Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes

On my first attempt at reading this book, I made it to p. 185. This really isn't a beach read, I discovered. Luckily on this, my second try, I did finish. I did enjoy it and learned a lot, but I can't be quite as effusive with my praise as the quotes on the cover. It is fascinating and well-researched but it's also dry and academic.

Everyone probably knows that Australia was founded as a penal colony. I didn't realize (although the timing should have been a clue) that it was largely because America revolted and thanks to declaring ourselves our own country, England couldn't ship convicts here anymore. (Did you know they used to do that? Some were sold to Southern states as slaves!) So, starting in 1787, they began to ship felons to Australia. While Australia had been discovered by Cook almost 20 years earlier, no one had made the long and daunting trip back in the meantime, so there was completely nothing there when the prisoners arrived, aside from the Aboriginals and bizarre native animals. The first groups had a very tough go at it, nearly starving to death while trying to eke out some crops and build shelter in a particularly inhospitable land. Later shipments went to Norfolk Island, which is a few thousand miles off the Eastern coast, and Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land) as well as to Sydney itself. The majority of the prisoners were basically rented out to settlers for very cheap labor (only had to provide room and board), without which it's not all that likely that Australia would have been settled. Many different magistrates and governors had different theories of punishment and rehabilitation which ran the gamut from daily torture to coddling, with  predictable results (the nice guys had much better outcomes than the martinets.)

This heritage has let Australia, and particularly Tasmania, with an unusual heritage and social strata. Descendants of convicts were in fact very, very law abiding (combo of rebelling against their parents and wanting to prove that genetics aren't a factor in criminality), but they were shunned nonetheless by immigrants who came freely, and looked down upon. There was no history of Australia that included the penal aspects until the mid-20th century. At the same time, today there are parts of Australia that are proud of their rough and tumble background, perhaps having learned that if you take pride in what others consider a flaw, it's harder to be made to feel badly.

The book goes into the relationship between the British people and the aboriginals (bad), what happened when criminals tried to escape (they died), how an economy did form (sheep), and how the settlers started to rebel against England sending their criminals there. Reformers like Jeremy Bentham had railed for decades against transportation and in favor of modern prisons, and eventually they were heard (also when it became more cost effective.) There were economics issues when transportation ended, due to the drop-off in free labor, but Australians dealt with it (after all, that didn't mean there suddenly were no more prisoners in Australia - many men had to serve out sentences of 7-14 years if not life, so there remained convict labor for decades, if dwindling.)

There was a tad too much research for me - I didn't need to see a quote from every known letter from the penal colony and the songs really didn't make much of an impression on me. But it was certainly thorough and therefore you believe everything Mr. Hughes wrote, even if it's a little overwhelming at times. I was more interested in stories of individual convicts (or prison wardens) than the more sweeping sociological implications, but you do get both. I am going to South Australia which is one of the few states that never had convicts (Victoria also didn't but was the closest land to Tasmania so ended up with a lot of recently-released convicts.) Sadly, there are few historical remnants of that era, even though it wasn't that long ago. It's understandable that no one saw a reason to preserve a heritage they saw as a blemish on society, but it is the history, and no amount of denial will change that, so it's excellent that Mr. Hughes did such a great job preserving the knowledge of this misguided plan. And it's amazing that Australians turned out to be such an incredibly nice bunch of people.

I have no idea where I got this book, having owned it for more than 10 years. It's possible my father gave it to me.

1 comment:

Booksnyc said...

I didn't realize the English used to send prisoners here!