The Fatal Shore
"Australia's first white settlers came ashore from a British prison fleet in Botany Bay in 1788. Before them lay an almost unknown: unexplored, unexploited, and yet to be the scene of the most extraordinary social experiment then imagined - the creation of a prison camp in the South Pacific for an entire criminal class. It was, as this brilliantly written account of the convict transportation system argues, the sketch for the twentieth-century Gulag.
"The Fatal Shore follows convict transportation from the squalor of Georgian Britain and its obsessive fear of mob violence to the grim prison hulks - Noah's Arks of small-time criminality - that disgorged their human cargoes into the most elaborate penal system the world had ever seen. Many of those who survived the first fleets were condemned to starvation, disease and horrifying brutality, and yet within eighty years Australia became a promised land to which people have flocked ever since.
"In describing Australia's painful transition from prison camp to open society, Robert Hughes draws on a wealth of documents, private and official, never before consulted. They give vivid testimony to the most complete account yet written of how 160,000 men, women and children, some innocent, some not, but all united by their helplessness and criminality, were shipped off the face of the known world to suffer, to die, to succeed and go on to found a new nation. This is history on an epic scale, told with immense energy and panache."
About the author:
Robert Hughes is the art critic of Time magazine. He is the author of two outstanding previous books: The Shock of the New, also a successful television series, and Heaven and Hell in Western Art. His television films include studies of Caravaggio, Bernini and Rubens, and a series on the art of Australia. He was born and educated in Sydney and now lives in New York.
First Paragraph from the Introduction:
The idea for this book occurred to me in 1974, when I was working on a series of television documentaries about Australian art. On location in Port Arthur, among the ruins of the great penitentiary and its out-buildings, I realized that like nearly all other Australians I knew little about the convict past of my country.
I grew up with a skimpy sense of colonial Australia. Convict history was ignored in schools and little taught in universities - indeed, the idea that the convicts might have a history worth telling was foreign to Australians in the 1950s and 1960s. Even in the mid-1970s only one general history of the System (as transportation, assignment and secondary punishment in colonial Australia were loosely called) was in print: A.G.L. Shaw's pioneering study Convicts and the Colonies. An unstated bias rooted deep in Australian life seemed to wish that "real" Australian history had begun with Australian respectability - with the flood of money from gold and wool, the opening of the continen, the creation of an Australian middle class. Behind the diorama of Australia Felix lurked the convicts, some 160,000 of them, clanking their fetters in the penumbral darkness. But on the feelings and experiences of these men and women, little was written. They were statistics, absences and finally embarrassments.
From the Collins Harvill hardback edition, 1987.
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Last modified: January 29, 2001.