MY SECOND TOP SHELF 23 – THE FATAL SHORE

THE FATAL SHORE

Robert Hughes, 1986

Folio Society, 1998; bound in illustrated cloth boards, and slip cased.

The nation of Australia began life as a lavatory for the refuse of England.  Or on a good day you might say that we were England’s Siberia.  The English jails were overflowing and the American rebels were refusing to take any more prisoners from their sometime mother country.  In The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes is dead right about the hypocrisy of the American colonists.

The American colonies rebelled.  One result of the revolution was that the British could no longer send their convicts there.  The American air filled with nobly turned resolutions against accepting criminals from England, for a new republic must not be polluted with the Crown’s offal.  This was cant, since the American economy was already heavily dependent on slavery.  The real point was that the trade in black slaves had turned white convict labour into an economic irrelevance.  On the eve of the American Revolution, 47,000 African slaves were arriving in America every year – more than English jails had sent across the Atlantic in the preceding half century.  Beside this labour force, the work of white indentured convicts was inconsequential; the Republic did not need it.

This is an example of the flair of the author for getting to the point.  A few pages later on, we read that Governor Phillip, as he would become, was writing before sailing as follows:

As I would not wish convicts to lay the foundations of an empire, I think they should remain separate from the garrison, and other settlers that may come from Europe….The laws of this country will of course be introduced in New South Wales, and there is one that I wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves.

This is a vital point of difference in the histories of the two nations.  In Somerset’s Case in 1772, Lord Mansfield had ruled that slavery was against the common law of England and could not therefore be allowed by that law.  (‘It is so odious that nothing can be offered to support it but positive law.’)  The United States was built on slavery; Australia was founded on the express rejection of slavery.

The author also comes briskly to the point on the fate of the aborigines.  After discussing the contact that Cook made with the aborigines, he says:

These few days of sparse contact on the coast of New South Wales sealed the doom of the aborigine.  There was no chance that the Crown would ever try to plant a penal colony in New Zealand, for the Maori were a subtle, determined and ferocious race.  These Australians, however, would give no trouble.  They were ill-armed, backward and timid; most of them ran at the sight of a white face; and they had no goods or property to defend.  Besides, there were so few of them.  All this the British authorities would shortly learn from Joseph Banks, without whose evidence there might have been no convict colony in Australia.

Then the problem of race met that of status.  The convicts thought that the law was harder on them than the black natives.

The blacks were an extension of the prison, its outer defence.  Take to the bush and they would spear you; they were on the officers’ side, just as the officers were on theirs….Revenge was easier dreamed of than exacted, as Phillip forbade punitive expeditions.  The officers and marines with their muskets were theoretically better armed than the [blacks] but the tribesman could throw four spears in the time it took to reload a flintlock.  The convicts were not armed at all, and so their efforts at revenge were futile….In the eyes of the British Government, the status of Australian aborigines in 1788 was higher than it would be for another 150 years, for they had (in theory) the full legal status and so in law, if not in fact, they were superior to the convicts.  The convicts resented this most bitterly.  Galled by exile, the lowest of the low, they desperately needed to believe in a class inferior to themselves.  The Aborigines answered that need.  Australian racism began with the convicts, although it did not stay confined to them for long; it was the first Australian trait to percolate upwards from the lower class.

The cruellest revenge came in Tasmania.

It took less than seventy-five years of white settlement to wipe out most of the people who had occupied Tasmania for some thirty thousand years; it was the only true genocide in English colonial history.  By the standards of Pol Pot, let alone Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler, this was a small slaughter.  But not to the Tasmanian Aborigines.

There were side effects of the genocide committed by our white forebears in Tasmania.

This reliance on hunting brought prompt social results, all of them bad.  It installed the gun, rather than the plough, as the totem of survival in Van Diemen’s Land.  It favoured a mood of opportunism, of social improvidence.  Small settlers tended to neglect the long range pursuits of farming and instead concentrated on killing whatever they could.

For a while, the gun could have taken Tasmania closer to America than our mainland.

This fine but large book is sensibly compiled and beautifully written.  It catalogues the history of convicts in Australia.  They were at best a motley.   Most were sent here for crimes against property, including crimes committed with violence.  No one was sent here for the crime of murder or rape.  There were some political prisoners and some driven to crime by hunger, but the attempt to bestow the palm of martyrdom on our convict forbears is an exercise in Romance that may remind some of the attempts to ensaint the convicted murderer called Ned Kelly.  So, one 1922 account has: ‘Is it not clearly a fact that the atrocious criminals remained in England, while their victims, innocent and manly, founded the Australian democracy?’  In truth, more than half the convicts had prior convictions.  Very few were political prisoners.  Most were from the city, not villagers or peasants.  The law was savage, but as the author remarks, ‘a code’s badness does not necessarily acquit its victims.’  As the number of hanging crimes shrank, so the volume of offences meriting transportation grew.

Most convicts were ‘assigned’ – lent out as labourers by the government to private settlers.  This was bound to have consequences on status and class.

….the issue of class loomed large in penal Australia – a society traversed by confusingly rapid movements of individual status, where tides of men and women were constantly flowing from servitude into citizenhood and responsibility, from bitter poverty to new found wealth.  By the 1830s, Australia was as class-obsessed a society as any in the world.

We might set out a passage that shows that Robert Hughes had the flair for insightful comment of his brother Tom (one of the best advocates that this country ever produced and one I had the honour to appear with).

One speaks of ‘colonial gentry’ as though there were gentlemen in early Australia; but there were not.  Frontiers have a way of killing, maiming or simply dismissing gentlemen.  In any case, most folk with settled estates have no reason to go to a raw new country.  They can invest in it later, without needing to break their bodies on it now.  To succeed on the frontier, a man needed the kind of violent, grabbing drive that only failure or mediocrity in his former life could fuel….The Exclusives could define their sense of class against the despised Emancipists, but they were snobbish as only provincials could be.

You can, sadly, see a fair bit of all that kind of stuff around here still.  We are the produce of our history, and it has had more than its share of bastardry.

We might best leave to God any judgment on our convicts as a whole, but for a long time, the free white settlers and their descendants worried about the ‘Stain.’  In his Introduction, Hughes offers some observations.

….the desire to forget about our felon origins began with the origins themselves.  To call a convict a convict in early colonial Australia was an insult certain to raise colonial hackles.  The approved euphemism was ‘Government man.’  What the convict system bequeathed to later Australian generations was not the sturdy sceptical independence on which, with gradually waning justification, we pride ourselves, but an intense concern with social and political respectability.  The idea of the ‘convict stain’, a moral blot soaked into our fabric, dominated all argument about Australian self-hood by the 1840s…..Thus, local imperialists, who believed that Australia could only survive as a vassal of Great Britain, held that the solvent for the Birth Stain was blood – as much of it as England needed for her wars.  Below the propaganda of the Boer War and World War I, voices (usually working class and commonly Irish) were heard unpatriotically pointing out that having been shipped out as convicts, they were shipped back as cannon fodder….But to dwell on the Stain did not promote that sense of national dignity which our grandfathers and great-grandfathers believed got the lads over the wire…..One of the reasons why Australians after 1918 embraced with such deep emotion the mythic event of Gallipoli, our Thermopylae, was that there seemed to be so little in our early history to which we could point with pride.

There is some fine writing there.  Some of the thoughts may seem large – but they are at least worth putting on the table.  We are now nothing like ‘a vassal of Great Britain’ – but we still depend on the Mother Country to supply our head of state.  And plenty of us still gape at photos of a royal family in the most absurd costumes basking on the balcony of one of grandma’s palaces.  For those Australians, including me, who are horrified by what they see as our appalling political immaturity – an immaturity that is wholly self-imposed – the question is: to what extent is it a product of the Stain of our birth as a dunny?  Were our blood sacrifices to the mother country not enough to purge us of our past? 

Well, only God knows the answer – but on any view, our Stain is not as corrosive as the Stain of slavery.  And as one droll bastard intoned, Australia might be bound for glory since its people had been chosen by the finest judges in England.

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