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 September 11, has treated those fleeing persecution with such callousness. It is almost as if those who make it to the rich promise of these distant shores need to suffer first, as others have before them.

The first encounters between the British soldiers of the First Fleet, arriving with convicts in Botany Bay in January 1788, and those they called Indians or savages were not at all hostile. To demonstrate their mutually peaceful intentions, naked Aborigines and uniformed Englishmen danced and sang together, and then the whites clipped and combed the long matted hair of the men of the Eora clan, described by Lieutenant William Bradley, second in command of one of the ships, as “clotted with dirt and vermin.”2 Arthur Phillip, captain of the First Fleet of eleven merchant ships carrying 759 convicts as well as officers, sailors, a few of their wives, and the first governor of this new penal experiment of transportation, was determined to keep relations friendly. Nothing, however, had prepared either him or those who looked out with him across this hot, dry, silent land for the utter strangeness of what lay before them. Only Captain Cook had been here before, and his brief visit lay seventeen years in the past; it was his charts that had guided their voyage. What they saw now was a land both curious and contradictory.

Though mid-winter, it was very hot and very dry. There was no sign of anything that they could recognize as civilization: no ruins, no shards of pottery, no history. The trees were not green, but gray, with bark that peeled away in long strips, revealing a white trunk beneath. The very animals seemed to belong not so much to another land as to another age: creatures that jumped or stood frozen, watching; others that sat silently on the branches of trees, munching; giant brownish-gray birds that ran on legs set far back in their bodies but could not fly. And, wheeling in the sky at dusk, were screeching flocks of brilliant pink and green and red parrots. As for the Eora people on the shore, they, too, seemed fixed in an earlier moment of history, so without recognizable ambition that they built no houses, planted no crops, kept no domestic animals but gathered food by hunting with spears. Governor Phillip’s horses and greyhounds, which, together with cats, pigs, chickens, and ducks, had survived the journey from Portsmouth, intrigued the Aborigines greatly.


However, as Thomas Keneally observes in the early chapters of his somewhat sprawling account of this first experiment in penal social cleansing, A Commonwealth of Thieves, few of the convicts were in any condition to explore their new surroundings. Tax dodgers, deer poachers, linen thieves, stealers of fish from ponds, and vagrants, the first settlers were for the most part the urban destitute, casualties of rapid eighteenth-century industrialization, land enclosures, and the draconian nature of the English penal system; and they had spent ten months at sea shackled in dark, intensely cold quarters below deck. Their allotted space was eighteen inches wide and six feet high. Fever, scurvy, pneumonia, and dysentery had weakened and killed off many. And more would die as marsupial rats devoured the first plantings of wheat, fruit, and vegetables, a matter of little interest to the architects of this penal experiment in Whitehall, for whom the terra nullius, the no man’s land of Australia, from which there could be few hopes of return, offered a remedy to the alarming rise of crime. It was its very remoteness that made it so attractive.

The dancing between whites and Aborigines lasted a very short time. Even Phillip’s enlightened efforts—Keneally calls him a “colourless secular saint” who deserved the renown of Lafayette or Jefferson—could not prevent confrontations as the whites encroached on the surrounding forests and bush and the Aborigines resisted. It was clear, all too soon, that there was no place for Aborigines in this building of a colony. The First Fleet was fortunate in having a number of able diarists on board, of whom Watkin Tench of the Royal Marines was the most informative and readable, and Keneally draws on their excellent descriptions of growing antagonism. Even the good-tempered Tench came to consider the Aborigines an “ugly, dirty people, miserably under-equipped for life.”3

When Phillip reluctantly departed at the end of 1791, taking two Aborigines with him, he left behind him four thousand Europeans, perched perilously in three settlements, fed by a supply of convicts arriving on the Second and then the Third Fleets, and a rapidly dwindling indigenous population that became a walking incubator for diseases like smallpox and syphilis, which, as Keneally observes, had already begun “their long and relatively fast journey north, south and west of the Sydney region, bewildering and killing people who had not yet seen a European.”

And it was not long before individual killings turned into massacres. Hunting parties were made up of convicts who had served their sentences and were trying to scratch a living out of surroundings they seem to have found surprisingly inhospitable. Neither Keneally nor Hughes answers the question of why so many of the Europeans starved when the bays were full of fish and oysters and the bush teemed with kangaroos, marsupial rats, and wombats. The hunters formed posses to punish the increasingly angry Aborigines. In The Secret River, a novel that was recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Kate Grenville sets out not only to capture through fiction the next phase of the unhappy relations between settlers and original inhabitants, but to give a more immediate sense of the convict story.

By the time her hero William Thornhill, his sentence to hang for stealing a few planks of Brazilian wood having been commuted to transportation for life, reaches New South Wales in 1806 with his wife Sal and a first baby, born on the voyage, Sydney is a rugged and aggressive place. Arriving convict women are collected off incoming ships by waiting hordes of men on the dock as bits of baggage to which settlers and freed convicts alike are entitled, and rum has already taken its toll of the Aborigines. In her 1975 study of women and colonial Australia, Damned Whores and God’s Police,4 Anne Summers observed that for women during the first twenty years of settlement, transportation meant “enforced whoredom” and that the first ship full of women sparked off an orgy of drink and sex, which took place under driving rain. It is through Thornhill’s struggle to find out what life was like in this alien and confusing land that we witness one of the many surreptitious killings of Aborigines, revenge for what the Sydney Gazettecalled “outrages and depredations,” the theft of ripening corn, grown with such difficulty on stony earth. It was perhaps because it was so hard to turn the Australia bush into lush English fields that this crime was so unforgivable.


Phillip needed his greyhounds and horses, his claret and his port, brought 12,000 miles in barrels on board the convict ships, his starchy dinner parties and his frock coats, to convince himself that he was still an Englishman. Sal depends on the daily memory of who she once was, the ballads and ditties of London that she sang as a child and now mourns, the piece of broken roof tile she brought with her and preserved. When she at last achieves some measure of prosperity, it is an English garden that she sets out to plant, though the daffodils and poplars wither under the burning sun. It is noticeable that the landscapes painted by the first artists to arrive in Australia, like Conrad Martens, Eugene von Guerard, and Nicholas Chevalier, are often more reminiscent of Scotland or the Yorkshire moors than the bush and deserts of Australia, and are more likely to feature sheep and cows, unknown before the arrival of the First Fleet, than kangaroos or emus. Even the light in them has a curiously cold northern air. A painting hanging in the Adelaide Art Gallery by John Glover shows a cottage by the sea, surrounded by a little garden of hollyhocks, snapdragons, and roses. It is as if such comforting fantasies could keep the great alien wilderness at bay.

What neither Grenville nor Keneally dwell on, perhaps because Robert Hughes wrote about it with such thoroughness and contained passion, is the brutality with which the penal experiment was administered. In the hands of a succession of more or less sadistic colonial governors and prison officers, convicts, particularly repeat offenders, found themselves subjected to atrocious punishments, flogged, committed to chain gangs, kept in underground pits, starved, and bullied. Hughes devoted almost a third of his six-hundred-page book to the infamous Van Diemen’s Land—now Tasmania—and to Norfolk Island, penal colonies within colonies, where recidivists were tortured, many of them to death. (In New South Wales, in the single year of 1863, 304,327 lashes were administered.)

It is this aspect of the convict story, its violence and sadism, that Roger McDonald uses as background to his swashbuckling story of retribution and redemption, The Ballad of Desmond Kale, set against the desolate grandeur of the immense Australian outback. His hero, Tom Rankine, soldier and dreamer about sheep, experiences the different aspects of what Australia has to offer—the governor’s dinner parties, the escape of convicts, the long journeys into the interior, a spell in Van Diemen’s Land—before making his way to a satisfactorily happy ending. McDonald conveys a sense of the emptiness and solitariness of the bush, the slender purchase achieved by the settlers on this secretive continent, in which, as Kate Grenville writes, a man seemed “nothing more than a flea on the side of some enormous quiet creature.” As both Grenville and McDonald prove, good, well-researched fiction can also be the most satisfying form of social history. Grenville is particularly good on the relations between settlers and Aborigines, whose way of life her heroine Sal both reluctantly admires and fears.

The English penal experiment of transportation to New South Wales lasted exactly fifty-two years. It was not the first time political leaders in Whitehall used distant lands as dustbins for their unwanted criminals: what is often forgotten now is that between 1650 and 1775, approximately 50,000 British prisoners were shipped to America, to work as slave labor for colonial settlers and to die rapidly of malaria and yellow fever. But apart from a further twenty years of convict ships dispatched to the newly colonized province of South Australia, the new settlement in New South Wales would be the last. There would be no more men, women, and children “clanking,” in Hughes’s words, “their fetters in the penumbral darkness.” Those who dreamed up the scheme could congratulate themselves that they had rid Georgian England of some 160,000 whores, thieves, and highwaymen, and that the rehabilitation of convicts, a project that Victorians held so dear, could effectively be measured by the amount of land cultivated and countryside claimed—too effectively, perhaps, for there were now fears that crimes were being committed in England in the hopes of transportation.

But by 1840, the Whigs, under Lord John Russell as home secretary, had decided that transportation was not only immoral but inefficient, because it encouraged corruption, failed to act as a deterrent to crime, and was economically unprofitable. A spirit of reform rather than punishment was in the air. And though convicts already in Australia continued to be used as guinea pigs in further cruel penal experiments, the policy of transportation was effectively over. The killing and oppression of the Aborigines, however, continued. The last Aboriginal man on Van Diemen’s Land, William Lanne, died in 1869. His skeleton was stripped of its flesh, disassembled, buried, exhumed, and dissected, before portions were shipped back to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, only to disappear en route.

What came next was willful amnesia. A history so shaming, so full of violence committed against Aborigines and convicts alike, needed to be forgotten. Australian history was tacitly deemed to have begun only around 1850, with the daring exploits of the outlaw Ned Kelly and his gang, the gold rush, and the legendary expeditions to explore the interior. “Would Australians,” asks Hughes in the closing pages of his long portrait of misgovernance, cruelty, and hypocrisy, “have done anything differently if their country had not been settled as the jail of infinite space?” Certainly, he concludes. By choosing to sublimate and forget their own past, the settlers and the “currency lads and lasses,” as the native-born children of convicts were called, had a profound effect on all subsequent Australians, including their perception of Australia itself. The very nature of the country, from its landscape to its indigenous people, was effectively banished. Instead of kangaroos and Aboriginal life, there was a vast historical blankness, which made later episodes of exclusion and brutality—the stealing of Aborigine children and land, the destruction of native plants and animals by foreign species and predators—not just acceptable but natural; and which also, perhaps, as if harshness was now buried deep in the Australian psyche, justified the exaggeratedly tough treatment of contemporary refugees. “Life,” Malcolm Fraser, prime minister of Australia between 1975 and 1983, famously observed, “wasn’t meant to be easy.” In a land founded on pain, loss, and struggle, material comforts and abundance have to be earned.

For perhaps as many as one in three of all living Australians, the past, however, lies not in Australia at all, but in some other land. Over six million immigrants have arrived since World War II to help swell the working population, and today countless more come to work, join relatives, and do business. There is also a resettlement program for some 13,000 people each year, selected from among recognized refugees in camps in the third world, making Australia in this respect one of the most welcoming countries in the world. Much as it was in the nineteenth century, Australia remains a land of people who have traveled immense distances, and who see in its yellow light and red earth echoes of Tuscany, southern France, and the Greek islands. When the infamous White Australia policy finally came to an end under the Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam in the 1970s, and settlers from Africa and Asia began at last to be accepted, it appeared for a while as if the multiculturalism dreamed of by left-wing Australians might in fact provide a model for other countries to follow.

But not for very long. During the conservative prime minister John Howard’s first term of office in the late 1990s, Australia began to turn away from Asia and Europe and acquire a new vision of its future, one that integrated Australia strategically, economically, and culturally into the US.5 Then, in August 2001, came the Tampa affair. The Tampa was a Norwegian tanker which picked up 438 asylum seekers from an Indonesian wooden fishing boat drifting helplessly at sea, its engines dead. It was not the first. In 2000 alone four thousand people arrived illegally by sea. But now the government acted. After ten days of intense international discussions about refugee rights, sovereignty, and the laws of the sea, the Tampa asylum seekers were disembarked onto land, like Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef, deemed to have been “excised” from Australia, in such a way that they bypassed Australia itself altogether, and so could not enjoy the benefits of the Australian legal system. John Howard, in announcing to the world his new Pacific Solution, a strategy with a gentle name and terrible consequences, decreed that henceforth all illegal immigrants or “queue jumpers”—people in such danger that they had not been able to wait patiently in refugee camps to be chosen for resettlement—would be held in these “excised” processing centers, or in a number of designated countries, such as Papua New Guinea or Nauru, willing to take them in return for considerable sums of money, until their futures were sorted out. Meanwhile those who managed to reach the Australian shore illegally would be liable to mandatory, indefinite detention. Since September 11 followed shortly afterward, these measures were deemed by many justifiable.

But not by all Australians. To the government’s surprise, ordinary Australians, farmers, teachers, actors, and students, from one end of the country to the other, began forming support groups to campaign on behalf of those held behind barbed wire. The politicians’ attitudes of bitterness and rejection were now matched by real affection and concern for people who were condemned to exclusion. Never numerous enough to bring real political pressure, these people were forced to see Howard win a second term with his Pacific Solution intact, particularly since no more refugees were arriving illegally by sea, having been either intercepted by the patrol boats of the Australian navy or deterred from making the journey. Asylum seekers remained locked up in camps, places of ever-increasing desperation, with a growing number of suicides, as well as episodes of arson and self-mutilation. Some two thousand children spent time in detention and many suffered from extreme stress.6 But then something else happened, in its way as significant as the Tampa.

Baxter is the name of a detention center near Port Augusta, in the Flinders ranges north of Adelaide, a fortified wire and concrete structure built out in the bush. Here, after 2001, Iraqi, Iranian, and Afghan asylum seekers who had reached Australia’s coasts on leaky Indonesian boats were held, in varying degrees of uncertainty. Months and years passed with cases still not settled. At the end of November 2004, a detainee managed to get word to a friend outside that a young woman calling herself Anna Schmidt had been brought in and that her name as well as her accent appeared to be German. She was disturbed and confused and could give no account of why she was there, beyond the fact that she had been wandering the streets in Queensland and had been picked up by the police, who kept her in prison for six months before sending her to Baxter. Inquiries were made at the German embassy, which knew nothing about her. Eventually, after it became known that the young woman was now eating dirt and was clearly psychotic, and that Baxter’s guards sat watching her and laughing, human rights campaigners persuaded The Age newspaper in Melbourne to run a story about her.

Within hours, Anna Schmidt—her real named turned out to be Cornelia Rau—had been recognized: by her parents, who had been desperately trying to trace their lost daughter. Cornelia turned out to be a former Qantas flight attendant, the daughter of middle-class German immigrants, with full Australian citizenship. Her sister was a successful journalist. And the fact that a blond, blue-eyed Australian had been kept in detention achieved results that no amount of campaigning about self-mutilating Iraqi children had been able to. It prompted outrage, inquiries, reports. In its wake have come significant changes to the system: women and children have all been released and of the 1,500 originally transferred to “off-shore centers,” all but two have either been recognized as refugees or repatriated voluntarily. It was lost on no one that 95 percent of those initially deemed to have been economic migrants were recognized to be true refugees after all.

Among novelists and playwrights, it took a while for the Tampa incident to bear artistic fruit. Two fine factual books covering the Pacific Solution appeared,7 and a number of amateur theatrical evenings dramatizing it were staged in cafés and church halls. Thomas Keneally’s book The Tyrant’s Novel, about a detainee in Villawood, Sydney’s detention center, appeared in 2004 to little public notice and is said to have sold fewer copies than his other books. With two new novels in print, however, Australia’s asylum-seeker narrative has now found telling voices.

In Eva Sallis’s The Marsh Birds, Dhurgham, the narrator, is twelve when his family is forced to flee Baghdad. During their journey through the marshes he becomes separated from them and reaches Damascus on his own, bringing with him a small fortune in currency and jewels, entrusted to him by his parents. He is an innocent, dreamy boy, young for his age and used to indulgence. Before long he is picked up by an aging and lonely man, who seduces him and sends him out as a prostitute before arranging for another smuggler to take him to Australia, via Indonesia. When the fishing boat on which he makes the final lap of his journey goes down, Dhurgham is rescued by the Australian navy and put into a camp. And there he remains, while witnessing acts of self-mutilation and violence. Sallis is particularly good at evoking the febrile, unhappy state of indefinite detention, as well as the uneasy relationship between uncomprehending asylum seekers and their bigger, tougher young Australian guards. “They didn’t fit,” she has one of these men observe about the detainees. “They were so unlike Australians. Praying and jumping up and down about pork and fasting. It would be better for them and for Australia if they went home.”

Dhurgham begins to unravel. Memories of what happened to him in Damascus, longings for his lost mother and sister, the horrors of uncertainty and inactivity, play tricks with his mind. After a move to a second detention center, he manages to escape and stows away on a yacht that drops him in New Zealand. Though immigration officials in New Zealand have traditionally been more generous toward those who wind up on their shores, Dhurgham’s case is politically too sensitive. He is deported back to Australia. A poignant and tender relationship between the young Iraqi and the daughter of the family that takes him in dissolves in a final moment of uncontrollable rage and hostility. The Marsh Birds, with its tragic ending, is a bleak and wholly believable book, in which the spectrum of fear, hope, expectation, anxiety, and longing in which asylum seekers live is marvelously portrayed. Sallis also makes clear how much chance is the determining factor in so many of these cases.

Where Sallis chooses bleakness, Linda Jaivin, author of earlier successful comic novels, has turned with The Infernal Optimist to comedy. Taking much the same theme—a young man, Zeki, incarcerated in the Villawood detention center in Sydney for an indefinite amount of time—she too uses her hero as narrator. But while Dhurgham is gentle and confused, Zeki, picked up not for illegal entry but for failing as a boy to register himself for citizenship along with his parents, is a tough-talking, wise-cracking small-time thief. Since he is a “crim,” he explains, he is more Australian than most, sharing with the first settlers a criminal past. Zeki is a beautifully drawn comic character. He too witnesses madness and desperation, and underneath the tough talk is a generous and likable young man, whose eventual deportation to Turkey is considerably less painful than expected, particularly since he is accompanied by his long-suffering, resilient Australian girlfriend, Marlena. Jaivin also writes well about the precarious and brittle world inside the camps, and deftly portrays those who campaign for the young detainees, often lonely middle-aged women visitors who arrive bearing cakes and roast chicken, solicitous, earnest, sometimes embarrassing.

Both novels have won considerable acclaim in Australia, as have those by Roger McDonald and Kate Grenville. The exhibition “Exiles and Emigrants” has prompted many hundreds of letters from the descendants of earlier settlers and from modern migrants. With renewed awareness of what Robert Hughes called Australia’s “dark stain,” the atrocities of transportation and penal settlements, has come another need: to understand and confront fears about modern migration, the nature of rootlessness and loss, and the arrival of unwanted people by clandestine means; and in so doing to learn to treat them decently.

But how far this spirit of openness extends, whether it actually involves more than a small number of liberal Australians, is very far from clear. Though most of the original illegal asylum seekers are now free, Howard has kept his Pacific Solution firmly on the books, as deterrence to other would-be queue jumpers, and in case political turmoil across the Middle East and Asia sends other leaky boats across the water to Australia’s shores. For new unwanted boat people, destitute and desperate, there will be little but detention in store.

This Issue

November 16, 2006