Wednesday, August 25, 2010
The Fatal Shore is not a title that makes you think "warm and fuzzy." Which is good - Australia, despite cute koala bears and kangaroos and adorably childish town names, is not a warm and fuzzy place, especially when white people stumbled ashore. Nor was it so beforehand - it's a hot, poisonous, bitey/toothy, antipodean, riptide-y, terrifying, empty, starvation-inducing continent. The Aborigines seemed to manage fine, though Hughes does portray their existence as a little nasty, brutish, and short - a point I'm not fully willing to grant. The point remains that the shore that the British fell onto after a 6 month journey was indeed, as much as a shore can be, fatal.
The particular brilliance of the Brits lay in making the shore fatal-er. They wanted a place to put their criminally minded people and their desperate poor people through forced exile known as "transportation." These two groups can be visualized with a Venn Diagram that has a decent amount of overlap, but with clear crescents of open space that represent only awful people and only those trying to survive in a pretty awful underclass. The Brits wanted to "sublimate, deter, reform, and colonize." They got tired of Irish people demanding rights, poor people demanding food, swindlers demanding other people's property, and some of the violent characters (murder was usually punishable by death) demanding the ability to hurt others. In the bargain of penalizing lawbreakers, the British government wanted to colonize a continent before the French or Dutch. They managed to create communities where convicts were rehabilitated and became upstanding citizens, as well as hellish prison environments that turned people into animals while torturing and abusing men and women to death. America had some of this through indentured servants and slaves, though the context was different, and revoution and independence changed the historical path.
Apparently the Australians referred to their convict past as "The Stain" - something to be put away in a trunk and thrown into the Pacific. It was both a source of embarrassment and a source of quiet pride - either you're upset that your forebears were thieves, or you're proud that they did what they had to do to survive the awful English or stood up for what was right and got shipped to New South Wales. Hughes does a great job of dealing with both ends of the stick honestly, without broad generalizations.
The book does manage to give you a very good idea of how European civilization was introduced into Australia, from its discovery, founding, development, and the final abolition of transportation. You get to know the governors, the failed reformers, the overseers, some of the convicts, a bit of the Aborigines, and some of the British that tried to manage the whole thing. It goes over some of the development beyond Sydney, of the road over the Blue Mountains, and some of the societal structures set up to this day. It goes into a LOT of detail about Tasmania (called Van Dieman's Land for most of the beginning of Australia, just as Australia was New South Wales or, more narrowly, Botany Bay) and Norfolk Island. These islands became the main receptacle of the truly criminal criminals. Most people shipped to Australia were "assigned" to farmers and settlers to work the land and build things, when the government didn't need them to build infrastructure. The convict labor served as a form of slavery and indentured servitude that allowed the country to be transformed into European-approved civilization on the cheap.
I was a little surprised the book stayed so focused on the convicts and penology (yes, it's a word). However, prior to this book, there weren't many scholarly explorations of Australia's history as a penal colony - and due to the huge effect it had on subsequent Aussie culture, it's an important gap. That Hughes makes the book so readable (mostly) is glittery frosting.