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Antipodean Alcatraz

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Australia was born as a jail. Not until well into the eighteenth century was Europe aware of the place, and even then nobody could see much use for it. But the British, who claimed it, had serious problems at home, principal among them being an apparent crime wave that had generated an unmanageable volume of convicts.

What with poverty, gin and social disorder, justice had become rough indeed – stealing a loaf of bread might get you hanged. Good citizens were convinced that a true ‘criminal class’ was about to engulf the country. ‘The huge, ramifying tree of English criminal law’, as Robert Hughes describes it, had left the Georgian government at a loss for ways to punish so many threatening malefactors.

What to do about it? In The Fatal Shore (1986), Hughes’s account of the founding of Australia, we learn about the chosen solution: transportation. With too many convicts to hang, and no penitentiaries to put them in, the answer was to ship them about as far away from England as could be devised. What better place than Australia, presumably secure and empty of people? Thus in 1787 the First Fleet (‘this Noah’s Ark of small-time criminality’) set off for Botany Bay (ending up in Sydney Cove); before the practice of transportation was abolished, 162,000 men, women and children would be similarly dispatched to this Antipodean Alcatraz. Where they came from, why they were sentenced, what happened to them in this strange new (and often brutal) world, and how, out of pain and chaos, a nation slowly came into existence – it’s an enormous story that justifies the scale (700-plus pages) of the book telling it. You don’t need to care about Australia to find it gripping.

It is impossible to do justice to The Fatal Shore by simply giving its outlines. Hughes covers the Georgian social scene, the workings of English law, the voyage out (which lasted months), the administrators and their methods, the travails of escapees an

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Australia was born as a jail. Not until well into the eighteenth century was Europe aware of the place, and even then nobody could see much use for it. But the British, who claimed it, had serious problems at home, principal among them being an apparent crime wave that had generated an unmanageable volume of convicts.

What with poverty, gin and social disorder, justice had become rough indeed – stealing a loaf of bread might get you hanged. Good citizens were convinced that a true ‘criminal class’ was about to engulf the country. ‘The huge, ramifying tree of English criminal law’, as Robert Hughes describes it, had left the Georgian government at a loss for ways to punish so many threatening malefactors. What to do about it? In The Fatal Shore (1986), Hughes’s account of the founding of Australia, we learn about the chosen solution: transportation. With too many convicts to hang, and no penitentiaries to put them in, the answer was to ship them about as far away from England as could be devised. What better place than Australia, presumably secure and empty of people? Thus in 1787 the First Fleet (‘this Noah’s Ark of small-time criminality’) set off for Botany Bay (ending up in Sydney Cove); before the practice of transportation was abolished, 162,000 men, women and children would be similarly dispatched to this Antipodean Alcatraz. Where they came from, why they were sentenced, what happened to them in this strange new (and often brutal) world, and how, out of pain and chaos, a nation slowly came into existence – it’s an enormous story that justifies the scale (700-plus pages) of the book telling it. You don’t need to care about Australia to find it gripping. It is impossible to do justice to The Fatal Shore by simply giving its outlines. Hughes covers the Georgian social scene, the workings of English law, the voyage out (which lasted months), the administrators and their methods, the travails of escapees and the development of an Australian class structure. He describes the contested and long-delayed end to the system, signalled by the landing of the last ship in 1868. These large historical themes come to life through the marshalling of countless anecdotes, quotations from convicts’ letters and documents, and descriptive accounts of everything from the Cumberland Hunt in 1820s Sydney going ‘baying, belling and tallyhoing after dingoes’ to exactly what it was like to receive 100 lashes. Not every poor convict was exiled for no more than the theft of a couple of handkerchiefs, but some were, and Hughes writes of them with often savage sympathy. Thomas Chadwick, for example, transported for destroying twelve cucumber plants, ‘went to Australia, there to contemplate the exactness with which the god of property had measured out his bleak life in cucumbers’. Others were political victims (usually Irish, some Scottish), while some were frankly villains fully deserving of the appalling challenges they faced on landing. At first it was starvation – nobody had bothered to survey the land before sending the convicts – and the most basic absence of shelter. Then and afterwards there was the overriding problem of discipline, solved in the simplest and cruellest way by use of the lash. During the whole era of transportation, the administration was mainly in the hands of men no better than the worst of their charges. The New South Wales Corps (better known as the Rum Corps) not only took control of the whole colony and monopolized smuggling but also managed to forcibly depose a governor before it was disbanded. If the first penal settlement in Sydney was not bad enough, the authorities soon found ways of creating worse ones. Norfolk Island, a speck of land a thousand miles to the east of the mainland, became a prison for incorrigibles and notable for the degree of sadism practised there. Moreton Bay, Port Macquarie, Newcastle, all ‘hamlets of punishment’, sprang up along the coast to the north. What would be the true nexus for the penal system, however, was far to the south on the island then called Van Diemen’s Land. A testament to its reputation as a place of misery is the fact that when transportation finally ended, its inhabitants insisted on changing its name to the one it now bears, Tasmania. ‘This small hole in the world about the size of Ireland’, in Hughes’s words, swallowed more than seven out of every ten people shipped from Britain as convicts. I was in Tasmania a couple of years ago as a tourist, and found it hard to imagine this essentially bucolic, rain-swept country as the place of real suffering Hughes makes plain it was. William Sorell, who took over its administration in 1816, declared in a memo to Sydney that it held ‘a larger portion, than perhaps ever fell to the same number in any Country, of the most depraved and unprincipled people in the Universe’. To deal with them the authorities set up such grim establishments as Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of the island and Port Arthur, an isolated prison perched above cliffs at the far extremity of the Tasman Peninsula. Hughes brilliantly describes the approach to this terrifying place:
From Cape Direction, where Australia’s oldest lighthouse still winks its beam, the long humpy profile of the Tasman Peninsula lies on the south-eastern horizon. Its furthest southern point is Cape Raoul, which as one rounds it appears as the western arm of Maingon Bay, the sea-gate that opens the way to Port Arthur – the eastern arm being Cape Pillar. Both capes are of towering basalt pipes, flutes and rods, bound like fasces into the living rock. Seabirds wheel, thinly crying, across the black walls and the blacker shadows. The breaking swells throw up their veils. When the clouds march in from the Tasman Sea and the rainsqualls lash the prismatic stone, these cliffs can look like the adamantine gates of Hell itself. Geology had conspired with Lieutenant-Governor Arthur to give the prisoners of the crown a moral fright as their ships hauled in.
Few prisoners ever got back to England after serving their sentences. Most who survived stayed on as ‘emancipists’, as farmers, stockmen or tradesmen. Many tried, generally unsuccessfully, to escape confinement, although enough did so to create a whole body of legends about bushrangers and other backwoods marauders. Some, possessing a dangerously inadequate grasp of geography, headed north on foot intending to walk to China; one carried a compass drawn on a piece of paper. But there were a few truly intrepid characters who did manage to flee. Mary Bryant was transported for seven years for stealing a cloak. In 1791, along with her two children, her fisherman husband and seven other convicts, she sneaked out of Sydney under cover of night in a small open boat. Contending with storms, shipwreck, starvation and skirmishes with natives, the party made it all the way to Timor, where they were thrown into detention and shipped off to the Dutch East Indies in irons. Bryant’s husband and one child died there, of fever. The diminished party, now in English hands, was sent back to the Cape and finally on to England; en route Mary’s daughter succumbed. At this point Mary’s prospects seemed limited to prison and a second voyage back to captivity, but she soon acquired friends. Publicity stirred up by sympathizers such as James Boswell led to her receiving an unconditional pardon. A great issue throughout the transportation era was convict labour. The system called for the assignation of convicts to free farmers as something approaching slaves. They were desperately needed, and were never in surplus. Conditions varied, but those assigned to cruel or thoughtless landowners might suffer extraordinary hardships. Hughes quotes the Sydney Herald complaining in 1826 of the ‘all too prevalent custom’ of a master goading an assigned man to insolence or violence, whereby he would end up with fifty lashes and an extension of his servitude. And it could be worse. A Mr Scott was ‘a demon incarnate’:
He was in the habit of putting handcuffs, and leg-irons on [his workers], and throwing them into a dungeon on that estate, where they remained generally for three days without either meat or drink . . . [He] did not trouble to take his men to court, but sentenced them for the most trivial offence, and just as his caprice dictated, to carry logs of wood on their shoulders, on his own veranda, and under his eye; these logs weighed from 50 to 100 pounds.
Similarly, among the governors and other colonial bureaucrats could be found authentic sadists, along with hopeless timeservers and a few – a very few – sensible, well-meaning administrators. Major Joseph Foveaux made a name for himself on Norfolk Island as ‘one of them hard and determined men who believe in the lash more than the Bible’, as one convict put it; under his command a sentence of 200 lashes was called ‘a feeler’. Still, there were good men who tried against soul- destroying odds to improve the lot of convicts and move towards the creation of a civilized society. Lachlan Macquarie put down the Rum Corps and tried to make sense of the colony’s administration. Alexander Maconochie briefly instituted a humane regime on Norfolk Island. An ex-convict named William Redfern was responsible for introducing the first decent public health service. But nothing except time and the collapse of the system could really offer much hope. Today, reading The Fatal Shore, it is difficult to believe that it could have been produced in anything less than a lifetime. In fact, it took Hughes under ten years, at a time when he was also art critic for Time magazine and writing other pieces. But he did have a personal commitment to his subject. He was born in Australia and was a member of that remarkable crew (together with Clive James and Germaine Greer) who brought their disruptive talents to Europe in the 1960s. He was clearly fascinated by his national heritage. What is amazing is that he could turn his hand from writing powerful art criticism (as in his classic The Shock of the New) to equally powerful and profound history. Besides, he could hardly be bettered as a phrase-maker. Who else would describe, with blinding accuracy, a Merino sheep as ‘a pompous, ambling peruke’ or comment that it was ‘no wonder that the convicts pilfered like ants’? Hughes, who died in 2012, has been criticized in Australia for concentrating too much on the dark side, the horrors, of the convict experience. Yet there is no question that those eighty years were full of the most appalling cruelty, and any attempt to minimize it would be dishonest. Moreover, The Fatal Shore, as Clive James has wisely remarked, is ‘one of those rare achievements in the writing of history by which the unimaginably inhumane is brought to book without making us give up on humanity’. There was terrible pain in the founding of Australia; Hughes is right to make us feel it. We should be grateful that he does so in a book of such striking eloquence and readability.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 62 © Charles Elliott 2019


About the contributor

As an editor, Charles Elliott published The Fatal Shore and other books by Robert Hughes, none of which required much editing.

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