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Book Review : With an Australia, Who Needed Jails?

November 24, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (Knopf: $24.95)

This is one of the greatest nonfiction books I've ever read. But guess what? It's only a Book of the Month Club alternate.

This is a strange world we live in. James Clavell's "Whirlwind"--heavy, crammed with trumped-up adventure, a $5-million investment for its publisher, advertised as heavily as a light beer--will be bought by zillions before its sales campaign is over. I'd be surprised if "The Fatal Shore" even gets a sales campaign, and surely a few thousand readers at most will ever crack its handsome binding.

In a way, you can see why. Who needs a history of the Australian penal system from 1788--when the first convict ship landed on that "fatal shore"--through the next 80 horrifying years, when savagery, sadism, sex and civilization all clashed, and civilization won, by a nose. Who needs a story of torture, daring escapes, vicious martinets (so deformed they sound like escapees themselves from some high-budget Hollywood horror flick), abortive searches for China (so ill-informed were some of these luckless prisoners), tales of men lost in the bush engaging in systematic cannibalism until out of a group of eight or nine there are only two desperadoes left, each eyeing the other frantically across a tiny campfire. (And, when the last one is finally captured and tells his grisly tale, the mind-set of the authorities is such that they don't believe this human flesh-eater, and he has to escape again, cannibalize again, get captured again with a couple of pounds of rotting human meat in his pocket, before it finally dawns on anyone he's telling the truth.)

Prisoners Bloodied but Unbowed

Who needs a story of "stone men"; prisoners so brave and full of pride that they took thousands of lashes, until their backbones were laid bare and their collarbones polished white as animal horns. Who needs a story of "female factories" where women lived in incredible squalor redeemed by bawdy humor, waiting for some taciturn farmer to come in from the bush to pick one of them for a bride (except that he'd have to brave the taunts of all of them as they stood wriggling and shouting and tugging on each other's clothes)--and if the bride didn't please him, he could return her to this hellish "factory," like a lemon to a used-car lot, and pick out another.

Who needs the developing story of the battle between free man and convict, between convict and aborigine, between English and Irish, between the very rich and the desperately poor. Who needs a glimpse into the English soul in the Age of Wordsworth through the window of England's penal colony. Who needs to tarry over the fatuousness, the complacency, the avarice, the insupportable arrogance of the English ruling class at that time, or to realize all over again why the American Colonies chose to revolt. Like, you know, who needs it.

Country Without a History

The wildly interesting thing here is that official Australia has for years shared the idea that its convict history is one big yawn--not just embarrassing but not worth the trouble of looking into. Because of that, in one sense, Australia has been a country without a past--a continental air plant--one century wilderness, the next century a peaceful sheep farm, the next one after that Melrose Boulevard in macrocosm; full of the trendiest new clothes, the most elegant novels now being written, the most dazzling films being made. . . .

But never a sense of how it happened, why it happened; how the aborigines got so definitively slaughtered, or the coastal lands so definitively tamed. Or why the Australian system of "mateship" still flourishes, even as homophobia still rages.

Robert Hughes, God bless him, decided that it might be time to put a stop to official, arbitrary, historical ignorance and write an account of that first 80 years of Australian life--which is, by necessity, a history of England's infamous convict transportation system; the concept of "excreting" convicts out of the British Isles and across the seas to the world's biggest prison, with the shark-infested Pacific as one very effective moat.

Wide-Ranging Scholarship

Hughes' scholarship is prodigious; there's no other word for it. His bibliography is a very densely packed 13 1/2 pages, and it would appear to include everything from studies of the London underclass to official papers to touchingly misspelled letters from the convicts themselves; letters reassuring their families or begging for clemency, or long journals recording the dizzying horrors of prison life.

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