The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1787-1868

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Media: BOOK - paperback, 752 pages
Author: R. Hughes
Year: 2009
ISBN: 9780099448549
Other: b&w photos, maps, appendixes, bibliog, index
Publisher: Vintage

'The Fatal Shore' is horrifying and humorous, at times touching and at others inspiring, and is thoroughly absorbing. Hughes states his intention: "To see the System from below, through convicts' testimony—in letters, depositions, petitions and memoirs—about their own experiences.” In the 90 years of “transportation”, (known loosely as “the System”), some 165,000 convicts were sent to Australia from Britain. Most “never wore chains, got their tickets-of-leave and in due course were absorbed into colonial society as free citizens”. Most preferred “to stay and rejected the idea of going back to England.” As Hughes points out, “the post-colonial history of Australia utterly exploded the theory of genetic criminal inheritance.”

The book can broadly be seen as five sections:

  • The historical, political and social reasons that led to transportation to Australia
  • The hardships of the voyage and of the early years of the colony
  • The make-up of the convict population
  • The secondary detention centres such as Norfolk Island
  • The established colonies and the moves toward abolition

The first of these gives a fascinating insight into British society at that time. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Britain was changing dramatically. The population tripled between 1750 and 1850, and London's population doubled in the 20 years before Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay in what was to become Australia. It was a period of massive urbanisation, as the growth of the Enclosure system forced more and more people off the land. Armies of rats roamed the streets of London. Occupational diseases and child labour (from as young as age six) were commonplace. Gin, promoted by the gentry, was the escape (due to a surplus of corn there were no restrictions on its manufacture or sale).

Poverty, particularly in the cities, was extreme and crime was rife. England had many capital statutes (predominantly to protect property) and public hangings, which drew huge crowds, were the primary deterrent to crime. The proportion of capital convictions actually executed dropped from 69 percent in 1749 to 46 percent in 1788 (at the beginning of transportation). By 1808 it was down to 15 percent. However, there was an increasing shortage of jails. Transportation therefore answered a number of problems.

Initially the convicts were sent to the New World of America and the Caribbean, until the American Revolution. Britain then used old rotting ships (known as “hulks”), moored in the docks, as jails, believing that America could not hold out for long. The “hulks” quickly reached crisis levels. With an extra 1,000 convicts arriving per year, Britain needed a new area for transportation. Thus Australia was settled.

To understand what banishment to Australia meant, one must understand the geographical knowledge of the day. In the late eighteenth century, the world was largely unknown to Europeans. The interiors of most continents were still unexplored, and even North America had only pockets of population. Australia and Antarctica were terra incognito. Hughes points out that it could hardly have been worse if the convicts had been told they were going to the moon, “at least one could see the moon from England”.

The second section gives an impression of the enormity of the undertaking. The First Fleet, with Governor Arthur Phillip at the helm, consisted of 11 ships and nearly 1,500 passengers, of whom 736 were convicts. Some of the convicts had already been on the ships four months before the fleet set sail. It then took another eight and a half months to reach Botany Bay. Some of the convicts had died whilst still in England and about 3 percent died en route. The Second Fleet (the worst of all) lost 41 percent of the 1,006 convicts who sailed. Following reforms suggested by William Redfern (a popular surgeon of the colony and himself an ex-convict) the death rate would drop from 1:31 to 1:122.

Having decided that Botany Bay was unsuitable, the fleet established the first settlement to the north, at Port Phillip (Sydney) in January of 1788. With no skilled labour, few tools and thin soil, it was a struggle to survive the first years. The soldiers received the same rations and punishment as the convicts, which caused severe resentment. It was over two years before a relief ship arrived (with meagre supplies) .

The third section of the book looks at the makeup of the population. Fully 80 percent of convicts were transported for crimes against property, compared to only 3 percent for “crimes against the person”. A further 1.5 percent were deported for “political” crimes (treason, conspiracy to riot, trade union membership, etc). There were examples of most of the working class movements of the period—Luddites, Swing rioters, Chartists. Almost 20 percent of Irish convicts could be called social or political rebels. The System treated them particularly badly “for fear of mutiny”.

The section also deals with the particular fate of women under the System. Some 24,000 women were transported, about 1 in 7 deportees. The System considered almost all of them to be prostitutes (though this was never a transportable offence). In fact, just about any woman who was not in a Protestant marriage was considered a whore. Though never policy, the practice was to send women of marriageable age, and marriage was certainly encouraged. Soldiers and officials would invariably have first pick. Since this might mean the end of their sentence or at least a reduction, most women agreed to it.

The fourth part describes the harshest of conditions inflicted on the convicts. These are remembered by popular history, although incorrectly, as being most representative of the System. Only a minority of convicts were ever held in the secondary detention centres, “but they were absolutely integral to the System: they provided a standard of terror by which good behaviour ... would be enforced.” The authorities needed secondary detention centres for those who committed offences whilst in Australia (“the Botany Bay of Botany Bay”). Initially they used Norfolk Island, which is some 1,000 miles east of Australia. Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour, both of which are in Van Diemens Land, followed later.

The final section takes the reader through to the end of the System. By the late 1820s and early 1830s there were moves toward abolition. There were three main reasons for this—growing opposition from English reformers, the development of an alternative penitentiary system and also opposition from within Australia as it became a more established and respectable colony. By 1840 transportation to New South Wales had ceased. The general tendency then, particularly from the “well-to-do”, was to collectively forget about or bury theconvict past.

Following the end of transportation to New South Wales, convicts were still sent to Van Diemens Land and Norfolk Island for another 13 years. Opposition to transportation continued to grow, but it was the gold rush of 1851 that sounded its death knell.

An epic description of the brutal transportation of men, women and children out of Georgian Britain into a horrific penal system which was to be the precursor to the Gulag and was the origin of Australia. 'The Fatal Shore' is the prize-winning, scholarly, brilliantly entertaining narrative that has given its true history to Australia.

Note: parts of the above description were taken from a review by Brian Smith, 1999

1. The Harbor and the Exiles
2. A Horse Foaled by an Acorn
3. The Geographical Unconscious
4. The Starvation Years
5. The Voyage
6. Who Were the Convicts?
7. Bolters and Bushrangers
8. Bunters, Mollies and Sable Brethren
9. The Government Stroke
10. Gentlemen of New South Wales
11. To Plough Van Diemen's Land
12. Metastasis
13. Norfolk Island
14. Toward Abolition
15. A Special Scourge
16. The Aristocracy Be We
17. The End of the System
Appendix 1. Governors and Chief Executives of New South Wales 1788-1855
Appendix 2. Chief Executives of Van Diemen's Land 1803-1853
Appendix 3. Secretaries of State for the Colonies 1794-1855

This is a history that Australian's repressed as much as was possible for over one hundred and fifty years. They obviously were not able to find and analyse the facts as well as Robert Hughes in this great work. An important work and essential reading for all Australian's in my view. It is an unembellished and factual account giving well researched and all-important background information on the influences and causes o

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The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1787-1868


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