Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic, died on 6 August. We reprint this review (from 1988) by Belinda Weaver of his important history of Australia, The Fatal Shore, as a tribute.
It’s chic now in Australia to claim convict descent. Everyone wants to get in on the act. Tracing family history is now a national obsession. The convict past, no longer the shameful stigma it was, seems just another lovable aspect of Australia’s history.
Aussies are supposed to be ruggedly independent, jovial, anti-authoritarian, loyal to their mates, fond of the outdoor life. The popular image of the convict — a republican outcast in British society, or an early trade unionist — chimes in with this “typical Aussie” image.
Hughes’ book answers many questions — the who, what, why and how of Australia’s founding. For too long, Australian children learned only British history. Our own past was taboo, dealing as it did with the convicts, the suppression of the Aborigines, the bushrangers and the split from Britain’s rule. The Australian past was too close for comfort. Better the recital of far away kings and queens than an investigation of the fatal shore.
The current tide of nationalism in Australia bends the stick too far the other way. Far from being shamed or worried by the past, Australians want to celebrate it, get drunk on it. Both approaches end up hiding the truth.
Hughes has ripped open the past. This is no anodyne history aimed at pleasing the world. It is raw truth and history, bloody, violent and savage. It gets at the real beginnings, not simply with the first white foot on Australian soil in 1788. It tells us where that foot came from and why. It also describes Australia before the white man. No Garden of Eden, peopled with noble savages, but a harsh, dry land with a stone-age people with little culture, living a hand-to-mouth existence with no agriculture, no domestic animals, no permanent structures. Hughes romanticises nothing.
The British convict experiment was a desperate solution to a desperate problem. A whole continent would become a jail.
Georgian Britain was a cruel society. Those with money and position clung grimly to them, with the law firmly on their side. Crimes against property were punished more severely than any other, often ending with hanging. The ruling class believed in the existence of a criminal “class” — a set of bad apples who would turn the rest rotten. The need was to punish them, and if possible, to segregate them for the sake of the “good”. Can anything have seemed more futile than this experiment?
Attacking the symptoms of extreme poverty couldn’t cure the cause. People stole to stay alive in a world which denied them a living. Laws and punishment could not deter the starving from stealing food or money to survive. In many cases, the amounts stolen were pitifully small, but the punishments were heavy – long imprisonment or death.
Yet Georgian Britain lacked the prisons or the police to manage its criminal problem. Many convicts had previously been sent off to America at the expense of colonists for whom they were forced to work on arrival. This form of slavery was closed after the American War of Independence. A new solution was needed. Many prisoners were locked up on rotting hulks, but this was only temporary. The hulks themselves were overcrowded and were so unsafe that many sank with all aboard. They were filthy and hotbeds of crime. They provided no real answer.
So the Australian experiment was tried. Luckily, this new venture was so far away that few convicts would ever return. 14,000 miles -– the end of the world. To many convicts, the mere thought of it evoked death. It was simply unimaginable.
The Marines who sailed with the First Fleet were also anxious. They were sailing into a complete unknown. Letters and supplies could take six months or longer to arrive. Many would not see families and friends for many years, if ever. Australia seemed worse than death. Death could be imagined, Australia could not.
The First Fleet was lucky to survive. Its journey was horrendous. The victualling of the ship had been done by crooked merchants, so many supplies were rotten. The rigors of the journey killed many. The Fleet sailed with no special precautions against scurvy; the weather was bad; convict insubordination was rife; and morale was low in the crew. Their arrival at Botany Bay was a letdown. Though glad that the journey was finally ended, they were appalled to discover the Bay unsuitable for settlement. A further search found Port Jackson just a few miles north; a natural harbor, teeming with fish and with rich soil and abundant water. The site of modern Sydney was eagerly settled.
But it didn’t live up to its early promise. The soil was poorer than expected, seeds failed to thrive, the rain came down in buckets or not at all. The Fleet faced starvation years until the Second Fleet could arrive to succor them. Bad beginnings.
Convicts were fed “on the store”. The government was the main supplier of all food and goods. Convicts were set to work building shelters and tilling the soil.
No need for a prison here; the whole country was one. No convict could escape and hope to survive. The Australian bush was inhospitable to all but the Aborigines who could find waterholes and live off the native animals and insects. Totally ignorant of geography, many convicts fled, hoping to find China or some other hospitable land. All they found was a lonely death.
After the starvation years, the convicts could hope for a better lot. Instead of being stuck in prison, they were assigned to work for free settlers. In time, they could hope to get tickets-of-leave, and become free settlers themselves, though they could not leave the colony. For many, this was the road to a respectable living, the living that “old England”couldn’t provide. But many convicts met a harsher fate. Assigned to brutal masters who worked them to the bone and flogged them at will, many convicts preferred death itself.
Many convicts, usually the “hardened criminals”, were not assigned, but worked in government chain gangs doing the hardest work, such as road building.
Life in the gangs was grim. Heavy irons weighed them down. The legs of many were open sores from the incessant chafing. The work was punishing, their overseers were cruel and arbitrary, often stealing the food meant for the convicts.
There was no thought of rehabilitation for criminals. The system had to be cruel if it was to deter the criminal back “home”. Thus punishment and work was the never ending round, with special pieces of punishment created for persistent offenders,
In places like Macquarie Harbour, men often worked knee deep all day in freezing water, building pylons for a bridge, and spent sleepless nights on a windswept, rocky island with no blankets and with empty bellies. For whistling, smiling, singing or loafing, endless lashings were given. Talking was frowned upon, as all were suspected of plotting some crime. The system brutalised because it denied any humanity to the convict. He had to be crushed absolutely so that he could never commit a crime again. Such was the system on the fatal shore.
The special hells created included Norfolk Island, Moreton Bay and Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour. Run by sadistic men who were beyond the control of any government, they were precursors of the 20th century gulags. They aimed to break men utterly, by consistent hard work, by flogging and by crushing discipline. Men were given thousands of lashes. The faces of spectators would be splashed with flesh and blood. The cat o’ nine tails frequently wore out. Blood would slop in the shoes of the lashed men. One man had so little skin left on his back from incessant floggings that his shoulder blades showed through.
In creating these special hells, the system was fulfilling its deterrent role. Men would rather die than go there; many killed themselves or killed others in suicide pacts to escape.
The Fatal Shore is living history. It could have been just a catalogue of horrors, or a list of numbing statistics. But Hughes has found the language to touch our hearts and minds. He has made the unimaginable imaginable
He has also touched on three taboo areas in some detail — the treatment of women, the existence of homosexuality and the fate of the Aborigines.
The “popular” view of convict women is that they were all prostitutes. This is shown to be false. Many, like men, simply stole to survive.
Many had been seduced and abandoned, but not all had turned to prostitution as a result. Some had been Irish nationalists or agitators of one kind or another. The colony’s treatment of them was shameful. In the Female Factory at Parramatta, men could come to feel the merchandise before choosing a wife. When a new ship arrived, men turned up to take their pick of the women; the rest were sent to the Female Factory. Most needed a man’s help to get on.
The “curse” of homosexuality was decried by all managers of the convict system. The jailers were surprised that locking men up together, far from any women, should result in homosexuality. It was rife throughout the colony, especially in the hellholes like Norfolk Island. The prisoners took what solace they could from each other. Yet the official reports drip with loathing and contempt for these “unnatural practices”. It had to be stamped out. But floggings had no effect, though the punishment was severe.
The official policy towards the Aborigine was always one of peaceful coexistence. All the same, the advent of the white man was an unmitigated disaster for the Aborigines. In Tasmania, they were completely wiped out; their numbers today on the mainland are still small. They could never defeat the white man militarily, and they succumbed in huge numbers to two imported evils, disease and liquor.
The spread of white settlement forced tribes out of their natural hunting grounds and into conflicts with other tribes. The convicts hated them. Themselves the lowest on the white ladder, they longed for someone they could beat down. The Aborigines became their victims. When convicts became free and got some land for themselves, they kept their mistrust of the Aborigines, who had often helped to track down escaped convicts for the government. As more of the country became settled, white settlers killed off Aborigines rather than live in fear of attack. Poisoned flour was given out, along with tobacco and rum.
Aborigines had no settled religion or gods, but they did have an almost mystical attachment to their land. Certain sites were sacred to them. In driving them off, settling on these sacred sites, and barring them from their traditional grounds, white settlers destroyed the Aboriginal relationship with the land, and thus their whole way of life. This fact must stand with the other facts of disease and drunkenness as one of the destroyers of Aboriginal life.
For many convicts, arrival on the fatal shore had been utter misery. But others had prospered, had made a living, and could call themselves free. This fact led many criminals in Britain to petition for the chance to be transported. They too hoped to finally reach a better life. Even free settlers were becoming more numerous. Some settlers talked of independence from Britain and the end to transportation. Free, waged workers would be better value than convicts.
The colony was developing its own life and politics different from that of England. England wanted things to be tightened up, with more Moreton Bays and Port Arthurs to deter the criminals at home; many colonists wanted a free Australian society, rid of the convict stain. By 1840 transportation to New South Wales had officially ended.
• From Workers’ Liberty 11, April 1988
• Bill Douglas’ film Comrades, (about the Tolpuddle Martyrs) is a fine, and very moving, depiction of the Australian convict system.