Fatal Shore

Robert Hughes

Read August-September, 2006

Fatal Shore is a sweeping, eloquent, argumentative, magisterial, compelling account of the settling of White Australia, written by one of the world's more prickly and rambunctious Australians. Anyone who has read one of Hughes's accounts of art (his métier) has surely developed a strong opinion of his style; nothing here will contradict their evaluation.

Australia is a land created out of the Victorian notion of the “criminal class”, a sensibility so strong that its members were deported to a far corner of the world to keep them and their spawn away (for, as always in history, where criminals are concerned, Something Must be Done). The escalation of penalties, so that the beak could hand down a death sentence for nearly trivial offenses, in turn led to the forced display of “mercy”: the commutation of this sentence into deportation. Trivial or not, they were criminals; yet their descendents have created one of the most orderly nations in the world—so orderly, in fact, to verge on the boring. It's a contradiction that so thoroughly undermines the theory of genetic determinism that underlies the creation of the prison-colony that it's worthy of a logical puzzle.

It is essential to put Hughes's book in context. Hughes's book was written as a response to a variety of Australian “founding myths”, all aimed at erasing the (convict) Stain. Hughes dissects these arguments in masterly fashion, marshalling a combination of facts and his singularly elegant rhetorical style. He has no patience for a polite revisionism of the nation's founding (Norfolk Island pines and flax as a basis for ship masts and sails? Then why wasn't a single ship-builder included in Arthur Phillip's First Fleet?), and lambasts those who would try to sugar-coat the country's origins. Instead, he traces the British crime problem (spurred by the growing population of cities and the rise of the Industrial Revolution) and the concurrent loss of an outlet for deportation: the newly-independent states of America, which anyway found African slave labor cheaper and easier (before Independence, America was receiving about 700 prisoners against about 47,000 slaves every year). The initial solution was to house prisoners in prison boats (“hulks”), a solution that naturally soon became untenable. A brief observation in Cook's diaries leads to the establishment of a criminal colony almost half-way across the globe, one that serves for nearly a century until a combination of economic and moral factors in England, and the discovery of gold in Australia (which ceased to make it a land of punishment), discontinues the process. By this time the prisoners have populated the eastern and south-eastern Australian coasts, Tasmania, Norfolk Island, and even the west: in other words, nearly all of the inhabitable island-continent.

Not that settlement was easy, in various senses. Cook's fleeting observations prove to be nearly baseless, and the country nearly inhabitable. The problem of maintaining a prison at such a remove proves to be just as difficult as one would imagine, leading to conditions of distressing brutality. Relations with the Aboriginals are tough, compounded by the greed and despair of the settlers. And then there are problems of reproducing a civilization in the absence of knowledge, capital and skilled labor. Hughes narrates this story of the settling in great detail and with tremendous verve.

Hughes's peculiar style and eye creates its own share of problems. His treatment of the Aboriginal condition is surprisingly weak (though, in his defense, theirs is not the story he is telling). He is too sympathetic to oddball ideas such as Alexander Maconochie's points system of reforming prisons, an early-day free-market theory whose effect was far less than Hughes can bring himself to admit. Hughes is a joyous bottom-feeder: the book is peppered with far more accounts of morbidity and raciness than necessary to make his points. Finally, his utter silence about New Zealand is baffling.

We can, however, forgive these flaws given not only the originality but also the bravery of his mission: Australia is not a country that enjoys talking about the Stain. Beyond this, the book itself is of surpassing quality. As befits Hughes, the artwork selection is outstanding. His knowledge of and love for the oceans is superb; surely he is a sailor of some accomplishment himself (and probably can curse like one). The book has beautiful maps in just the right place near the beginning. His sense of pitch when quoting outside sources is so close to perfect that I cannot recall ever reading a book in which I paid so much attention to the letter, diary, song and poetry quotations. Without ever overcooking it, he forces us to share the dreadful pain and poignancy of separation created by deportation. And then there is Hughes's sublime prose itself, as when he reminds us (pg. 240) that ballads are not history, but they indicate “the penumbra of received opinion”. The sum, therefore, is far greater than the parts of this ambitious book.