As I head off to the ATA conference in Boston—which you’re invited to follow using the #ata52 hashtag on Twitter—Leonard Pierce returns to continue our series on Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. —Andrew
The more one reads about the settlement of Australia with the eyes of a contemporary American, the more the parallels between the two countries become stark. But what’s especially surprising – and instructive – isn’t just the way the nations grew and developed together along divergent but familiar paths; it’s the way the events leading up to the founding of Australia are reflected in modern-day America.
The idea of transporting prisoners to serve as involuntary labor for a colony was not new in Britain; it was an idea floated over two centuries before the First Fleet departed for Botany Bay. But it took a concatenation of events to finally make it happen, the foremost of which was a crisis among what as referred to as “the criminal class”. That this was essentially another way of speaking of the poor comes as no surprise; much like contemporary America, which jails more of its citizenry than any country in history, Great Britain’s way of dealing with its idle population was to imprison them. Unwilling to accept the notion that unrelieved poverty was a driver of crime, and under the sway of voguish nonsense about inherited personality, the law set down harsh penalties for even the most piddling of offences.
Yet the jails in England were few in number, and built with no thought towards rehabilitation. They soon became so overcrowded that prisoners were housed in hulks – near-ruined ships floating precariously on the Thames and off the coasts, an impractical stopgap solution. One of Robert Hughes’ chief insights, little appreciated in either of our countries, is that the revolution led by George Washington played a critical role in the founding of Australia America had been Westminster’s first choice for forced deportations for nearly as long as the Crown had been settled in the New World, but the revolution made it off limits; even afterward, Australia was not thought ideal. Locations in Africa and the Middle East were the first choices, but climatic factors pulled them out of the running, and by default, the continent still known widely to Europeans as “New Holland” became the destination of choice.
The First Fleet, in another historical circumstance that echoes through the ages to contemporary America, had to deal with enormous hardship long before they arrived on the fatal shore, much of which was caused by a combination of ineffectual government and corrupt profit-seekers eager to indulge the former’s taste for getting work done at the least possible cost. The practical and protective Captain Arthur Phillip, who oversaw the fleet, strove to make his naval superiors see the light about the raw necessities of the voyage, which had been outfitted with enough supplies to cover a six-week trip when it needed enough for one that would last eight months. With some items – most especially food – there simply were not enough allocated; with others – in particular, anti-scorbutics – the crooked contractor tasked with supplying them short-changed the fleet and pocketed the difference. So, in an all-too-familiar pattern of lack of will by those in safe positions of responsibility, the settlers were doomed to a share of starvation and disease before they ever left port.
Who, then, were the men and women of the “criminal class” who starved in jail, starved on ship, and starved on land? Many legends have grown up around them, tainted by the prejudices of the time. One is that they were mostly political prisoners and whores, a rather sexist notion that flatters the men and defames the women (unfairly so, since prostitution was not a crime punishable by deportation). In fact, as Hughes makes clear by laying out the court records, the majority were petty thieves, sentenced to everything from seven years to death for stealing ribbons, trinkets, and especially food. It was an exile colony of Jean Valjeans. Another, more contemporary myth is that the Australian settlement was not an issue of transportation at all, but rather a scheme to provide Britain with important ports from which they could access Asian trade and block a possible French colonization of India. This is appealing in that it posits a slightly more noble reason for Australia’s founding than the search for a place to dump society’s undesirables; but Hughes insists it is largely a lie. It was largely promulgated by early boosters of the Australia plan, who exaggerated its closeness to India and China in order to make their idea seem more appealing.
But there’s no need to come up with alternate histories to glorify the founding of Australia. While there were flaws among the convicts (especially their exploitation and racism towards the Aborigines) and the government (embodied in their often arbitrary cruelty towards the convicts), they showed surprising resourcefulness and dedication in the face of unimaginable deprivation. Their rations were cut to the bone when it became clear that Australia wasn’t the agricultural paradise it had been made out to be, and additional supplies were delayed, with fatal results, by bad luck at sea. More ships arrived with more mouths to feed, and the original two-year supply of foodstuffs was exhausted well ahead of schedule. But through it all, through disease and overhunting and starvation, there were many who felt that a chance to die on their own terms in a land they’d made was preferable to a return to the poverty, despair and hopelessness of returning to England. From the ranks of these convicts arose men like Richard Phillimore and James Ruse, who tended the first working farms that would produce natively grown food for Australia. These were the Emancipists, the men and women who served out their terms but stayed on in hopes of making a nation of their own.
Not everyone was so civic-minded. Next, we’ll look at the bushrangers, the recidivists, and the men who people “the worst places in the English-speaking world”: Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land.