The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding Info

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In this bestselling account of the colonization of Australia,
Robert Hughes explores how the convict transportation system created the
country we know today.
Digging deep into the dark history of
England's infamous efforts to move 160,000 men and women thousands of
miles to the other side of the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, Hughes has crafted a groundbreaking, definitive account of
the settling of Australia.
Tracing the European presence in
Australia from early explorations through the rise and fall of the penal
colonies, and featuring 16 pages of illustrations and 3 maps, The
Fatal Shore
brings to life the incredible true history of a country
we thought we knew.

Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding:

5

Oct 25, 2011

This 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 This 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.
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4

Nov 22, 2008

A really solid look at Australia's ignoble European invasion.

The British turned the native soil of the Australian Aboriginal people into a prison island. Author Robert Hughes does an excellent job of giving the reader an overall idea of what it was like to be transported to this distant penal colony, which was tantamount to a death sentence. Just surviving the voyage was torture enough.

Once the poor prisoners (yes, I have some sympathy for some of the prisoners, whose crimes could be as A really solid look at Australia's ignoble European invasion.

The British turned the native soil of the Australian Aboriginal people into a prison island. Author Robert Hughes does an excellent job of giving the reader an overall idea of what it was like to be transported to this distant penal colony, which was tantamount to a death sentence. Just surviving the voyage was torture enough.

Once the poor prisoners (yes, I have some sympathy for some of the prisoners, whose crimes could be as inconsequential as petty theft) arrived they were greeted by a land devoid of comfort and compassion. Australia is hardcore. Australia does not fuck around. Hughes conveys this quite well. ...more
5

Oct 12, 2009

I first read this in college when the paperback came out in 1988. I remember being enthralled by it which was notable since I wasn't at that time a history reader. I had years of thinking I should re-read it and never did. What a wonderful book. It is not a pretty story--not because the people who settled it were convicts, especially since many were, by our standards, minor offenders or political prisoners, but because of the conditions they faced and the treatment they received. It was not I first read this in college when the paperback came out in 1988. I remember being enthralled by it which was notable since I wasn't at that time a history reader. I had years of thinking I should re-read it and never did. What a wonderful book. It is not a pretty story--not because the people who settled it were convicts, especially since many were, by our standards, minor offenders or political prisoners, but because of the conditions they faced and the treatment they received. It was not pretty for those in charge either for that matter. There were so many details that I won't go into them all--just read the book. It's worth it. ...more
3

Feb 06, 2012

I find that Robert Hughes writing is, well, florid. He writes well but he is just too adjectival for my tastes.
As a big slice of information and ideas this is a good book but not a great book. I would have no hesitation about recommending it, but there are better books such as John Hirst's book 'Convict Society And It's Enemies'.
Hughes analysis is pretty good and I do find that even though I thought I knew how grim the early period of European Australian history was, I was not prepared for the I find that Robert Hughes writing is, well, florid. He writes well but he is just too adjectival for my tastes.
As a big slice of information and ideas this is a good book but not a great book. I would have no hesitation about recommending it, but there are better books such as John Hirst's book 'Convict Society And It's Enemies'.
Hughes analysis is pretty good and I do find that even though I thought I knew how grim the early period of European Australian history was, I was not prepared for the cruelty and sadism described by this book. More so than the British navy Australia was founded on 'rum, sodomy and the lash'.
On the influence on the Australia of today I think Hughes is basically right. In Tasmania the influence was woeful, especially with the coupling of being an island. People generally want to get off islands and the young and ambitious Tasmanians have over the past 160 years. There is a legacy of convictry in Tasmania much like that of slavery in the deep south of America. In NSW, because they received more Irish convicts and there was a leavening of more Irish politicals, this in time meant that the working class in NSW (and the East Coast generally) developed a chip on their shoulders about the Australian (Protestant) ruling class.
In the end the book was too much of chore. How many florid descriptions of floggings can a reader take?
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5

Apr 25, 2012

As an Australian, I have to say 'hats off' truly to Robert Hughes. This is a tremendously exhaustive and amazing work in which Hughes manages to trace the history of Australia in scrupulous detail. In fact, there's almost 'too much' detail but for me, I just lapped it up. Much of the details about indentured men were new to me. This should, without a doubt, be required reading in history classes in Australia. Absolutely fantastic. In fact, I learnt more by reading this book than I did from 2 As an Australian, I have to say 'hats off' truly to Robert Hughes. This is a tremendously exhaustive and amazing work in which Hughes manages to trace the history of Australia in scrupulous detail. In fact, there's almost 'too much' detail but for me, I just lapped it up. Much of the details about indentured men were new to me. This should, without a doubt, be required reading in history classes in Australia. Absolutely fantastic. In fact, I learnt more by reading this book than I did from 2 years of history classes at high school.
It's all here - the slow destruction of the Aborigines by both diseases brought by the white man to which they had no immunity as well as the rampant slaughter of the natives of Tasmania, the plight of the convicts (whose lot was perhaps even worse than the natives) including the horrid and hard history of Van Diemen's Land (modern-day Tasmania) and even worse the plight of those who were sent to Norfolk Island (something I knew nothing about until I read this book).
There are, of course and fortunately, tales of courage which will warm the cockles of any Aussie's heart.
Most importantly I leanred where the Australian concept of 'mateship' (from g'day mate) came from. Many of the early Australians suffered together - that is, they faced common hardships (one example is the fellowship that was spawned from chain gangs). And what a legacy it has produced. If you go to Australia today, you will see much beauty - the beauty of the Blue Mountains, the rainforests up north, the white beaches and especially the Great Barrier Reef but what is striking about it all, after reading this book, is how deceptive that beauty is - a beauty which has managed to hide all of the many tales of woe and struggle that can be found in Australia's past.

I read this book about 8 years ago and it's nigh time I pick it up again and brush up on the history of my own country. I owe it to my ancestors.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Superb.

P.S. Someone did tell me though that some of Hughes' research has recently been challenged. I will find out whether these claims are substantiated or not and edit this review accordingly, if need be. ...more
5

Oct 20, 2008

I'm not quite done with Robert Hughes's excellent history of The System, otherwise known as the settlement of a continent with petty criminals, but since I'm actually going to Australia in a week (!), and I can see the writing on the wall as far as things getting crazier before I leave, I wanted to be sure to sneak in a blog entry now. More specifically, I wanted to recommend this book highly; despite the often brutal facts of the case, I have seldom enjoyed a history more.

ANYway, Hughes's prose I'm not quite done with Robert Hughes's excellent history of The System, otherwise known as the settlement of a continent with petty criminals, but since I'm actually going to Australia in a week (!), and I can see the writing on the wall as far as things getting crazier before I leave, I wanted to be sure to sneak in a blog entry now. More specifically, I wanted to recommend this book highly; despite the often brutal facts of the case, I have seldom enjoyed a history more.

ANYway, Hughes's prose is crisp and readable, and he has a fantastic story to tell. The Fatal Shore is not a novel, but it consistently evokes times, places and situations that make me want to read (or even write!) fiction set in early colonial Australia. He has a fine eye for detail, and uses primary sources to great advantage. I find that biography and history sometimes struggle with the constant transition between covering broad trends and including enough specific detail to keep things interesting, but Hughes has the technique down. Witness his description of the arrival in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) of the mediocre early Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey:

"The two men hated one another on sight. Davey thought Macquerie a Scottish prig; and Macquerie considered his new lieutenant-governor a wastrel and a drunk, who manifested 'an extraordinary degree of frivolity and low buffoonery in his manners.'
"So he did. Davey marked his arrival in Hobart Town in February 1813 by lurching to the ship's gangway, casting an owlish look at his new domain and emptying a bottle of port over his wife's hat. He then took off his coat, remarking that the place was as hot as Hades, and marched uphill to Government House in his shirtsleeves. Nicknamed 'Mad Tom' by the settlers, he would later make it his custom to broach a keg of rum outside Government House on royal birthdays and ladle it out to the passerby."

As well as enjoying the hilarious image of port being emptied over Davey's wife's hat, I love how this short passage communicates vividly and succinctly so much about the dueling characters of the two colonial administrators. Also, "low buffoonery"? Definitely going in my arsenal of excellent old-timey put-downs.

Hughes's talent for choosing just the right detail to resonate and amaze is spot-on. Describing the widespread myth among early Irish convicts in Australia that there existed an overland route to China, and the tragic escape attempts that resulted, he notes that "Since none of them had a compass (and few possessed any idea of how to use it even if they had had one), they went out armed with a magical facsimile consisting of a circle crudely sketched on paper or bark with the cardinal points but no needle." What could more forcibly communicate the pathetic desperation of these people, uprooted from everything familiar and dumped into a foreign and hostile environment?

Likewise, when Hughes is describing what passed for "education" at the boys' jail at Point Puer in Van Diemen's Land, where children were put through perfunctory scholastic and religious paces after a twelve- or fourteen-hour day of hard labor, he relates that "a few of the boys could parrot bits of an Anglican catechism, but none could recite the Commandments in correct order or show much grasp of scriptural history. Even their hymn-singing had declined, to the point that 'the screaming is almost intolerable to any person whose ears have not been rendered callous.'" The image of the exhausted, damp and caterwauling boys, often transported for trifles like "stealing two pairs of stockings," is both chilling and touching. Also chilling is this passage about the children of soldiers and free settlers, who

"played flogging games and judgment games as freely as their descendents would play bushrangers. 'I have observed children playing,' wrote one colonial observer in 1850, 'at the Botany Bay game of Courts and Petty Sessions, and noted the cruel sentences which were uniformly passed on those who were doomed to be 'damned,' and the favour and partiality which was extended to others! Justice appeared never to be thought of: - the gratification of a licentious and an unlimited Power being all they sought."

Although I'm not one to idealize the innocence of children, this paragraph certainly gives a clear view of the dark side of culture-formation.

And there is plenty of dark stuff in The Fatal Shore, from sadistic prison wardens to snobbish would-be-aristocrats, to prisoners whose flesh was crawling with maggots while they were still alive. Yes, there's even a vivid first-person account of cannibalism. The most difficult chapters for me to read, though, were those dealing with the plight of women and Aborigines, and with the role of homosexuality in the colony.

This book comes right on the heels, for me, of James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, and there were some depressing similarities between the two histories, despite an entire hemisphere's separation. The insane sense of entitlement felt and exercised by the European colonists; the gradual (or not-so-gradual) descent into a cycle of violence; the issuance of self-righteous tracts setting down legal boundaries, which the native people are unable to read as they are available solely in English: it all rings unpleasantly familiar in the ears of a United States citizen.

Perhaps the most confusing and circular part of European/Native relations in both America and Australia, is Europeans' fixation on a settled, capitalist existence as the only kind of life they were willing to acknowledge as legitimate. On both continents, the colonists assumed that nomadic peoples were "wasting" the land, that their movable lifestyle obliterated any claim they may have had to it - a tragedy of epic proportions, considering that connection to the land was usually much more integral to the native peoples' sense of self than it ever was to Europeans. Equally galling to the European interlopers was the lack of a fiat money system among native peoples, which the Europeans, tellingly, took as a sign of godlessness and dissipation. This is especially ironic in Australia, which was being settled in the first place because England had come to so fetishize Property that people were sentenced to death for offenses like "poaching a rabbit," "stealing a length of ribbon," or "cutting down an ornamental shrub." As a newborn infant could have predicted, this led to SO MANY death sentences that most of them had to be commuted, hence the waves of convicts and their attendant administrators, eager to convert the natives to their own property-loving way of life. In Tasmania, as in the American south-east, native people were herded into what were essentially concentration camps, where "they were shown how to buy and sell things, so that they might acquire a reverence for property." Awesome idea, guys! And those were the progressive settlers; most just wanted to kill as many natives as possible.

The chapters on treatment of women was also horrifying. Much of it, such as the passage describing how the new female convicts were sold at the country store, were grotesque parodies of still-familiar attitudes:

"The same woman might be sold several times during her Norfolk Island sentence, with Potter 'in most cases reselling them for a gallon or two of rum until they were in such a Condition as to be of little or no further use.' The sales would be held in an old store where the women had to strip naked and 'race around the room' while Potter kept up a running commentary on their 'respective values.'"

Female convicts were essentially the slaves of slaves, but the most infuriating part from an intellectual perspective is that they were looked down on as "prostitutes" as a result. Even female convicts who were never sold and re-sold on Norfolk Island, even those who had long-term, loving relationships, were viewed as whores by the self-styled "respectable" colonists:

As the historian Michael Sturma points out, the idea that the convicts shared the same ideas about sexual behavior as their superiors is very dubious: 'Working-class mores [in England] differed markedly from those of upper and middle classes...[A]mong the British working-class, cohabitation was prevalent. It is highly unlikely that working-class men, and in particular male convicts, considered the women convicts to be in some way sexually immoral...The stereotype of women convicts as prostitutes emerged from...an ignorance of working-class habits.'"

Huh, how eerily familiar. It's disturbing how difficult it is to perceive, let alone acknowledge, value systems that differ from our own. It's also interesting - and problematic - to me, how few modern people know about the widespread acceptance of cohabitation among the Victorian working classes. The Victorian era is so often seen as the epitome of prudishness and ramrod respectability, wherein premarital sex is the Ultimate Evil that can befall a virtuous young woman, and while there was certainly truth to the stereotype, it's also important to remember that there were other realities as well.

If the way that misogyny played out in early Australia was tiresomely predictable, the role of homosexuality was much more complex, and tricky for a modern young lefty like myself to digest. [More on my blog.] ...more
5

Jun 13, 2009





This is a great book, one of the finest history books I have read covering Australia. I found the book easy to read, the narrative flowed along full of facts but never dull. Its not stuffy and boring like a lot of history books but a very good yarn. I have sent copies to friends around the world and they have all enjoyed the book as well. Its history at its best, some very interesting stories about Norfolk Island and Port Arthur and cannibal convicts, a very enjoyable tale. Maybe some



This is a great book, one of the finest history books I have read covering Australia. I found the book easy to read, the narrative flowed along full of facts but never dull. Its not stuffy and boring like a lot of history books but a very good yarn. I have sent copies to friends around the world and they have all enjoyed the book as well. Its history at its best, some very interesting stories about Norfolk Island and Port Arthur and cannibal convicts, a very enjoyable tale. Maybe some Australians aren't too happy with this side of our history but never the less its still our history and this book makes it enjoyable to read about. ...more
5

Jul 16, 2017

Adjectives fail me to describe the stupendous scope and brilliance of this book. Epic is right. It is a history of early Australia, on the one hand of the native inhabitants, the Aborigines, and on the other, of the wretched souls who found themselves transported to the other side of the world, and who quickly supplanted them. The good the bad and the ugly. The author's detailed researches appear to have left no stone unturned, as he reveals even the taboo aspects of multitudes of desperate Adjectives fail me to describe the stupendous scope and brilliance of this book. Epic is right. It is a history of early Australia, on the one hand of the native inhabitants, the Aborigines, and on the other, of the wretched souls who found themselves transported to the other side of the world, and who quickly supplanted them. The good the bad and the ugly. The author's detailed researches appear to have left no stone unturned, as he reveals even the taboo aspects of multitudes of desperate humanity forced to live together in unsanitary and inhuman conditions. He also describes the British regime in Australia as the closest thing to a police state that ever existed in British territory, which after reading the book, I can only agree with. But it is not only the scope, detail and understanding of the book that makes it remarkable. It is highly readable, indeed hard to put down. I knew very little about Australia before I read this book, which I bought because it was recommended on Channel 4 News on the occasion of the author's death in 2012. Now I feel I have a thorough understanding of the issues and events that made Australia and Australians what they are today. ...more
5

Sep 21, 2011

An amazing book!!!! This 600 page tome covers the founding of Australia from the First Fleet of the transportation of convicts landing at Botany Bay through the end of the transportation in 1868. The continent of Australia was an enormous jail and the author uses letters, diaries, and other written history to paint a picture of inhumanity that reads more like fiction. As he spins his tale, he destroys some of the myths that Australians still accept as truths and verifies others through his An amazing book!!!! This 600 page tome covers the founding of Australia from the First Fleet of the transportation of convicts landing at Botany Bay through the end of the transportation in 1868. The continent of Australia was an enormous jail and the author uses letters, diaries, and other written history to paint a picture of inhumanity that reads more like fiction. As he spins his tale, he destroys some of the myths that Australians still accept as truths and verifies others through his impeccable research. We travel along the coasts, over the Blue Mountains. to the island of Van Dieman's Land (present day Tasmania) and into the outback with some of the brave, often foolhardy pioneers that settled the land.....escaped convicts, free men, and immigrants with the taste for adventure. We see the attempted annihilation of the aborigines as the colony expanded into the continent and the ecological effects of "civilization". There is so much here that I suggest you read this brilliant and disturbing book...it is compelling. ...more
5

Aug 09, 2008


Absolutely a masterpiece. Hughes really tackles every aspect of the founding of Australia, which is more interesting than you might think, if you're not exactly packing for Sydney any time soon.

When eminences like Susan Sontag, Arthur Schlesinger and Gore Vidal plug your book with comparisons to some of the greatest social chroniclers of all time, you know (or hope, at least) you're into something great. I wasn't disappointed.

Hughes brings up nearly everything which contributed to Australia's
Absolutely a masterpiece. Hughes really tackles every aspect of the founding of Australia, which is more interesting than you might think, if you're not exactly packing for Sydney any time soon.

When eminences like Susan Sontag, Arthur Schlesinger and Gore Vidal plug your book with comparisons to some of the greatest social chroniclers of all time, you know (or hope, at least) you're into something great. I wasn't disappointed.

Hughes brings up nearly everything which contributed to Australia's founding- colonialism, racism, prison systems, London's throbbing street life and criminal underclass, the elements of reform and resistance, the terrain, the flora and fauna of rural Aussie geography....the whole thing is gloriously written, exhaustively researched and historically comprehensive with a rather witty and pessimistic air at the folly of man, which (one senses) comes from that of a rueful idealist.

I'm definitely going to re-read this someday, some of the incidental tales he tells of some of the brave, hunted souls who tried to get away are just too juicy not to retell....

Absolutely recommended, if you like your history eloquent, novelistic and thorough. ...more
5

Dec 21, 2011

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 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! ...more
4

May 27, 2014

As a Canadian I am aware of how truly difficult it is to make life in the colonies seem interesting. I am lost in admiration for this Australian who has managed to write a fascinating history of the famous penal system that figured so prominently in his country's early history. I wish Canadian historians could find similar tales about themselves and tell them so well.
5

Aug 05, 2015

Fatal Shore is a brilliant history of how even the destitute and outcasts of Great Britain made a superior contribution to world civilization equal to what they had done in the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. What a great people! And Australia--what a great country today! Countries who could not absorb what the British had to offer still suffer from backwardness to this day and will most likely remain that way.
3

Jun 19, 2011

Here's another thing about Australia. It has its priorities right. So, when I heard Greece is in some trouble, the consequences of which might destablise the world economy, I went to ABC.net to check it out.

Not a WORD about Greece. Honestly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. The really top world news stories are:

Lleyton Hewitt out of Wimbledon
A person who was born in Australia (ie tenuous connection, but we still want him) has made the NBA draft.
Cocaine still popular in the US

and the real Here's another thing about Australia. It has its priorities right. So, when I heard Greece is in some trouble, the consequences of which might destablise the world economy, I went to ABC.net to check it out.

Not a WORD about Greece. Honestly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. The really top world news stories are:

Lleyton Hewitt out of Wimbledon
A person who was born in Australia (ie tenuous connection, but we still want him) has made the NBA draft.
Cocaine still popular in the US

and the real biggie:

Grave fears - GRAVE FEARS, in case you don't register the import of this story - held for lost Emperor Penguin.

Presumably this story has pushed Greece off the front page in other parts of the world? SURELY. This penguin took a wrong turn at Albuquerque, on his way to Antarctica and ended up in New Zealand. What could be more important than that?

I think we can add another question to the binary decision making tree for Aussies:

New Zealand? Or Antaractica?

Hmm. Ummm...I dunno. This one's kinda tricky.


-----------

I've been thinking about I Ching lately and I can see that in a way, maybe it helps people focus on thinking about their decisions in life. But I can't see it working for Australians.

As Stewart Lee said recently, of all the places in the world to have compulsory voting, it's one whose population survives on the following binary tree of decision-making:

Get out of bed in the morning? Or not?

Shorts? Or trunks?

Sit in the shade? Or in the sun?

Beach? Or pool?

Fosters? Or Carlton?

The moment you add a complication to this. Say,

Hang out with mates? Or girlfriend? Or both?

The moment you do that, they are already looking lost.

And as we really don't have a two-party system any more, we really have to get rid of the whole compulsory voting thing.

Or do we? ...more
4

Jun 11, 2016

When I was at school, we were taught that most of the convicts transported to Australia were decent but unfortunate people, who were sent here unfairly, usually for petty and justifiable crimes like stealing handkerchiefs, or loaves of bread to feed their starving families. It turns out that's not quite true, and there's no avoiding the fact that the fledgling nation of Australia was built in significant part by hardened criminals. Of course the story is complicated, and The Fatal Shore tells When I was at school, we were taught that most of the convicts transported to Australia were decent but unfortunate people, who were sent here unfairly, usually for petty and justifiable crimes like stealing handkerchiefs, or loaves of bread to feed their starving families. It turns out that's not quite true, and there's no avoiding the fact that the fledgling nation of Australia was built in significant part by hardened criminals. Of course the story is complicated, and The Fatal Shore tells that story of the first 100 years or so of settlement in vivid detail. The book focuses on the penal settlements in and around Sydney, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land, and especially on the convicts themselves, who often led hellish lives at the hands of sadistic overseers. Australia in the early days was a really nasty place to be if you were a convict - or indeed a native.

Reading these accounts of early Australia, I'm struck by just how recent it all was. I'm amazed that mere decades after the end of transportation, Australia was able to develop a national identity and the political will to achieve Federation, implement a stable system of government, and eventually grow into a prosperous and law-abiding nation. Our history is often glossed-over or ignored, but it's important to hear the full story. ...more
5

Apr 19, 2010

An aptly named epic, pulling the reader through the bile and brutal details of the founding of Australia as a penal colony. Hughes’s magnificent story telling hustles down the ages; the land and sea, the politics, the traditions — the very roots of the Aussie people. At every turn, the reader shakes his head in wild disbelief. The book, and the continent, stand as a testament to man’s primal instincts (selfish and noble) to survive and flourish at all cost — as in the story of a convict escape An aptly named epic, pulling the reader through the bile and brutal details of the founding of Australia as a penal colony. Hughes’s magnificent story telling hustles down the ages; the land and sea, the politics, the traditions — the very roots of the Aussie people. At every turn, the reader shakes his head in wild disbelief. The book, and the continent, stand as a testament to man’s primal instincts (selfish and noble) to survive and flourish at all cost — as in the story of a convict escape into the wild that turns into a death march fueled by cannibalism. Hughes stays with the colorful deep history, but often pops up for air with an apt commentary on today’s Australia. 01/04 ...more
4

Dec 21, 2008

Great book on the founding of Australia and the convict colonies. Also, it had the added bonus of allowing me to act confused when New Zealanders informed that Australia and New Zealand were not the same thing.
5

Nov 16, 2017

Time for some non-fiction. This book is a big 'un - 600 pages w/o the notes - but it's been very well written so far. I know very little about the early history of Australia beyond watching "Botany Bay" on TV years ago and reading about the Transportation(of convicts) and Resettlement(of other sad sack poor people) in Dickens("David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations"). I read Bill Bryson's fun book about the Land Down Under and have seen plenty of Aussie films over the years. That's about it Time for some non-fiction. This book is a big 'un - 600 pages w/o the notes - but it's been very well written so far. I know very little about the early history of Australia beyond watching "Botany Bay" on TV years ago and reading about the Transportation(of convicts) and Resettlement(of other sad sack poor people) in Dickens("David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations"). I read Bill Bryson's fun book about the Land Down Under and have seen plenty of Aussie films over the years. That's about it ...

Moving along as the author covers all his historical bases. The tale he tells is pretty grim so far, both in England and in Australia. Dickens covers the England part pretty well, but coming from a mostly objective historian it seems even worse. 18th-19th century England was no place to be poor and landless. Lots of suffering and sufferers ... in Australia came even more horrors, like the genocide of Aborigines. That's only been hinted at so far.

And on and on with tales of anitpodean craziness/nastiness. Last night's reading had much to do with the many escape attempts(mostly futile and fatal, one way or another), including one in which several escaped convicts wandered in the Van Diemen's Land bush killing each other off one at a time and eating the remains. Until only one was left - of course, and he barely made it out alive himself. Crazy stuff ...

- Reading about the treatment of the Irish("croppies lie down") reminded me of "Trinity" and "Redemption"(some of which took place in New Zealand). Also(again) of Donald Sutherland's character in "The Eagle Has Landed" declaring "Oh, I hate the English."

So much for the fabled Bush Rangers. Somewhat akin to our American outlaws of the Wild West. Interesting to read of the political differences between the Irish escapees and the rest. There was a strong anti-British political undercurrent to the motives of the Irish absconders.

Next up the author examines the fate and treatment of female convicts, and it seems predictable awful. As ones works one's way through this tale of suffering and oppression it become's easy to understand why modern day Aussies might want to look/have looked away from their founding past. NOT a pretty tale and hard to build any convincing positive mythology upon.

- There are a few scenes in "The Road Warrior" that would seem to allude to the man-boy homo past of the colonies - do you remember these? One in particular ... The whole movie and the trilogy itself might be seen as depicting a cultural regression into Australia's past.

- The parallels between the USA and Australia in the treatment of native populations(savages) are pretty obvious.

Back to the grindstone after "The Year of the Flood." Not that this is a chore to read, or anything, but it is long and detailed. Sloggish ... One is reminded of the dystopian/sci-fi novel "Getting Back," a pretty fun read in which Australia once again becomes a penal colony after the "normal" population gets wiped out by a plague.

Moving along now after good stuff about early 19th century society in NSW. It was abut as extreme and crazy as you'd expect. And now off to Van Dieman's Land(didn't become Tasmania until 1901 or thereabouts) and the horrorshow penal colony at Macquarie Harbor(?). And let's not forget Port Arthur. And next up will be the story of aborigines on Tasmania. Ain't gonna be pretty ...

Last night we finished up with the Aborigine holocaust on Tasmania and moved on to other happy places north of Sydney along the coast. Moreton Bay(Brisbane), Newcastle, and Port Macquarie. The author leaves no stones un-turned here. What an ugly story ... Last, but not least will be Norfolk Island - redux. Abandoned once and re-opened. UGH!

Almost finished after last night. I'll be done tonight, I think and have raised my rating to 5* - no reason not to!

- Trucanini's husband's named is spelled Lanne in the text, but Lanney in the caption for their picture.

- The relentless, gratuitous English sadism gets to one after a while. It made me thing of David Melrose from Edward St. Aubyn's books. WHY???????

- The death of the infamous Price reminds of the death of Sebastian in "Suddenly, Last Summer."

Finished last night - finally. Also raised my rating to 4.75*(rounding up to 5*). This book is long and full of that "historical" stuff, but the author's delivery is smooth and generally objective. There is a bit of exasperation about the apparent suppression of the not-so-appealing history of Australia in the Aussie media and school system. No call for any American to be judgmental about THAT, however, as many Americans to this day are reluctant to acknowledge the reality of our not-so-savory history, some of which parallels that of Australia. Highly recommended ... ...more
5

Jan 21, 2013

Although “The Pogues” used the phrase for an album title, the term “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” is actually from an abbreviated quote by Winston Churchill while describing British Naval tradition. It also fits well with the founding of Australia although it could also include ‘deprivation, misery, cruelty and ignorance’.

I spent a long time reading "The Fatal Shore", partly because it is pretty long, but also because the writing is excellent enough to savor at a measured pace. My understanding of Although “The Pogues” used the phrase for an album title, the term “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” is actually from an abbreviated quote by Winston Churchill while describing British Naval tradition. It also fits well with the founding of Australia although it could also include ‘deprivation, misery, cruelty and ignorance’.

I spent a long time reading "The Fatal Shore", partly because it is pretty long, but also because the writing is excellent enough to savor at a measured pace. My understanding of Australia up to now has been pretty much kangaroos; Steve Irwin & Crocodile Dundee. I had been meaning to read Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore” for many years as I had really enjoyed “Culture of Complaint” and “American Visions”.

It does not disappoint. But it is not an easy read. 600+ pages detailing the horrors of the British convict transportation system in the 18th & 19th centuries is often tough going. I learned more about flogging than I ever wanted to know, but that was the system at the time.
I had hoped that the reason convict transport ended was because of growing enlightened thought during the Victorian years, (although that was part of it). In actuality (spoiler alert!), it was the discovery of gold on the continent.

Reading history is often troubling because you really can’t overly judge people’s actions as the laws, codes and mores at the time were significantly different than during our present time. Yet the deliberate cruelty and indifference to the poor are pretty hard to stomach. Heaven forbid if you were poor and female, or even worse, an aborigine. I’ve read some terrible stuff about what we Americans sometimes did to the Indians, but I’ve never heard that we skinned and stuffed them.

Anyway, a great book with deservedly positive reviews. ...more
5

Sep 16, 2013

This is one of the great ones. The Fatal Shore excels both at describing what happened and capturing what it was like.

Every stage in the history of the Australian penal system, from the first explorations and Parliamentary debates to the collapse of "the System" amid the gold rush, is described in detail. The people who make the decisions — the reformers, the experimenters, the sadistic, the apathetic and those who were simply promoted beyond their level of competence — come alive as characters. This is one of the great ones. The Fatal Shore excels both at describing what happened and capturing what it was like.

Every stage in the history of the Australian penal system, from the first explorations and Parliamentary debates to the collapse of "the System" amid the gold rush, is described in detail. The people who make the decisions — the reformers, the experimenters, the sadistic, the apathetic and those who were simply promoted beyond their level of competence — come alive as characters.

But most of all, the book captures what it was like, immersing the reader into the worlds of the pre-contact Australian natives, the Georgian rookeries and the early penal settlements. There is a limit to how close a modern reader can come to understanding what it was like to be a prisoner subject to the tender mercies of Logan, Darling, Morriset or, ye gods, John Giles Price, but Hughes's prose takes you right up to that limit.

A constant theme in The Fatal Shore is the tension between those who wanted Australia to be a functioning colony and convicts to be rehabilitated, and those (usually in London) who simply wanted Australia to be a terror to threaten would-be bandits and pickpockets with. It's hard to listen to a debate over crime and punishment today and not hear echoes of this argument. ...more
5

Mar 30, 2009

Amazing book. I'm always on the lookout for well-written histories, and this one kept surfacing in various lists and blogs and amazon searches. So when I stumbled on it at our local used bookstore, I decided to try it. Hughes' history of colonial Australia is gut-wrenching, exhausting, and superbly written. I don't know what's more astounding--the fact that Britain transported so many convicts 14,000 miles around the world to this remote continent they hadn't even mapped or explored, or that the Amazing book. I'm always on the lookout for well-written histories, and this one kept surfacing in various lists and blogs and amazon searches. So when I stumbled on it at our local used bookstore, I decided to try it. Hughes' history of colonial Australia is gut-wrenching, exhausting, and superbly written. I don't know what's more astounding--the fact that Britain transported so many convicts 14,000 miles around the world to this remote continent they hadn't even mapped or explored, or that the prisoners doomed to be sent here were convicted for such petty property crimes. This is how colonialism really worked. It's mind-boggling. As a native of Georgia (another penal colony that made good and achieved statehood), I thought I knew what I was in for. I was wrong. Perhaps the best part was reading the first 200 pages or so at the beach, where it was easier to imagine the terror of those first emigrants to Botany Bay, and the wide, unfenced prospect of their imprisoning sea. ...more
4

Jan 17, 2014

Australia is a huge, epic, and often harsh land. This book is also huge, epic, and sometimes hard to read. Not because it's badly written--just the opposite; Robert Hughes is a master of the English language and uses it to full effect on every page--but because of the harshness of the subject matter: the transportation of criminals from Georgian and Victorian England to Australia in the late 18th and 19th Centuries, and how a string of penal colonies gradually became a nation (and how their Australia is a huge, epic, and often harsh land. This book is also huge, epic, and sometimes hard to read. Not because it's badly written--just the opposite; Robert Hughes is a master of the English language and uses it to full effect on every page--but because of the harshness of the subject matter: the transportation of criminals from Georgian and Victorian England to Australia in the late 18th and 19th Centuries, and how a string of penal colonies gradually became a nation (and how their criminal origin shaped their modern culture).

The book starts with the historical, cultural, and political background for transportation. The Industrial Revolution caused great upheaval in English society, displacing many workers who had to turn to crime to survive--this at a time when penalties were so extreme as to beggar belief to the modern reader: a life sentence for stealing a pair of stockings for warmth, seven years' exile for taking a loaf of bread in order to ward off starvation. England had no real prisons and no penitentiaries, so the old hulks of naval ships were used to house the glut of prisoners but these soon became an embarrassment to the government. Just in time, word came back from explorers like James Cook of a vast new land in the South Pacific. The Crown adopted the idea of shipping its prisoners there, not to reform them but just to be rid of them. In the meantime, it was hoped, the settlements they carved out could be used as bases from which to limit Napoleonic French expansion, and to compete against the American whaling industry.

The conditions faced by the first group of convicts at what was to become Sydney, near Botany Bay, in 1788 were nothing short of appalling. Add to that the Europeans' penchant for making all native people everywhere hate them and you had an almost insurmountable combination of climate, disease, starvation, guerrilla war, and cruel overseers working against the early convicts. But those who survived did surmount it, eventually, and within a couple of decades Sydney became, if not a comfortable city, at least one that gradually became attractive enough to draw some free immigrants. Most of these became farmers and ranchers who depended on a never-ceasing inflow of convicts to use as free labor.

But back in England, the Crown needed the threat of transportation to Australia to be a terror in order to deter crime. If word got out that it was a land of opportunity, it could have the opposite effect. So new penal colonies had to be created to replace Botany Bay/Sydney, and this led to the founding of Moreton Bay (Brisbane), Port Macquarie, King George's Sound (Albany), the Swan River Colony (Fremantle and Perth), and most notoriously, Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) and the awful Norfolk Island.

By design--to keep up the reputation of Australia as a place of horror--the conditions at each of these colonies was worse than the previous. They reached their nadir with the second settlement of Norfolk Island, but the convicts in all these colonies were ruled by men who, if they were lucky, utterly neglected their care and basic human rights. If they were unlucky their lives were governed by absolute sadists, maniacs whose pleasure in the pain of others was sanctioned and rewarded by the English government. Hughes' description of the privation and torture in these hellish prison enclaves is thorough, unflinching, and will undermine what faith in human nature the reader might have left.

The book also examines the evolution of theories on how to deal with criminals: punishment versus rehabilitation, the efficacy of the carrot over the stick. Various philosophies were tried in Australia and Van Diemen's Land; none was a real success except by accident. To read the story is to watch a painful learning experience unfold, at the cost of untold human misery and depravity, on the part of both the convicts and their masters.

The last chapter deals with how the various levels of Australian society--the Exclusives, the Emancipists, the Currency, and the convicts--dealt with, and began to move away from, their nightmare past in the last decades of the 19th Century. Not surprisingly, the usual method was to bury it, refuse to discuss it, not deny it (which would have been impossible, since so many still alive had lived through it) but just ignore it. I think Hughes was right to end his narrative where he did, 100 years before his own time, but it did leave me curious as to how modern Australians' view of their past may have changed since the 1880s. ...more
5

Aug 02, 2014

With the paltry amount of popular history books I have read, I'm hard pressed to think of one better than Hughes' The Fatal Shore. What Hughes has done here is, in lavish detail and in a humane voice, given us the bizarre and violent tale of the founding of a remote British penal colony. Some of the accounts of cruelty, of madness, of pain and survival are so wild that I simply wouldn't believe them if I didn't know them to be true. Australia (or, as it was called, New South Wales) was meant to With the paltry amount of popular history books I have read, I'm hard pressed to think of one better than Hughes' The Fatal Shore. What Hughes has done here is, in lavish detail and in a humane voice, given us the bizarre and violent tale of the founding of a remote British penal colony. Some of the accounts of cruelty, of madness, of pain and survival are so wild that I simply wouldn't believe them if I didn't know them to be true. Australia (or, as it was called, New South Wales) was meant to be one giant prison, a human garbage bin to bury anyone and everyone the British state was to stupid to know what to do with. While showing us the ugly foundations for the modern Australian state, Hughes does something almost more interesting: he gives us a thorough account of "The System", this foolish and childishly naive cultural institution that transported the convicts themselves. From start to finish, Hughes outlines the reasons, the tribulations, and the consequences of the transportation system for the everyday convict, often in his or her own words. Hughes is brilliant to choose these cast-away men and women as his focus, with the rulers and overseers as usually sadistic and often misguided forces of nature, wreaking havoc on the lives of the condemned, when the condemned themselves weren't making things worse (or, for the lucky ones, making good.)

Every aspect of the the convict transportation system's eighty year life span is presented in exhaustive detail, and I do mean exhaustive. Hughes pulls no punches when it comes to research and his book is awash with sources both famous and remarkably obscure, meticulously detailed in end notes, and supplemented with a beefy bibliography and an index as well. This sort of attention to detail is Hughes' major triumph, and it may simply be to exhausting for readers to wade through the quotes, the excerpts from letters and the longwinded accounts of the everyday lives of convicts which history has otherwise long forgotten. But for people like myself, this level of detail is engrossing, and Hughes presents it all not only with an encyclopedic eye but also with a wry sense of gallows humor and an extremely articulate and complex prose style (often verging on the purple, but hey, the guy is an art critic after all). Insightful, enlightening, engaging and wonderfully human, The Fatal Shore is an altogether impressive, if almost overwhelming, account of a strange experiment in penology and the state that it created. ...more
4

Sep 27, 2012

This book explains a lot about Australian culture - why it's so anti-authority, why 'mates time' is so strong, why going slow on the job is seen as OK, why racism is so ingrained, why having a trade and being skilled is so respected...it explains why being an 'Australian' was important as opposed to being 'British' and how early settlers conquered the bush and built towns on the backs of convict labour. Early traders to Australia sold their goods at exorbitant prices as there was no competition This book explains a lot about Australian culture - why it's so anti-authority, why 'mates time' is so strong, why going slow on the job is seen as OK, why racism is so ingrained, why having a trade and being skilled is so respected...it explains why being an 'Australian' was important as opposed to being 'British' and how early settlers conquered the bush and built towns on the backs of convict labour. Early traders to Australia sold their goods at exorbitant prices as there was no competition and this carries on with Australians paying more for goods than anywhere else, despite the fact Asia is so near and is a centre for cheap exports.

Australians are still regarded with a little contempt in Britain, a hangover from colonial days; Australians feel guilty about killing off so many Aborigines and taking their land - and Americans ask 'What can you expect of a country that was a prison?' Well, as 'The Fatal shore' explains, the English sent all their convicts to America before the War of Independence...

A must-read for all Aussies who want to understand the birth of a nation. ...more
5

Jun 02, 2015

In which Mr Hughes destroys most of the myths Australians tell ourselves, whether conservative ("we're not really descended from convicts") or, more usually, progressive ("the convicts were mostly political refugees"... nope. "The convicts and the indigenous peoples worked together to..." nope.) And does it in a highly entertaining narrative. It really isn't over-rated, though it is, perhaps, overlong.

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