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 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.


Hughes is excellent on the emergence of the Emancipists and their rivalry with the free settlers, noting how early a snobbery that seems typically Australian entered this society, where distinction was based on wealth rather than rank: “the exaggerated rituals of class superiority” by which men who in England would have had no prospects of advancement could now mark themselves off from convicts and ex-convicts both. “Convicts,” he writes, “ate salted meat—which signified lack of property, for only the landed could enjoy fresh beef or lamb—and fresh fish. The ceremonial food of the free therefore must be fresh meat and salt fish.” This on a coast with some of the finest seafood in the world.

He is also good on that other development of the System, one that began, quite simply, as a way of getting the convicts “off the Store”—that is, of getting them fed, clothed, and sheltered by private persons who in return could use their labor. This was the system called Assignment. Women, who were useless for such government work as road building, were regularly assigned as servants (and bed-fellows) to those who would take them, or married off—sold would be more accurate—to Emancipists and settlers. The men were assigned as shepherds or laborers to big landowners or as domestics. The statistics speak for themselves. As Hughes gives them: “In 1790 there were 38 such ‘assigned’ convicts in New South Wales…. By 1800 there were 356, and by December 1825 there were 10,800.” Eventually such assigned convicts might be “on their own hands”—that is, still legally bound, but free on “ticket-of-leave” to work for themselves. Once again Hughes has a sharp eye for the ironies of behavior this produced. Servants in Sydney were hard to come by. “There was a demand,” he writes, “for city convicts, preferably refined and literate forgers, who might know from which side to pass the roast; or, if not forgers, at least thieves, who would protect their masters’ property.”

What all this meant was that rehabilitation was working better than anyone in London had intended; in fact, too well. Alexander Dalrymple, before the First Fleet was at sea, had seen the problem:

Although it might be going too far to suppose, This will incite men to become Convicts…yet surely it cannot deter men, inclined to commit Theft and Robbery, to know that, in case they are detected and convicted, all that will happen to them is that they will be sent, at the Publick Expense, to a good Country and Temperate Climate, where they will be their own masters!

By 1825 the news had drifted back to the Old Bailey and to Newgate that

a great number of the persons who keep carriages in Sydney were once convicts…how they, in the course of a very few years, have raised themselves from the situation of convicts into that of the most important persons, in point of wealth, perhaps, in the Colony.

Conditions in England were so bad in the early decades of the century that it was difficult to sustain the fiction of a more hellish elsewhere. As a report of 1831–1832 puts it:

If a criminal can conquer the sense of shame, which such degradation is calculated to excite, he is in a better situation than a large portion of the working classes, who have nothing but their daily labour to depend on for a sustenance.

In looking at the plight of convicts, their diet, the hours they worked, we have to remember the conditions under which women and children labored in the mines and factories in England and the privations endured by those who were “on the parish.” Transportation was no longer a deterrent.

So to the extent that the penal colony succeeded in reforming criminals and restoring them to society, it would fail in its darker purpose as a model of terror. It might even call into doubt the whole philosophy on which the System was based. Perhaps there was no “criminal class.” All it might need to turn hardened criminals into solid and conformist citizens was a change in conditions, a little hope, and property. It was not a message the authorities were eager to receive. The Bigge Report of 1820 stated unequivocally, to quote Hughes, “that Australia must be ‘rendered an object of real Terror,’ and that this must outweigh all questions of the economic or social growth of Australia as a colony.” Once again the two intentions were in conflict.

Hughes devotes a great deal of The Fatal Shore to the workings of terror through flogging and other forms of punishment. The problem was that the terror was difficult to sustain. As Phillip had seen, a penal colony and a free one could not exist in the same place. As soon as Sydney developed pretensions to being a center of civilization, the terror prisons were removed: first to Newcastle, then to Port Macquarie, then to Moreton Bay. These secondary settlements were places where second offenders were transported, partly to punish, partly to isolate, most of all to satisfy the need for exemplary terror. Not one of them survived the arrival of free settlers within their bounds. The pattern kept repeating itself; free settlers objected to living in a police state and in sight of the “necessary” horrors. One after another, Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay (Brisbane) were declared too good for their vile purpose and terror was pushed out. By the 1840s it had been driven, in all senses, to the limits: to Norfolk Island and to the end of an isthmus in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), the notorious Port Arthur.

That it lasted at all, right up to the end in fact, tells us a good deal about the dialectical terms in which decent society defined itself in the nineteenth century. When the reform-minded administrator Captain Alexander Maconochie, a former professor of geography, went to Norfolk Island in 1840, and proved, even to the governor’s satisfaction, that the most “depraved” convict could be softened by decent treatment, he was universally vilified. Maconochie spent only seven years in the colony; he is a minor figure on the Australian scene, though a major one in the history of penology. He emerges as the most fully drawn and certainly the most admirable and interesting character in The Fatal Shore, which says something for the man himself, but something also of Hughes’s emphasis in the book. His account of Maconochie’s three years at Norfolk Island is remarkable.

Maconochie’s own words about what he did are modest. It is difficult to see how they could have caused so much scandal:

Every man’s sentence was to imprisonment and hard labour; the island was his prison; and each was required to do his full daily Government task before bestowing the time on either his garden or education. What I really did spare was the unnecessary humiliation.

“Education” and “garden” must have been hard for some people to swallow, but the real catch was in that last phrase. Maconochie’s crime was to treat these “outcasts” as men rather than as irredeemable criminals. His success was spectacular, as in the case of Anderson:

An orphan, Anderson had passed from the workhouse into the navy at the age of nine. On active service, he was wounded in the head and suffered irreversible brain damage; after a drink or two, especially when under stress, he turned violent and hostile. During such a bout on shore leave, Anderson smashed some shop windows and was arrested for burglary. Tried and convicted, he was sentenced to seven years in Australia; he was then eighteen.

Anderson was so crazed with resentment when he landed in Sydney that the penal authorities isolated him on Goat Island, a rock in Sydney Harbor. Over the next few years he escaped and swam for shore three times, and received a total of some 1,500 lashes for such “offenses” as “looking round from his work, or at a steamer in the river, etc.” He spent two years tethered to a chain on the rock, naked and sun-blackened. His only shelter was a coffin-shaped cavity hewn out of the sandstone; at night he would lie down in it and the warders would bolt a wooden lid, pierced with air holes, over him till morning. His food was put on the rock and pushed at him with a pole, like a wild beast’s rations. Prisoners were forbidden to speak to him, on pain of flogging. The welts and gouges torn in his back by the cat never healed and were infested with maggots. He stank of putrefaction and Sydney colonists found it amusing to row up to his rock, pitch crusts and offal at him, and watch him eat. Eventually Governor Bourke, ashamed by the light this public spectacle cast on the people of Sydney, had Anderson removed to the limekilns of Port Macquarie. He escaped again and joined a black tribe; was recaptured and savagely flogged; and killed an overseer, hoping to be hanged. The authorities sent him to Norfolk Island instead, and he was still there—a man of twenty-four, looking twenty years older, relentlessly persecuted by the Old Hands—when Maconochie took command.

His therapy for Anderson was simple: he gave the poor, crazed man some responsibilities by putting him in charge of some half-wild bullocks, and freed him from the taunts of the Old Hands by letting him stay with them out of range of the barracks every day. He hoped, rather fancifully, that “bovine” characteristics would rub off on Anderson, making him more tractable. But the man did tame the bullocks, and found himself—for the first time since leaving England—congratulated and spoken kindly to. Then Maconochie moved him up to a new job, managing the signal station on top of Mount Pitt, which he did “with scrupulous care.” Anderson could never be fully rehabilitated—his earlier brain damage was too severe for that—but when Governor Gipps visited Norfolk Island in 1843, he recorded his amazement on seeing the former wild beast of Goat Island bustling about in a sailor’s uniform, open and frank in demeanor, returned to his human condition.

Faced with an open scandal in the colony, the authorities withdrew Maconochie. He was replaced by Major Joseph Childs, with orders to make the island a place of real terror again. By 1846 Norfolk Island had been raised to its peak of “exemplary” horror under one of the few genuine monsters of Australian legend, John Giles Price, and decency, in Sydney and London, was preserved.

Hughes writes with great power and compassion of all this; he is at his most colorful when he is dealing with physical suffering under the lash and with daily humiliations. The horror was real, and we would do an injustice to the men and women who suffered if we were to turn away from its savage cruelties. That the number of lashes administered should be so minutely recorded is itself appalling: 33,727 at Macquarie Harbour between 1822 and 1826, 304,327 in New South Wales in 1863. But we need to remember two things here. One is that floggings of this sort were routine among free men too, in the army and navy; it was an age when forms of physical brutality that seem unimaginable to us were a commonplace. The other, as commentators have been quick to point out, is that most convicts were never flogged at all.

Still, the individual lashes, and Hughes’s descriptions of them, are important; they bring us some way toward experiencing these statistics as real men and women felt them. The horror puts us in the scene, and as something more than distant spectators. It is part of Hughes’s perspective, which is not that of the historian, for all the scholarly apparatus he employs. He respects the facts, but also allows himself, as a professional historian might not, to sketch a view, evoke a character, make us see and hear and feel as well as ponder meanings. He works, that is, like a writer, putting us inside what he writes as a dramatist might. He understands that the story in history, if we are to experience the thing fully, is as important as the mere recounting of events.

As for the men and women who lived this story, we know the administrators and the important movers in this colonial world from their decisions and reports and the letters they wrote. Few of them were men of intellect or vision. Australia was not a top imperial posting as India was; it had none of the glamour of the great subcontinent. The wars fought by the aborigines were guerrilla skirmishes followed by massacre; they offered no scope to generals and did not demand the presence, as on the Northwest Frontier, of crack regiments. The makers of the colony (like the Fathers of Federation when it came in 1901) were at best dull but decent—mediocrities. But these were the men who had, along with their other privileges, the power of the world. The view we get, as always in “history,” is theirs. All but a few of those who endured the System were either illiterate or left no personal record. When we do hear their voices, as in a ballad like “Moreton Bay,” it is very nearly intolerable:

For three long years I was beastly treated, heavy irons on my legs I wore,
My back from flogging it was lacerated, and often painted with crimson gore,
And many a lad from downright starvation lies mouldering humbly beneath the clay,
Where Captain Logan he had us mangled on his triangles at Moreton Bay.

We get only the briefest glimpse, in a poorly spelled letter here and there, of the grief a man suffered at being separated from a wife or from his parents, or a woman’s plea (the emotion already distorted by its formal expression) that she be allowed to join her husband at the Bay.

These working-class people came from a different culture from that of their educated masters; they would have seen themselves and all that happened around them in a different light. For the most part, they are mute. They suffered as objects and they appear as objects in the records even when they are objects of sympathy.

Convict women, for example, are very often presented as “prostitutes,” persons naturally depraved. What this means, for the most part, is that since they were intended to be used as prostitutes, either officially or unofficially, it was easier for the men concerned if they were defined that way. A reply to Governor Macquarie’s request of 1812 that “as many male convicts as possible be sent hither, the prosperity of the country depending on their numbers; whilst on the contrary female convicts are as great a drawback as the others are beneficial” offers an insight into the confusions of the official view:

To this observation Your Committee feel they cannot accede: they are aware that the women sent out are of the most abandoned description, and that in many instances they are likely to whet and to encourage the vices of the men, whilst but a small proportion will make any step towards reformation; but yet, with all their vices, such women as these were the mothers of a great part of the inhabitants now existing in the Colony…. Let it be remembered too, how much misery and vice are likely to prevail in a society in which the women bear no proportion to the men; in the Colony at present, the number of men compared to that of women is as 2 to 1; to this, in great measure, the prevalence of prostitution is reasonably to be attributed; but increase that proportion, and the temptation to abandoned vices will also be increased.

—Manning Clark, Selected Documents in Australian History,

Convict women were caught between that view and the opinion of the Reverend Samuel Marsden that all women who were cohabitating outside wedlock, however sustained the relationship, were prostitutes. Only rarely, and then indirectly, do we hear from one of the women herself, as in this deposition to a committee from a settler, W.R.H. Brown, in 1819:

These women informed me, as well as others of their shipmates, that they were subject to every insult from the master of the ship and sailors; that the master stript several of them and publickly whipped them; that one young woman, from ill treatment, threw herself into the sea and perished; that the master beat one of the women that lived with me with a rope with his own hands till she was much bruised in her arms, breasts, and other parts of her body. I am certain, from her general good conduct since she arrived, to the present day, she could not have merited any cruelty from him…. In addition to the insults they were subject to on board, the youngest and handsomest of the women were selected from the other convicts and sent on board, by order of the master, the king’s ships who were at that time in the fleet, for the vilest purposes; both of my servants were in the number.

—Manning Clark, Selected Documents in Australian History,

Writing the truth of what happened in history is a matter of taking the records and then listening hard between the lines for the cries of individual agony and protest. It demands the highest imagination. The nineteenth century in Australia produced no literature of the convict experience from a man or a woman who had actually known it. We have no House of the Dead.

A people can face the future only when they have fully and imaginatively lived their past, and if the literature does not exist it has to be made—even a hundred years later. Robert Hughes’s powerful reading of Australian experience belongs to this enterprise, as well as to the simpler one of telling us “what happened Down There.”

This Issue

March 12, 1987