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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