Saturday, 3 December 2016

Battered Penguins (and others of that ilk) - Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

The Fatal Shore, a History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 by Robert Hughes, is a revelation, even for those of us who were educated in Australia and taught some Australian history. It is a book that leaves you awed by the propensity for cruelty that humankind displayed in the establishment of Australia.

In his Introduction, Hughes contends that:

What the convict system bequeathed to later Australian generations was not the sturdy, skeptical independence on which, with gradually waning justification, we pride ourselves, but an intense concern with social and political respectability.

I think he is right in this - and in the earliest incarnations of  Barry Humphries's Edna Everage, this is what was originally being made fun of.  Hughes's tale also helps explain why Australia as a nation appears less perturbed than some others by the idea of sending away groups we see as aliens to be processed on distant islands. From the beginning, this policy has been practised on us, with Norfolk Island the most infamous example of its implementation.

In his book, Hughes describes vividly the cruelty of the 18th century, not only in Australia but also in England. He tells of “the crush of jostling voyeurs” at Tyburn, the unspeakable conditions in the hulks, the blood lust and lack of humanity that developed among those who had power over prisoners, which led to unspeakable floggings for offences such as “Having turnips” or “Talking in Church”.

He also introduces the characters of influence during the various phases of Australia's penal history, although sadly his refusal to admire anyone wholeheartedly becomes a little irritating. Macquarie and Alexander Maconochie, both figures who did much worth applauding, cannot escape jibes about priggishness and self-righteousness.

Similarly, Hughes's account of what happened to Australia’s indigenous peoples is over-egged and prone to assertions unsupported by footnotes that might provide evidence of their truth. Included among these is the startling statement that Australian Aborigines “killed the infants they could not carry”. I've never heard of this practice before and I'd want to see some proof, beyond Mr Hughes's word, that it ever happened. Similarly, the contention that the possibility of converting Australian Aborigines to Christianity and farming was “an idea loathed and resisted by every white, no matter what his class” is hard to swallow - if every white genuinely loathed and resisted the idea, who came up with it in the first place?

But never mind - the book’s depth of research is generally extraordinary. It is also wonderfully written. This phrase, for instance, has an echo of The Tempest within it:

The space around it, [Australia], the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick.”

In dreadful circumstances, what is more, Hughes can occasionally be funny. An example is the wry comment he makes on a report that 50 or 60 cases of sodomy occurred each day on Norfolk Island:

Since the total convict population of Norfolk Island at the time was about 600, this argues an impressive priapic energy on the prisoners’ part, perhaps caused by the sea air.” 

Thanks to Hughes's work, I am now able to conjure in my imagination some notion of the original figures whose names are already familiar from street names and titles of institutions - for instance, Bent Street in Sydney, which I’d always assumed was named for its shape, turns out to be named after an early legal man, while the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra is named after a rather inspiring visionary, who hoped to reform penal services and, at least for a time, relieved the utterly hellish lives of the unfortunates on Norfolk Island.

Hughes argues that the national psyche is still shaped by our penal origins:

Would Australians have done anything differently if their country had not been settled as the jail of infinite space? Certainly they would. They would have remembered more of their own history. The obsessive cultural enterprise of Australians a hundred years ago was to forget it entirely, to sublimate it, to drive it down into unconsulted recesses. This affected all Australian culture, from political rhetoric to the perception of space, of landscape itself. Space, in America, had always been optimistic; the more of it you faced, the freer you were - “Go West, young man!” In Australian terms, to go west was to die, and space itself was the jail. The flowering of Australian nature as a cultural emblem, whether in poetry or in painting, could not occur until the stereotype of the “melancholy bush,” born in convict perceptions of Nature-as-prison, had been expunged. A favourite trope of journalism and verse at the time of the Australian Centennial, in 1888, was that of the nation as a young vigorous person gazing into the rising sun, turning his or her back on the dark crouching shadows of the past.”

but he concludes, surprisingly, by saluting the penal system with which Australia was founded - or at least saluting the tokens left by those who suffered under its harsh disciplines:

To ask what Australia would have been without convicts is existentially meaningless. They built it - if by “it” one means European material culture there - and their mute traces are everywhere: in the peckings and scoops of iron chisels on the sandstone cuttings of Sydney, hewn with such terrible effort by the work gangs; in the fine springing of one bridge at Berrima in New South Wales, and the earnest, slightly bizarre figures carved on the face of another at Ross in Tasmania; in the zigzags of the Blue Mountain road, where traffic now rolls above the long-buried, rusted chains of the dead; less obviously, in the fruitful pastures that were once primaeval gum forest.

I remember a few years ago hearing a young Australian comedian's routine about how she had been born and brought up in Bondi. Every morning, she got up and looked out of her window and thought, "Wow, if this is the prison, what must England be like? It must be paradise on earth." The punchline was her arrival at Heathrow.

That little joke might not appear exceptionally funny, viewed from an English point of view, but to have reached the current situation - where the place to which the dregs of British society were banished is now a place where many in the United Kingdom would give a lot to be allowed to live permanently - does have a certain comedy to it, especially if you are lucky enough to be born Australian. What Hughes's book shows is that, in addition to being amusing, this result is also downright astonishing. Emerging from such fiercely cruel origins to become a thriving, middle-ranking nation is little short of miraculous. While Australia's early story lacks the romanticism of, for example, the founding myths of the United States, the creation of the modern nation of Australia -  (for all its faults; I don't claim it is perfect, any more than any human society is) - from the blood-soaked violence detailed by Hughes is an achievement both surprising and fairly wonderful.


  1. Almost thirty years ago, I sent a copy to my stepmother as a birthday present, having glanced into it here and there. My father's remark was that it was as well that the convicts hadn't been in the habit of singing "One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall", for in that case Hughes might wall have printed all the verses. He may have been a bit extensive in his quotations, though I don't remember. It did look to be a fascinating book.

    1. I didn't especially notice Hughes making lengthy quotations - but it is a very long book. Not that I can we what should be left out. It is more that you have to be pretty committed to the subject to set aside that much reading time, I suppose.