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House of the Dead

The Fatal Shore

by Robert Hughes
Knopf, 688 pp., $24.95

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 capacity for remaking things in our own image, or remaking ourselves in the spirit of the Other, that is so characteristic of our “northern” culture: the shaping, in an unlikely corner of the world, of what used to be called the New Britannia, and which we might see now as a nation of its own, English-speaking but unique.

The first Australian settlement had its origins, oddly enough, in an American act. One of the many inconveniences to Britain of the American Revolution was its interruption of the trade in convicts: the Crown had been used to selling its felons off as slaves, first to private shippers and then to plantation owners in North America. The British expected the intermission to be a short one. But the colonials won, and the new nation (which by 1783 was receiving 47,000 black slaves each year and had no need of white ones) declined the king’s offer to go on supplying “Men unworthy to remain in this Island.” A new depository had to be found. The government, rejecting Madagascar, Tristan da Cunha, and several sites in West Africa, decided at last on what was then the remotest spot on earth, the place on the east coast of New Holland that Cook had called Botany Bay.

What better repository than the very antipodes of the kingdom, its dark opposite on the underside of the earth, for what Bentham was to call an “excrementitious mass?”—all those thieves, whores, highwaymen, and others who had stopped being passive victims of enclosure and unemployment and become the entrepreneurs of their own fortune. A system that Americans would no longer accept was to be established in a new form elsewhere. Transportation was the grand alternative to death. Those whose lives were forfeit under the law were to be bodily removed, not into eternity but to a place where they would be invisible and harmless in fact but might still serve as symbols. At Botany Bay the kingdom’s excrementitious outcasts would, by the standards of the time, be well used and encouraged to rejoin the industrious part of mankind. This was Mercy. But their fate as exiles suffering all the cruelties of penal labor under an unknown sky would be presented, at home, as hellish. This was the new Terror—as Hughes puts it in one of his many memorable phrases, “a theatre of horror acted out for a distant audience.”

In May 1787, eleven ships, well appointed and provisioned, set out under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, who would be, on arrival, the commandant of the penal settlement and also (since the two intentions were there from the start) the first governor of the colony. The original nucleus was made up of 158 marines, who would mostly return to Britain, and 563 male and 189 female convicts, who would not. These latter, as Hughes shows, were not the innocent poachers of Australian legend. None of them was a rapist or murderer, but several had committed crimes of violence and none was a first offender.

The colony was proclaimed on January 26, 1788—not, as it happens, at Botany Bay, which proved to have no fresh water, but up the coast a little at Sydney Cove. But Botany Bay had already been established as a symbol and it remained one for nearly half a century. Only those who were on the spot knew there was nothing there.

This is only one of Australia’s “beginnings.” It would begin afresh in other places and at other times: in free settlements at the Swan River (Perth) in 1829, Port Phillip (Melbourne) in 1835, Adelaide in 1836. One needs to be wary in speaking of “Australian” history. To explain Melbourne or Adelaide by referring to New South Wales, as the region around Sydney was called, is like beginning a history of California with the Salem Witch Trials—possible but far-fetched. Sydney is not Australia. The settlement there just happens to have been the first.

As befits a colony that was intended to exist in two places, a real geographical antipodes and at the same time an antipodes of the mind, everything that occurred in early New South Wales seems double and ambiguous; yet what was eventually worked out, in the pragmatic English way, by improvisation rather than theory, was a “System” that in Hughes’s words was “by far the most successful form of rehabilitation that had ever been tried in English, American or European history.”

To be fair to the originators of the scheme, and Hughes is not always fair, this intention was there from the start. The colony had several purposes, some of them contradictory. The most ambitious, and least likely, was the founding of a new empire in the south. The penal settlement was to exist within it, and was to have a triple purpose: to rid the kingdom of its criminals, to rehabilitate as many of them as possible in a new and distant place, and to make an example, through terror, of the rest.

Phillip, who was an astute man, saw from the beginning that the various conditions of his charter were in conflict with one another. “Convicts,” he insisted, “must not lay the foundations of an empire.” For that reason they should remain “forever separated from the garrison and other settlers that may come.” In fact few settlers came—twenty-three in the first twelve years—and though the penal settlement and the colony might exist as separate intentions and in different places in Phillip’s mind, they could hardly do so in effect. No separation was possible between convict and free. The marines and sailors of the First Fleet took women from among the convicts, and male and female convicts could not be kept apart; any child of such unions was free. Then, in the starvation years of the early colony, it was impossible to preserve distinctions between the convicts and the garrison, let alone keep them physically apart. They shared the same rations and the same punishments (flogging or hanging). Even, at last, the same rags of clothes. In November 1789, with the colony less than two years old, Phillip abandoned his original policy and took what was to be a decisive step: he provided a convict whose term had expired, James Ruse, with the means to set up an experimental farm, with the promise if he succeeded of thirty acres of Crown land. At a single stroke Phillip had created a new class: the Emancipists.

In this act the System both succeeded and failed: succeeded in its attempt to rehabilitate, failed, as would be proved, in its power to terrify and deter. A new currency was created. In England it had been property, in the form of land, that gave a man the right to vote and established him as a full member of society; its value was mystical. Australia had millions of acres of land—it was the only commodity here that was not in short supply. Is it any wonder, then, that men who had been cast out of society for having no property, or for being caught in the attempt to acquire it, should have found in Australia a new life in opportunity that no other place could have given them? It was the land itself that broke the old forms of distinction and turned the purgatorial venture from despair to optimism. The principle of “equality” in Australia is based on the capacity of each man (and woman, recently) to acquire a house-with-land. It is a simple but powerful thing: sixteen “perches” in the suburbs or a thousand acres in the Gulf Country—to be a property owner is to be your own man. The deep irony that all this land, so easily occupied and doled out in such large portions to officers and ex-convicts, was in fact stolen, has only gradually been perceived. No treaty has ever been signed with the natives of Australia. When Cook claimed the land in 1770 as terra nullius, he not only dispossessed the original possessors; he deprived them of their legal existence.

  1. *

    C.M.H. Clark, A History of Australia, six volumes (Melbourne University Press, 1962–1987).

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