Colonizing a continent with convicts: Australia's first 100 years

The Fatal Shore: An Epic of Australia's Founding, by Robert Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 702 pp. $24.95. When I first went to Australia in 1970, I was surprised to learn how little Australians knew of their country's early history. While there were jokes about other people's ancestors who were ``government men'' (the standard euphemism for convicts), there was little else. School-taught lessons hardly helped. The textbooks quickly moved from ``Discovery,'' past the sordid period, to the halcyon days of free immigration and industrial growth, ``when oldtimers and newcomers together built a new Albion some 14,000 miles from Piccadilly.'' It was as though there were a conspiracy of silence about the fact that Australia was founded as a British penal colony and that most of its early citizens had been convicted criminals or political prisoners (many of them Irish) exiled to its coastal settlements.

While, in recent years, the veil of secrecy has begun to lift, until the publication of Robert Hughes's ``The Fatal Shore,'' there has been no truly comprehensive recounting of the first 100 years of Australian history.

Relying on the scholarly works of others and a wealth of untapped archival material, Australian-born and educated Hughes has endeavored to set the record straight. His book is an engrossing account of the factors that led to thousands being forced to make the arduous journey to ``the fatal shore'' and the consequences of such actions, a study of the painful birth of a nation, and an incredibly good read.

Taking his title from a convict lament, Hughes tells the story of an experiment unprecedented in the annals of colonial settlement: An entire unexplored continent was to become a dumping ground for the unwanted, a huge prison in the middle of nowhere, a human community based on seemingly antihuman sentiments. Unlike other plans for new societies being drawn by 18th-century visionaries, the founding of Australia was far from utopian. Rather, in Hughes's words, it was ``an exercise in Dystopia.''

``Other parts of the Pacific, especially Tahiti, might seem to confirm Rousseau. But the intellectual patrons of Australia, in its first colonial years, were Hobbs and Sade.'' The truly responsible party was William Pitt who, according to Hughes, approved the plan to develop a ``thief-colony'' so far from England for domestic political reasons, to reduce the number of convicts in ``hulks within [the] constituencies of Plymouth and Portsmouth.''

The first shipload was sent out in May 1787 and landed its cargo of convicts at Botany Bay, not far from the present city of Sydney, eight months later. Over the next 80 years, some 160,000 men and women were transported from Portsmouth to Botany Bay, Parramatta, Port Arthur in Tasmania, Fremantle on the southwest coast, or to other settlements. These exiles were to become the core of the Australian polity and the progenitors of much of today's culture.

In 600 pages of text, complemented with superb maps, evocative prints, and extensive appendixes, the Australian epic is unfolded. Hughes's narrative is at once grand in scope and intimate in detail. He describes the headlands and bays of the coast, the exotic flora, the strange birds, the stranger animals, and the seen but unseen dark-skinned, hairy-bodied, heavy-browed ``blackfellows'' who inhabited the primeval wilds of ``the empty continent''; details the less-than-glamorous results of the great explorations of the South Seas, not least the fateful decision to use newly claimed New South Wales as a penal colony; and compares the shantytown ports in the land down under to the equally squalid world of ``Hogarthian'' London, where one in eight was a criminal, and most of the people lived lives far different from that generally associated with our modern-day images of Georgian society.

One of the most interesting and informative chapters of the book, ``Who Were the Convicts?'' is an analysis of class, religion, and politics in Georgian England. It includes an explanation of why the Irish came to become ``the largest and most cohesive white minority in penal Australia,'' and why their folkways, in particular, were to have such an impact on the emergent national character.

Australia and its people are very much in the news - and on the big screen - these days. Those who have been watching the America's Cup races off Fremantle are occasionally given glimpses of the very shores once approached by those being forcibly shipped to the Antipodes, including, undoubtedly, the forebears of such antiestablishment folk heroes as Ned Kelly and Paul Hogan (a.k.a. ``Crocodile Dundee'').

This book should help to round out the flat horizon on the TV screen.

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