Amnesia in Australia

Exiles and Emigrants: Epic Journeys to Australia in the Victorian Era

exhibition catalog edited by Patricia Tryon MacDonald
Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 144 pp., Aus$59.95

A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia

by Thomas Keneally
Nan A. Talese, 400 pp., $26.95

The Ballad of Desmond Kale

by Roger McDonald
Sydney: Knopf Australia, 638 pp., Aus$32.95

The Marsh Birds

by Eva Sallis
Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 252 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Infernal Optimist

by Linda Jaivin
Sydney: HarperCollins Australia, 329 pp., Aus$27.95 (paper)

On one of the southernmost tips of Sydney’s vast natural harbor, a grassy bluff overlooking a sea that stretches unbroken until it reaches the coasts of Antarctica, lie the graves of early Australian settlers, those who made the journey to this new world in the 1800s and never went home. Something of the harshness and unhealthiness of those times is reflected in the many tombstones of children. There is Little Bill, dead at the age of eight, Florence Philomena Hefferman, not quite five, and Ellen Berresford Ismay, two years and nine months, whose parents laid her to face the ocean with the words “What hopes have perished with you our daughter.” Stretching as far as the eye can see, in this windy and hilly cemetery of 78,000 people, are Italians, Cornishmen, South Sea Islanders, Frenchmen, men and women from Kentucky, Kansas, and Wales, and a great many from Ireland, driven into exile by the potato famine that lasted from 1845 to 1849.

After years of relative neglect, interest in the settlers, in the lives of those either transported as convicts or driven by poverty to Australia, has revived recently with “Exiles and Emigrants,” a powerful exhibition of early painters, surprisingly little-known artists like Erskine Nicol, Francis Hustwick, and John Alexander Gilfillan, who captured the desperate moments of departure and the long sea voyages into the unknown. Ford Madox Brown’s portrait of a stoical and somber young couple on the deck of a pitching ship drawing away from the white cliffs of Dover has the same desolate note as paintings by David Davies, William Strutt, and Thomas Webster of men and women grieving as they read letters from home.

The exhibition, which opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne last December and has since been shown in Canberra, came at the same time as a number of new books that celebrate and explore the lives of the whites who first reached these shores. None, perhaps, has the dazzling breadth and sweep of Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, which reads as fluently and persuasively today as it did in 1986, when research into the convict experiment was largely confined to dry documents and Manning Clark’s monumental six-volume history of the continent1 ; but each carries the narrative a little deeper. As a story, the white settling of Australia by a group of convicts and their guards, and the long amnesia that followed about the brutality and misery of that early period, is both fascinating in itself and relevant to the present day. In recent years, a continent born of immigrants—1.75 million during Queen Victoria’s reign alone—has effectively redefined itself as the most excluding nation in the world toward refugees and asylum seekers. Its immigration policies in the last five years have become the envy of those in the West who see in all but the most restrictive laws the specter of terrorism and social anarchy. No other country, in fact, not even the United States in the wake of…

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