Thursday, June 03, 2010

Book Review - The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

I've wanted to read The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes for some time now. I've known about the book for a long time but never bothered to look it up in the library. At the Save The Children Book Fair, must be 18 months ago now, I found it. Snapped it up I did. Not bad for $6. It sat on the bookshelf for a while whilst the war stories and Sir Donald Bradman books were being consumed. So, must have been about two months ago, I finally got around to reading it.

If you aren't aware it is about the settlement of Australia by convicts. Why it came about, what happened to the convicts and the reasons for it coming to a halt.

What an amazing story this book divulges regarding settlement of a nation. And the hardships suffered by the convicts are almost unfathomable by todays standards. Imagine stealing something trifling and being transported for seven or 14 years. Step out of line during your time in the new country and you go to a more harsh penal colony for a few more years, such as Norfolk Island or Port Macquarie, before returning to complete your original sentence. Even the trip by ship wasn't counted as serving time from your sentence nor the time stationed in a prison hulk in Britain awaiting transportation.

Britain had a huge problem, mainly with petty crime but some of it serious in nature, of where to house its criminals. America had declared independence and the industrial revolution meant that a great many people were unable to find work or feed their family. Of course people will turn to crime in this instance. People of the upper classes felt that the criminal class should be removed from society. Australia seemed like the ideal place. Perhaps it could even be a strategic move to stop the French from claiming it.

Robert Hughes sure knows how to tell a story. I wished that he didn't use so many words that I had to guess the meaning of. Also, how can an Australian-born stand by his work published in Britain with American spellings? That was almost too much for me.

Hughes tells us very clearly the struggles of the convicts as it is their story that has been forgotten by the history books. Until recently most Australians would be afraid to reveal convict ancestry. And it certainly wasn't a subject taught at school. I'd say it is a story that requires telling and we would all be better off for knowing it. This book, perhaps in abridged format, should be studied in primary school as I found the history fascinating. It only makes me more adamant that I will visit Port Arthur in Tasmania to see some of Australia's wild and hideous heritage.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about this book is the fact that I left it at a taekwondo lesson, at a time when I wasn't training, and it disappeared. I waited a week for someone to hand it in but that didn't happen. Luckily my local library had a copy and, I kid you not, the librarian put the borrowing slip between the pages where I had been reading when I lost mine. Page 343 I think it was. There's 603 pages so you can see why I was so unhappy about losing it.

On the downside I think that there wasn't enough recounting of the situation from the convicts themselves but considering that many of them were illiterate and they could be flogged for having pencil and paper in jail it's perhaps not that surprising that they didn't document their own experience that much. Fact is they wanted to remove the memory of convictry and wouldn't wish to write home about it if they could. Certainly not the unpleasantries anyway. The section on Western Australia was very short, as the book concentrates on New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land / Tasmania, even though WA has a convict history.

If you enjoy history then this is a wonderful book. Thoroughly recommended. Only wish that I'd read it years ago.

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes


Anonymous said...

I must read this.

Iris Flavia said...

Sounds really interesting!
I just read Nelson Mandela´s book (part II, Long way to Freedom) and was really shocked by what prison meant in even his early days - compared to that today it´s luxury with TV, gym, pool and what else!

Hammy said...

I'm rather amazed that Nelson Mandela wasn't a broken man, physically and mentally, when he left jail. Perhaps it was still better than living with Winnie though.

Anonymous said...

This is our book for the upcoming Book Club meeting. I'm picking it up today - can't wait to read it. I've never been to Australia but would love to's on my Bucket List.