THE FATAL SHORE, Part 1: The Vengeance of Property

Andrew’s on vacation this week, so today we turn the blog over to San Antonio’s Leonard Pierce to kick off our series on the founding of Australia and one of the modern classics published on the subject. Take it away, Leonard:

It never pays dividends to speak for one’s countrymen, but if my experience is any indicator, the average American knows little about Australia, let alone its astonishing history. Our schools seem to have enough trouble teaching American history, so the chances of learning anything about a foreign country are slim – even a country whose history is as closely tied to our own as Australia. The two nations began their official existences only a decade apart, and, indeed, Australia’s selection as the dumping ground for a new kind of colonial labor was necessitated by the Revolution that had made America off-limits for the exportation of “the criminal class.” But geographically and politically, America and Australia were worlds removed from one another: the U.S. was populated, in its early goings, by zealots who found the religious climate of England insufficiently fervid for their liking, while Australia was settled by men and women who had been hurled away from the shores of the kingdom with great force.

Our educational and cultural conception of Australia, then, is a largely incoherent collection of clichés and stereotypes: a kaleidoscope of references from ‘80s comedies, a notion that its hard-drinking, independent, rough-and-tumble ways make it “England’s Texas”; and, of course, somewhere crawling on the surface of that part of our minds that wants to reduce every nation to a single characteristic, the knowledge that it was founded by criminals. The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ tremendous history of the birth of the only country that is also a continent is a perfect prescription for those of us whose initial reaction to the very name of Australia is to make snickering comments about watching your camera, but he does the opposite of shy away from the low and brutal realities of its settlement. Indeed, he goes out of his way to make it clear that “the System” – the gingerly bureaucratized term for the forced exportation of criminals to serve as bound labor for the creation of a rich new colony – is as sensitive a topic for the Australians as slavery is for Americans. His explanations of how political and psychological factors kept detailed accounts of the System out of Australian history texts for decades are only the first of the many fascinating insights that seem as revelatory now as when the book first appeared 25 years ago.

Convicts Embarking For Botany Bay

Thomas Rowlandson, "Convicts Embarking for Botany Bay." From the National Library of Australia.

The Fatal Shore begins with a compelling description of the flora and fauna of the land on which the first wave of the banished arrived in 1788. Hughes makes it seem, in near literal language, like an alien planet, and not without reason; although one of the Transportation System’s selling points was that it was nominally more humane than execution (Georgian England prescribed hanging for literally hundreds of crimes, from murder on down to uprooting plants on a nobleman’s property), it shipped the criminals so far away they might as well have been removed from the face of the Earth. Adding to the enigmatic strangeness was the fact that almost nothing was known about Australia; previous inland exploration consisted of an alarmingly brief stay by the legendary Captain James Cook, whose visit to a microscopically small area of the continent led to recommendations for its use no better informed than those of the proverbial blind man laying his hands on an elephant.

Of course, there were those to whom Australia was anything but alien and strange. To the aboriginals who already lived there, it was as comfortable and familiar as eternity, and to Hughes’ credit, he moves almost immediately to telling at least part of their story. He is determined to speak of the cruelties, ignorance and disruption inflicted on them by the European settlers, while never soft-pedaling the brutalities of their own traditions (he is especially effective at recounting the low status and grim prospects of women in aboriginal societies), but in the end, the conclusion is foregone. Irrespective of the virtues and vices of Australia’s native cultures, he writes, “it had not the slightest chance of surviving white invasion.”

But this white invasion was of a different color than that which had prevailed elsewhere. This was not the predatory exploration of the conquistadors, or the religious haven of the American colonies; the settlers of Australia lived under a complex system of class-based control. They were the subjects of a unique form of social experimentation never tried before or since, and as Hughes is all too aware, its closest analogue is the bottomless inhumanity of the gulags. Even the journey was murderous; anyone who has flown from the U.S. to Australia in climate-controlled, jet-propelled ease knows that the trip seems crushingly long, but to see the original route (England to Brazil to South Africa to Botany Bay) and imagine it being made on an 18th-century sailing ship under the worst of privation is unimaginable. After they arrived, the transportees were kept under conditions not far removed from slavery, and faced dreadful disease and starvation with no access to aid.

And yet, Hughes insists, transportation worked. The Australian colonists survived and, in some cases, thrived. Refuting modish theories of genetically inherited criminality, the children of the convicts grew into law-abiding citizens of the Crown. Even more surprisingly, those freed from bondage to the System almost universally decided to remain in Australia rather than return to England. Who they were, and why they made the decision to stay in conditions of uncertainty and danger rather than go back to the familiarity of home, is something I’d like to talk about in our next installment.

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About Andrew Levine

Andrew Levine is an ATA-certified freelance French-English translator from Brooklyn, New York.
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