Book Review: The Fatal Shore’

By Robert Hughes

Reviewed By Bernie Kelley

This book details the history of the colonization of Australia. This was largely accomplished by means of the importation of prisoners from England, Ireland and Scotland to the aforementioned continent. The book is a frightening indictment of the penal system in Great Britain and it is rife with accounts of the cruelties inflicted on the “criminals, many of whom were convicted for minor infractions and peccadillos. To his credit, Robert Hughes is clearly on the side of the prisoners, offering a sympathetic overview of their punishments, which were often excessive. At this stage of the game, it is difficult to tell how much of the blame can be imputed to the guards and overseers, who must have been under considerate duress themselves. The book begins with a summation of the travails of the earliest settlers who were often at odds with the Native Aborigines. The arrivistes suffered from hunger and privation and they soon became for England, despite the rampant poverty which they endured while dwelling in the Mother Country. Again, Hughes has a great deal of sympathy for the convicts, referring to some of the prison commandants as “Sadists.” He is quite convincing in his depiction of the cruelties inflicted on the prisoners, many of whom were city dwellers who were expected to develop farms and crops in short order. The narrative continues with a history of notable rebels who escaped the clutches of what Hughes refers to as “The System.” Among them are included a number of outlaws who were idealized in such anthems as “The Wild Colonial Boy.” Hughes waxes philosophical when he expounds on the fate of woman convicts. He castigates the opprobrium and cruel fate to which they were assigned. In fact, throughout the book the author proves himself to be a gentleman by displaying his sympathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed. Later in the book, there is a history of the most notorious punishment venues of the Australian Penal Colony, namely Van Diemens Land and Norfolk Island. These islands were reserved for the most egregious offenders, and the horrible punishments delineated by Hughes are legion. Eventually and finally, sentiment in England towards punishment changed to a more approach. Penitentiaries were built in England and “The System” thankfully came to an end Robert Hughes is an excellent writer. His command of the English Language is beyond superb, and he knows how to tell a story. He was an Australian native himself who emigrated to Europe and the United States. His books include “The Art of Australia”, “Heaven and Hell in Western Art” and “the Shock of the New.” He passed away in 2012. “The Fatal Shore” is a disturbing read. The condition of the lower classes in England and Ireland were conducive to the proliferation of crime, and the authorities felt the need to devise a means of punishment for what were seen as minor offenses. Poverty was rife and the temptation to rob the till, so to speak were obviously profound. Hence the development of the Penal Colony in Australia. Robert Hughes does a nice job of delineating the injustices that occurred during the workings of “The System”, and he is to be congratulated for this superb account. The work, while somewhat disturbing, is informative and enlightening. Hopefully the reader will be enhanced in their knowledge and understanding of history. Happy Reading! Bernie Kelly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.