There is speculation that Price was one of those stereotypical repressed homosexuals that projects his self-loathing onto those around him by inflicting infinite punishments on men he suspected of being homosexual. There is little question he was obsessed with sodomy. Although, to be fair, he was hardly the only one. As Hughes points out, taking a group of men in their twenties, removing all comforts from them (in fact, whipping them literally for looking sideways or singing), removing any hope they may ever have of living through their torment and then to expect them not to seek comfort in each other’s arms seems too stupid to believe.
But the savagery of the punishments almost defies belief. Men receiving so many lashes of the cat-of-nine-tails that dogs were able to lick at the pools of blood left at their feet and ants could walk away with lumps of meat that had splattered from their backs. Or men would receive a sentence of 300 lashes, but be given 100 one week and then being brought back a week later once their back had begun to scab over to receive another hundred – often there were maggots feasting on their putrefied flesh by this stage.
Often female prisoners were not able to be housed in the prison factory they were required to work in. So, they had to find alternate accommodation to rent. But this accommodation generally cost their entire wage. With no money left over to buy food they had the choice of either prostitution or starvation. As Hughes points out, none of the women were sent to Australia as prostitutes, it was not a transportable offence, but few were able to avoid being raped on the way over and then prostitution when they got here.
Hughes makes it clear that not everyone sent over was as poorly treated as those on Norfolk Island or Tasmania or Morton Bay. But these places existed to serve a purpose and that purpose was much like the Gulags of the Soviet Union – you didn’t need a large percentage of the population to be sent to such hells to make people understand it was a good idea to do their best to avoid going there.
Some of the things detailed in this book defy belief. The men grouping together to draw lots to see which of them would be murdered and who would be the murderer and who the witnesses to the murder was perhaps the most disturbing story I’ve ever read. Being good Christians they understood that suicide would mean eternal damnation – and they figured they had spent enough time suffering the punishments of an arbitrary, absolute tyrant to risk God’s endlessly innovative tortures. So, they decided that if one of them would murder one of the other prisoners the guy murdered would get straight to heaven, the guy who killed him would get to confess his sins in Sydney to a priest before being hanged and so he would get into heaven too and those who witnessed the murder might also end up hanged too – and if not, they might not be lucky and not end up being sent back to the island. Therefore one welcomed murder, a kind of group euthanasia, would end up a win-win-win.
There had been a convict rebellion on Norfolk Island and after the trial a Catholic priest was sent in to tell the convicts who were to live and who were to be executed. I need to quote this, as it sums up all of the horrors of the convict system better than anything else I can imagine.
“Those who were to live wept bitterly, whilst those doomed to die, without exception, dropped to their knees, and with dry eyes, thanked God that they were to be delivered from such a place. Who can describe their emotions?”
Dear God! And the living shall envy the dead.
This is a fascinating book. Although you might not think so from this review, there are parts of it that are quite funny – Hughes has a dry-as-dust sense of humour. Some of it might even reinforce your belief in human dignity, courage and perhaps even goodness. But there is a great deal of this book that makes your blood boil. An absolutely stunning book – I can’t praise it too highly.
History Book Review: The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes
The fatal shore
Incredibly rich and detailed account of the first white settlers that arrived in Australia, and what they found when they arrived. Last edited by EdwardBot. January 26, History. By Robert Hughes. Go to the editions section to read or download ebooks.
For 80 years between and England transported its convicts to Australia. This punishment provided the first immigrants and the work force to build the colony. Using diaries, letters, and Robert Hughes was born in Sydney, Australia on July 28, He studied art and architecture at the University of Sydney. He pursued art criticism mostly as a sideline while painting, writing poetry and serving as a cartoonist for the weekly intellectual journal The Observer.