Book Review - The Fatal Shore
So begins “The Fatal Shore”, an epic account of the convict settlement of Australia by the late Robert Hughes. Hughes takes us on a journey which spans the better part of a century; from the departure of the First Fleet from Portsmouth in 1787, to the arrival in Fremantle of the last convict ship in 1868. Along the way, Hughes delves into the many facets transportation. He explores the social conditions and politics of Britain in the late 1700s; the early years in Sydney where convicts and soldiers alike faced near-starvation; the later settlements such as Port Arthur, Norfolk Island, and Moreton Bay; the experience of female convicts; the assignment system (under which convicts were randomly dispensed to settlers as free labour); and finally, the abolitionist movement which gave rise to the end of transportation.
The sheer volume of information that Hughes packs into “The Fatal Shore” is almost overwhelming. The book is stuffed with facts, anecdotes and quotes, as well as descriptions of the many characters who were involved in “the system”. There’s “Ikey” Solomon, a Jewish pickpocket who in 1827 escaped from custody in England and fled to Hobart to join his wife who had been transported there for receiving stolen goods. There’s Lieutenant-Colonel James Morisset, the tyrannical commandant of Norfolk Island from 1829 to 1834, whose face had been shattered by a mine-shell during the Napoleonic Wars (a “whistling mask of scar tissue” writes Hughes). And there’s Alexander Pearce, transported to Macquarie Harbour in 1819 for stealing six pairs of shoes. In 1822, Pearce and seven other convicts escaped into the dense forests of western Van Diemen’s Land. After several days, a lack of food prompted the group to turn to cannibalism. One by one, the convicts killed and feasted on each other, until only Pearce survived. He was recaptured, but – remarkably – not executed. The authorities refused to believe his macabre tale, believing it to be the invention of Pearce’s “debased mind”.
As one can imagine, grisly stories feature often in “The Fatal Shore”. Hughes peppers his book with accounts of floggings and executions. Nor does he spare the reader the details of the effects that such brutal regimes had on the convicts. For example, under Morisset's regime, groups of convicts on Norfolk Island were driven to extreme measures, such as drawing straws to select one man to be killed and another to be his murderer. The others would be taken to Sydney to be witnesses at the ensuing trial, and thus get some temporary respite from the island.
However, “The Fatal Shore” is far from being a complete gore-fest. Hughes also recounts the success stories – the emancipists whose children became “first generation” Australians, the wealthy pioneering landowners such as as the Macarthur family, and the rare progressive authority figure (for example, the kind-hearted Alexander Maconochie of Norfolk Island).
Hughes’s writing is also a joy to read. The images he evokes are vivid and arresting. Here he is describing pre-1788 Sydney.
“To imagine the place, one should begin at North Head, the upper mandible of the harbor. Here, Australia stops; its plates of sandstone break off like a biscuit whose crumbs, the size of cottages, lie jumbled 250 feet below, at the surging ultramarine rim of the Pacific.”
And the convicts’ ways of passing the time during the voyage from England:
“They fished, trolling hooks with strips of canvas greased with fat. Bonitos would grab them and be hauled like silvery finned melons, shuddering and tail-tapping, into the scuppers…”
And Major Joseph Anderson (another commandant of Norfolk Island):
“… a grasping and pious Scot, with a face like an irritable osprey – bleak, sunken eyes, a blade of a nose, a wiry bush of white whiskers.”
And the fledging state of Western Australia:
“… a colony with a body the size of Europe and the brain of an infant.”
“The Fatal Shore” is a tour de force. The amount of research Hughes undertook in writing it is remarkable (the back of the book contains 44 pages of notes and another 15 pages of bibliography). The book was 12 years in the making - Hughes’s introduction states that he first conceived the idea in 1974 when he visited Port Arthur in Tasmania, and the book was not published until 1986. The end result is worth it. The book is stamped with the mark of someone who knows what he’s talking about. Given the density of “The Fatal Shore, I’d advise that it’s a book to be enjoyed in small doses, rather than devoured as quickly as possible. However, I would thoroughly recommend it. It’s an invaluable resource for people who wish to know more about the early decades of White Australia, as well as being a fascinating read.