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Sets The Standard
on 5 August 2008
"The Fatal Shore" by Robert Hughes is the one book which is always mentioned when it comes to books about the history of Australia, and for good reason. Hughes' brilliant work covers in great detail the transportation of criminals from England to Australia, and the history of those penal colonies. He also deals with the historical figures and events which impacted those colonies.
Prior to this work, Robert Hughes had authored books on art, and is generally known as an art critic and a documentary maker. This work of history seems to be an unusual diversion from his typical interests, but as he explains in his introduction, it was while doing a series of documentaries on Australian art which took him to Port Arthur that he realized that he knew little of his country's convict past. His documentary work undoubtedly played a key role in his making this one of the more readable histories there is, and led to "The Fatal Shore" becoming an international best-seller.
He starts by discussing the conditions in England which led to the transportation of criminals to the opposite side of the world, the theories about there being a "criminal class", and the loss of the Americas as a dumping ground for British criminals. Another key point is the sentencing which was used at the time which resulted in people with a wide variety of criminal convictions, from petty theft to murder all being selected, without regard to whether or not they would be able to provide any valuable service to the colonies which were to be created.
Next Hughes discusses the first fleet, from the difficult passage, both for prisoners and free people, to the arrival and the dealings with the Aborigines to the difficult first years of the colony; it is an engaging tale which reads like a novel. The more recent "A Commonwealth of Thieves" by Thomas Keneally does a more complete job of telling the story of this period for those who are interested in learning more, but Hughes' work covers more time and is far more complete when looking at the entire period of transportation to Australia.
Hughes then looks at the makeup of the convicts, both men and women and the ratio between the sexes. Who they were, what crimes had they committed, and how they behaved once they were there. The vast majority were sent due to crimes against property, and just a small percentage for crimes against people. There were a few which appear to have been convicted of political crimes as well. The female prisoners were mostly of a marriageable age, and many were encouraged to marry the non-convict men who were there.
Hughes also covers in detail the more severe areas of punishment which were established in places like Norfolk Island and Macquarie Harbor. Though very few prisoners ever were sent to these secondary facilities, their presence and the stories about them helped to keep the prisoners in line. The treatment of the prisoners at these facilities was horrendous, and many preferred death to staying there. Many committed crimes while in the facilities in order to be sent back to Hobart for trial.
The end of the book covers the decline of the transportation system. Prison reform was coming and there were new ideas about how to deal with crime and criminals. The cost of transportation was high, and once space was no longer an issue in England's prisons it was no longer cost effective to transport. In addition, the non-criminal populations of the colonies grew, and they were not as welcoming of additional convicts as they had been earlier. In addition, once gold had been found, the wealth of the colonies made them even less accepting.
"The Fatal Shore" still sets the standard when it comes to Australian history. Hughes covers not only the major sites of Sydney and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), but also the efforts to create penal systems in Queensland and in Western Australia. In addition to the events covered, there are wonderful biographical descriptions of the major officials and notorious convicts. The one piece that the reader is likely to ask for more is with regards to the Aborigines, as so little is known of the individuals who were involved. The discussion of the native Australians is often told in very general terms, as there simply isn't any detailed written record to draw from.