Here is history on an epic scale a riveting, brilliantly written account of the birth of Australia out of the suffering and brutality of England's infamous convict transportation system. Eighty years lay between the landing at Botany Nay in 1788 of the First Fleet ("this Noah's Ark of small-time criminality") carrying 736 convicts, men and women and the arrival of the last ship in 1868; during this perios the continent served first as an enormous jail, as England rid herself of a whole unwanted class, and then gradually, painfully transformed itself into a flourishing nation. How this happened, and with what anguish, is the story Robert Hughes tells in The Fatal Shore.
The detail is fascinating. Drawing upon hundreds of original sources letters, diaries, obscure documents (many of them never used before) Hughes creates a wonderfully vivid picture of the background of transportation: the squallor and depression behind the gracious facade of Georgian life (in 1797 one in eight Londoners lived by crime), the savage laws designed to deal with the mob.
He brings us the pathos and drama of the months-long voyages, with their poor food and disease and lef-irons...the occasional good doctors and humane captains who tried to make things easier...the wild scenes of debauchery and sadism that often marked the arrivals at Botany Bay.
We see the spread of the prison colonies: Macquaria Harbor and Port Arthur in Van Diemen's Land, Point Puer (a penitentiary for children!), the beautiful and horrible Norfolk Island, so soul-killing that convicts would do anything to get away from it, even draw straws to decide who would commit suicide so that the others might be shipped back to Sydney to be tried for murder. And we hear the stories of those desperate "bolters" who attempted to escape, fleeing into the bush in hope of reaching China, or sailing off to their death in makeshift boats, or turning to cannibalism after weeks of wandering...
Yet a country groes. Tiny settlements sprint up on the edges of the vast, unexplored continent, populated by "iron men" (who could stand repeated floggings) and "sandstone" (who crumbled)...colonial administrators and jail-keepers struggle (and usually fail) to make sense out of an economy founded on slave labor and as backward technologically as Elizabethan England...new aristocrats emerge, aping the social fashions of England, and gradually create a distinctive Australian culture, one that prefers to ignore its orgins. It may be Robert Hughes's most remarkable achievement, in recounting this prodigious, terrible story, to show how its cruelties and evil were matched by its heroism and humanity, how the nation was born out of pain and courage, not dishonor.
A magnificent work of history, The Fatal Shore is written with all the panache and energy of The Shock of the New original, scrupulously researched, irresistibly readable. - Source: Powell's Books