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exaggerated emphasis on blood
on April 26, 2008
There's no doubt that the lash and hangman's rope played an important role in early New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). About 1830, the death rate by execution was about 1 per 1000 of the European population of NSW (30 per year out of 30,000). The first criminal trial in Australia led to a sentence of 150 lashes for being drunk and abusive. Thus began the operation of law in Australia, only a fortnight after the colony commenced. But a few months later, in Cable v Sinclair, two young convicts successfully sued the master of a first fleet ship because their luggage had gone missing on the voyage. English law would not have allowed attainted convicts to sue, let alone hold property. One of those convicts, Henry Kable, went on to a career as constable, jailer and merchant, even if his finances did crash spectacularly. This was a new land with a new approach to law and egalitarianism.
Hughes emphasises blood and the lash, glorying in it. He tells a great story, like an airport novel. But he doesn't tell us anything about the ordinary social and commercial life which began so quickly after the first colony began in 1788. He tells only half the story, and as a result, academic historians ignore his work. There are many much better histories of convict Australia than this. Try Grace Karskens, The Rocks, for a start.
Some of the men and women of early NSW were dishonest, gaining what they could when they could. That applied to officers as well as convicts. But they had relationships (often without marriage) and children, developed trade, lived their lives as well as they could. The surprise is that the place was so successful, not that it was so bloody. And of course the most significant blood lost was that of the indigenous people, a story not unique to Australia.