House of the Dead

The Fatal Shore

by Robert Hughes
Knopf, 688 pp., $24.95

Robert Hughes
Robert Hughes; drawing by David Levine

The most enduring fact about Australian settlement appears at the end of a chapter of The Fatal Shore, in a phrase that deserves to be quoted at once. It concerns the land. At first deeply alien, itself a confining factor, part of a nature that was “destined to punish,” the land, Robert Hughes says in writing of the bushrangers, was “re-named with the sign of freedom. On its blankness the absconder could inscribe what could not be read in spaces already colonized and subject to the laws and penal imagery of England.”

What Hughes is uncovering here is the point at which Australians first recognized, in the place itself, a new home, a unique terrain for action and experience. It is the very heart of his theme.

Hughes’s detailed and dramatic account of the first seventy years of white settlement in Australia is not the first book on the subject. The first two volumes of Manning Clark’s monumental A History of Australia* cover much of the same ground. But writing on what happened in Australia is still relatively new. Until recently we were not much concerned with our own history. Robert Hughes seems to suggest that this has its origin in shame: in an unwillingness to face our origins as a nation founded not in the spirit of Enlightenment but as a place of punishment and despair. He makes much of what he calls The Stain, meaning the shadow of convict blood. But the fact is, these days, that one in every three Australians was either born outside the country or has no British background. For these Australians, the past is elsewhere. And until the last twenty years or so, we were, as a people, to busy contending with the continent itself, its dimensions and distances, to be concerned with the past. You have to be engaged by time to be interested in history. The consciousness of Australians has been dominated by space. It takes something like a bicentennial (white settlement in Australia will be two hundred years old in 1988) to make such people aware that they have also had a life in that other dimension.

The Fatal Shore, then, is a timely book. There are big things still to be said about what happened in those two hundred years, and Hughes grasps his subject with great boldness and flair. His prose is full of passion, anger, pity, wit, and it will surprise no one to hear that he has an eye for the moods of landscape and weather. His theme too is big: nothing less than the meeting of the European spirit, at its most pragmatic and brutal, with a continent that was never intended to receive it; an alternative story, both to America’s and to that of Europe itself, running from the French Revolution to beyond Auschwitz. What we have here is an example of that peculiar…

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