Customer Reviews: The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding
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As luck would have it, I recently had the opportunity to make a brief business trip to Australia. I knew very little about Australia and thought the best way to get some brief but non-superficial background would be to learn something of its history. I opted to read Robert Hughes's book which tells the story of Australia's founding and of its convict past. The book is lengthy, even too lengthy to complete on the 14 hour flights from the West Coast of the United States to Sydney and back. But the story was fascinating, and the book was well worth the attention and effort.
Hughes tells the story of the discovery of Australia, the decision of Great Britain to "transport" its convicted to the continent, the various kinds of lives the convicts found there, the aboriginal settlers and their treatment by the newcomers, and the ultimate creation of a new society. There are harrowing accounts of the passage from Britain to Australia in the convict ships, and still shocking accounts of the secondary places of punishment created in Australia for repeat offenders -- places such as Norfolk Island, Port Aurthur, and Macquarrie Bay. Hughes describes these nineteenth century camps as precursors of the Gulag in our own time, and I am afraid he is correct. They reminded me to of Andersonville Prison in our own Civil War but on a much broader, more wicked scale. The description of the prisons and barbaric punishments were to me the most vivid portions of the book.
Besides the horror stories, there is a great deal of nuanced, thoughtful writing in the book about the settlement and building of Australia and of the dangers of facile over-generalization about how the convicts fared, or about virtually any other historical subject. Some were able to serve out their sentences and rise to prosperity and a new life. Others were shamefully abused. The history of the aboriginal peoples too is described and it is an unhappy subject, alas.
Hughes begins with the early days of the transport and concludes when the system was finally abolished in the 1850's as a result of protests and of the Australian gold rush.
After reading this book, I thought I had realized my goal of learning something of Australia. More importantly, I felt part of the land even though I hadn't seen it before and will likely never see it again. Places that I read about and that were only names took on character and importance.
I have read a substantial amount of United States history but hadn't read about Australia before. This book is well-documented, eloquently written and has a feel for the pulse of its subject. It is an outstanding work of history and is sure to broaden the human perspective of the reader.
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on June 13, 2000
This colorful and splendidly researched history of Australia's founding is breathtaking in its scope. The book is not only a story of Australia's beginnings, but an impressively researched history on the political pressures in England that led to the founding of Australia as a penal colony and of the struggles over penal reform. Perhaps most fascinating, and Hughes never fails to communicate his own sense of fascination, is the microcosm Australia offers as a society founded from wholecloth and how it evolved into a complex society. I read this book right after reading Son of the Morning Star (another superb book) and was very much struck between the parallels between how Americans who settled the West viewed and treated Native Americans and the Australian settlers' views of the aborigines whom they slowly but surely displaced. The wonderful stories would stand on their own even if ineptly told, but they really come alive with Hughes' writing style, which would be the pride of any novelist...Bravo!
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on July 22, 1999
I have travelled to Australia, thus far, eight times since 1990. In all of my travels I have focused on learning the evolutionary significance of Australia's fascinating fauna, as well as the the culture of its people, past and present. But in all of my travels in Australia (I have yet to go to Tasmania) I have never learned so much about its people (non-Aboriginal) and their colonization, as I have from reading The Fatal Shore. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a historian or even one who "likes" history. But Robert Hughes's book was so well written, and so insightful, that I can truly say I could not put it down. What I learned from this book really put my travels to Australia in perspective, and it made me want to learn so much more. If I could, I would give this book ten stars! This book is an absolute must-read for anyone who is interested in travel to Australia, or wants simply to learn about Australia's fascinating, albeit horrific, past. Robert Hughes has quite a talent for impecable research as well as for bringing his readers into the heart of unimaginable horrors. Australians need not be ashamed of their past (as is implied in the book) - on the contrary - they should relish in their success as a colorful and awe-inspiring nation (which is something they already do)!
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Fatal Shore is a rare achievement in history writing: truly fascinating history by a wonderful writer. As a Time magazine writer and art critic, Robert Hughes obviously knows his way around the English language and shows it by crafting readable, entertaining history. But the book's true strength lies in Hughes' -- who is Australian -- brutally honest assessment of his country's fascinating founding. Hughes' voice makes the reader feel like he is getting Australia's story from the famously blunt lips of an Aussie over a few beers in an outback tavern. And why not? Good history SHOULD be brutally honest, not watered down with political correctness or the dry touch of an academic. Particularly strong are sections in which Hughes tears down the fiction -- created by Australians as an defensive reflex against their less-than-proud background -- which says the country's first convict citizens were mostly unjustly convicted and primarily political prisoners. The book is peppered throughout with gritty anecdotes and based on solid and extensive research. I had no idea Australia's founding was this interesting. Hughes shows us what an incredible tale it really was.
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VINE VOICEon May 13, 1998
Sham history is still history. I've read reviews of this fine piece of scholarship, including some presented on this very page, which attempt to undermine its validity by claiming that much of its content is anecdotal; based on folk tales and hearsay. I can only respond by noting that this fact adds to the color and elegance of the text. Few historical theses can claim to be both scholarly and entertaining. This one is. It reads like a novel. It instructs like a textbook. Its arguments are convincing and substantive. Its stories are humorous and horrifying. My only disappointment, which is actually only indirectly related to the book, came from the text of Mr. Hughes' statement to the faculty of the University of Melbourne upon his receiving an honorary Doctor of Letters. He apologized for his lack of formal education. No apologies are necessary.
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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.
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on July 19, 2003
This is one monumental and fascinating work, equivalent to a university course in the history of Australia's founding. It is at once easy to read and hard to get through. It took me two full weeks of reading 2 hours a day to finish it, due to the wealth of detail in each chapter. I found myself going over some paragraphs twice to pull it all in. Hughes also has a vocabulary that is of the highest order, so he kept me busy looking up quite a few unfamiliar words. I definitely increased my word power (ha). A good thing, always. It is also not laid out in a strict chronological order; rather, the chapters run over one another in their time periods because of the weaving of the overarching story of the transportation system and its genesis and oversight from England into the narrative. There were also distinct differences between Australia and Van Diemen's Land, and further subsets involving those prisons where repeat offenders were sent -- most notably, Norfolk Island.
I had only a vague idea of Botany Bay and the convict history of Australia before I read this book. Apparently, so did many Australians until quite recently as they sought to bury their hellish past and the stigma they associated with it by simply blotting it out of existence. Hughes cuts right to the core of this by exposing it all for what it really was -- brutal, savage, unjust and sad in the extreme. He does not look upon this with anything but a keen eye and evenhanded, masterful grasp of all of the factors that were in play. While certainly most of the convicts could hardly be judged guilty of anything more than the pettiest offense in our modern eyes - if any offense at all - there were indeed those who were hardened criminals. None, however, particularly the women and children, were worthy of the sadistic brutality heaped upon them by those in charge, some of who were clearly evil to the core.
For anyone who wants to really understand the truth of the convict history of the land down under, this book is absolutely essential reading. For anyone who wants to be immersed in the depths of human misery and suffering, and ultimately be inspired by what these poor souls endured to build the nation of Australia, this book is required reading.
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on August 14, 2000
I am an Australian. I am also descended from a convict.
I knew very little about the convict experience in Australia apart from the story of the First Fleet which arrived in Sydney in 1788.
I have been to Tasmania and visited Port Arthur, the remnants of the convict prison. It is a ghostly, sad place, very reminiscient of European concentration camps.
Often convicts were sent to Australia for doing nothing but stealing a piece of bread. Robert Hughes' absorbing book is a poignant testimonial to their story. You will find no better book about early Australian convict history than this one.
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on August 29, 2005
As an Australian it has taken me way to long to get around to reading this book. Now that I have finished it I have a much better understanding of the founding of my country.

As most Australians, school had taught me the basic of the founding of Australia as as a penal colony, where England shipped its "criminal class" to prevent the contamination of ordinary society. What I lacked was an understanding of how desperate the early years of the Australian Colonies truly were. What Hughes paints is the tale of a society being built by the almost slave labour of the convicts, ruled by an often tyrannical military, under constant threat of starvation, with an economy was based on the control of the only means of escape from daily reality - rum. It is important and relevant history.

I notice one reviewer complaining about Hughes historical facts? I found Hughes research to be extensive and exceedingly well documented. And how does the history presented in any way prevent Australia from becoming a happy and successful country? In many ways I suspect that the early inequity experienced by many of our colonists was key to the development of many of those qualities which we hold to be Australian such as mateship and the concept of a fair go.
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on February 14, 2001
You could not write fiction that is as entertaining as Robert Hughes' excellent research on the founding and colonization of Australia. This is one of the best historical pieces written regarding British social evolution in the 1700's ~ from the vantage point of being entertaining, usefully informative, and engaging. Excellent commentary on why "transportation" happened as it did, and why Australia became the destination ~ the reasons are social, cultural, as well as political. And fun facts abound ~ the British Colonies in America preceded Australia as the British destination for transported convicts (albeit in a different model), Norfolk Island had immense and surprising strategic value for all world navies because of two critical resources, the perception of Australia in the 1700's was far from glowing for many reasons, etc. If a history book can be a page-turner, this is the one that proves the rule.
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