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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.
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on 21 July 2003
This book is an excellent read, both accessible and fluid in its writing as well as detailed and well researched.
I'm sure that this book will be an invaluable resource for those studying or interested in the transportation process and Australian history in general.
While the main focus is on the penal colonies, the book opens with fascinating insights into both the Aboriginal group around Sydney harbour at the time and also the Georgian "Working" and "criminal" class. Both of which give depth and range to the subject at hand.
Being a history teacher myself I can recommend this book for teachers who are looking for something new and interesting to spice up the industrial revolution. And for the general reader I would recommend this book as a fascinating and balanced insight into a very different world. One that is both part of and a world away from the Georgian world we so often hear about.
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on 16 January 2000
I read this during a year working in Sydney and couldn't put it down (which says a great deal for a work of non-fiction!). The descriptions of the hardships faced by convicts were so vivid that I went to see many of the places for myself. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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on 1 July 2008
At first glance, the title of this brief review may appear something of an oxymoron. However, this is exactly what Robert Hughes does by applying his almost tangible decency to a subject which few British authors and until the fairly recent past not many Australian writers saw fit to examine in an extremely academic, but still humane style; namely the transportation of 160,000 men, women and children from Britain to various penal colonies in Australia between 1788 and 1868. Hughes explores this period through the documentary and physical sources examined, over what must have constituted an immense period of research. The fruits of that research are shown in the vivid pictures he presents not only of the many gross violations perpetrated on those unfortunate enough to savour embrace of the System; but, also the society that acted as its progenitor. Hughes' writing is exceptional and efficiently conveys the moral paradox at the heart of transportation. Namely. its undeniably inherent wrong with the fact that equally undeniably the transported labour quickened the process of colonisation. This book pulls no punches in its exposure of societies often hypocritical stance on the treatment of offenders. Personlly, it reminded us to beware of politicians and others who offer us a simple or one dimensional solution to the problems of crimminality. OveralL, I have no hesitation in commending this excellent and thought provoking book.
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on 8 August 2000
I studied English history for many years at school, and not once was the shameful secret of transportation mentioned in the syllabus. The scale of cruelty and barbarism described by Hughes in some parts of the Colony is staggering, but what strikes most about the book is its evenhandness. The convicts' backgrounds and unconventional social mores are fully investigated, as is their treatment at the hands of unknowing and uncaring British petty colonialists. What are more uncertain are Hughes' assertions about the effect of the convict past on the Australian character of today - is the convict past really an issue in Australian social politics (other than a friendly taunt to visiting pommies)? Still, an enthralling, deeply moving and informative read, a must for students of English or Australian history, or visitors to Australia.
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on 29 March 2001
This book draws you into the world of the transported convicts to Australia. It is comprehensively researched, yet retains an interest that transcends its undoubted scholarship. The reader is not only drawn into reading more because it is so incredibly interesting, but is provoked into finding out more about this age.
How unlucky some of these convicts were is clearly shown; how lucky present-day Australians are to have such a fine historian who can tell them about this era of their history in such a gripping way goes without saying.
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on 2 September 2003
The Fatal Shore is a thorough investigation into the convict system between Great Britain and Australia with a strong slant from the perspective of the convicts themselves through letters written home as well as the use of documentary evidence.
Robert Hughes has clearly researched the subject matter in intricate detail and the end product is a fascinating insight into the few positives of the convict system and the many negatives (made up primarily of the story of Van Diemans land and Norfolk Island's arbitary punishment system, ie. floggings and other sadistic 'routine' punishments).
A word of warning. This book is extremely detailed in its views and portraits of all the main characters involved in the system and for the amateur it can become confusing mixing the various phases of the convict system and the variety of governor genarals of the colony. However this small detail aside, it did not detract from the enjoyment and interest level of the subject matter and everyone who reads this book is guaranteed to learn some incredible details about the lives of the convicts that they were unaware of before picking the book up.
A well worth the read book but be prepared for a marathon of information!
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on 14 October 2001
I agree with general consensus of opinion that this is an absolutely fascinating book, superbly researched and gripping in its narrative. I have only a few minor gripes: Mr Hughes is too ready to demonise the British (specifically the English) by judging eighteenth century laws by twenty-first century standards. If you can imagine living in a large metropolis, such as eighteenth century London, with no electricity, no means of communication, no police force at the end of the phone, then the laws to protect property and person seem positively liberal.
I was also disappointed by Mr Hughes's ignorant and insulting habit of saying "English" when what he means is "British" and howlers such as describing the crime for which the Chartist John Frost was transported: "he had been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for leading an ill-armed band of insurrectionary miners from the Monmouth Hills against the English Town of Newport" (Newport is in Wales) and (p426) "after 1815, England began to pay the full price for its recent defeat in war" Did I miss something about Waterloo? Never mind, this is still a cracking read and worth anybody's money.
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I've never known very much about Transportation or the early history of Australia, and now I wish I'd paid more attention when I was at school over there. Obviously growing up English I was fully aware of the history between the two countries and the insults flung back and forth - 'Pommies', 'convicts' and the like, but there never was any real understanding of the history of those insults.

So it's interesting to see just how deeply rooted Transportation, or the 'System' as it was known, was in Australia's early history. It wouldn't be far wrong to say that Australia as a colony would not have existed at all, or if it had, it is unlikely any free settlement could have survived, let alone prospered, were it not for convict labour. It was the absolutely bedrock of society, the sine qua non, and yet at the same time a source of deep shame to the 'Exclusives', the upper-crust of free society, who tried to white-wash it out of knowledge and history. Indeed, as Hughes argues, it is only really in the last 20 years that early Australian history has been taught in schools - prior to that, there was a national blinkeredness, a desire to pretend that Australia society was not built on 'the Stain' or 'the Taint'.

This book is both a history of Australia and an insightful look into whether the penal experiment of Transportation succeeded. The main aims of Transportation were to eradicate England of the criminal element, in the misguided belief that criminality was hereditary and ingrained, rather than something caused by poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity; and to serve both as a horrifying deterrent to potential criminals and as a source of reformation and redemption for those criminals exiled from their homeland. In both respects, Hughes argued, it can be considered a failure, not always, not exclusively, but fairly comprehensively. There was a chance for redemption for some; some ex-convicts certainly found life in Australia an opportunity to better themselves and gain wealth and position, but they could rarely escape their convict past - 'one a convict, always a convict' - and there was a definite social gulf between the 'Exclusives' and the 'Emancipists'.

This is the first book by Hughes I've read and I'm definitely keen to read more. His 'Rome' is on my Christmas list!
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on 6 September 2016
Ok, only just acquired this book, so I am afraid I cannot proffer a decent review at this time.
However, I have already read the preface, and frankly, I can hardly wait to get started!
Watch this space!
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