The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 
by Robert Hughes.
Collins Harvill, 688 pp., £15, January 1987, 0 00 217361 1
Show More
Rights of Passage: Emigration to Australia in the 19th Century 
by Helen Woolcock.
Tavistock, 377 pp., £25, September 1986, 9780422602402
Show More
Show More

Robert Hughes has written a full-scale study, often nightmarish yet objective and well-balanced, of something second only to the slave trade as a blot on Britain’s record in the world – something that was at the same time the birth of a nation. It was ‘the largest forced exile of citizens at the behest of a European government in pre-modern history’; we may compare it with the uprootings of peoples by Assyrian or Mongol conquerors. His book is massively researched, with the fullest use of official papers, but with the greatest weight attached to the convicts’ own testimony, surviving in letters, petitions, memoirs, largely unpublished, and plentiful enough to dispel the common notion of the unfortunates as ‘a mute mass’. It is, in fact, very much an essay in ‘history from below’, and must be one of the best that has appeared. The author is not a historian, but an art critic, which helps to explain the range and quality of the illustrations, a veritable art gallery. It may also have something to do with his command of style, both narrative and descriptive – his artist’s vision, for instance, of Pacific waves as ‘towering hills of indigo and malachite glass, veined in their transparencies with braids of opaque white water, their spumy crests running level with the ship’s cross-trees’. His picture of the virgin continent, in two early chapters, has the same graphic quality.

In 1784 Parliament passed a Transportation Act for the benefit of criminals under sentence. Jails and their annexes the ‘hulks’, mouldering old warships out of commission, were overflowing – like prisons today in Britain, where more custodial sentences are passed than almost anywhere else in Europe. Eighteenth-century jails were often privately, and vilely, managed. Very likely when Mrs Thatcher, faithful to her gospel – ‘Sell all that thou hast, and give to the rich’ – has jobbed off everything else she can lay her itching hands on, she will dispose of our prisons to speculators. (And why not the lawcourts with them? They were mostly run for private profit in the good old days of feudalism.) It may be a tribute to British humanitarian feeling, or to British hypocrisy, that the public could not bear the sight of convicts working in chains on road-building or canal-digging, but did not mind the thought of them working in chains in the antipodes. Similarly French and Spanish convicts were got decently out of sight by being sent to pull an oar in the galleys; and lately men and women disliked by the Argentine Government were being turned into still more unobtrusive desaparecidos.

It remained to find a suitable destination for the malefactors; the American colonies, a former dumping-ground, were no longer available. Alternatives were not many, and the choice fell on Australia. In 1787 the ‘First Fleet’ of transports set sail for Botany Bay. By 1800 42 ships had made the fearful passage, but the long wars with France held up operations; the mass exodus came after Waterloo, and most of all in the early 1830s. The peak year was reached in 1833, the year after the passing of the first Reform Act and the coming to power of the upper-middle classes, when 6779 captives set out. Not until 1828 did the free outnumber the unfree in New South Wales, and nearly half the free population of 20,870 were ex-convicts. From start to finish Britannia got rid in this way of about a hundred and fifty thousand of her children.

Hughes rejects as a ‘consoling fiction’ the idea some Australians have cherished that those transported were innocents, while the real evil-doers stayed in England, many in high places. In support of their view it might be urged that the Tory oligarchy of the early 19th century, with its Corn Laws and Game Laws and bribery and corruption, has a good claim to the title of ‘criminal’, and that most of those caught in the meshes of the law were victims from childhood of a perverted and hostile society. Hughes’s point, however, is that the great majority of the exiles were neither political idealists nor grand villains, but mere petty thieves. Only a few were social protesters to the extent of being poachers. On the First Fleet, that grim travesty of the Mayflower and its Pilgrim Fathers, all those of the 736 convicts whose records remain were guilty (or had been pronounced guilty – much allowance needs to be made for clumsy police and law court methods) of crimes against property. ‘Pitiful necessity’ was often the cause. Elizabeth Beckford, at 70 the second oldest woman aboard, had been given – or rather robbed of – seven years for stealing 12 pounds of Gloucester cheese. Her senior was a vendor of rags and old clothes, aged 82, who was to be Australia’s first suicide. But the average age was only about 27. Youngest of all was a boy chimney-sweep, aged nine.

In the course of the first half of the 19th century Hughes reckons that eighteen hundred or more individuals were transported for more or less political offences, among them ‘representatives of nearly every protest movement known to the British Government’, from Luddites to Scotland’s weaver-Radicals, Captain Swing rioters, Tolpuddle martyrs and Chartists. Most celebrated were the ‘Scottish Martyrs’ whose monument stands in the Calton cemetery and looks down on a forgetful Edinburgh. They were casualties of the Tory hysteria of 1793, when war was declared on the French Revolution and the shepherd’s crook of law became, in Wordsworth’s phrase, a tool of murder. But once got rid of they could do no harm, and were not subjected to fetters, forced labour or the lash. ‘Palmer and Muir got land grants, and even managed to turn a profit in the rum trade’, for long the colony’s chief commercial activity – thirst being universal – before Muir made his daring escape, only in the end to die in penury in France.

With the Irish, who made up a large proportion of all convicts, including many of the political, or agrarian, rebels, it was far otherwise. They were pursued with a vindictive cruelty in keeping with the spirit of British rule in Ireland, and fomented by their warders’ besetting fear of plots and mutinies. Numbers swelled after the Irish rebellion of 1798, and ‘ranged across a wide social spectrum, from peasant to lawyer’. Some of these men of 1798 received ferocious floggings of up to a thousand lashes, on suspicion of an imaginary rising, and were doomed to penal servitude for life. Only once was an outbreak actually attempted, in 1804, and then it was bungled. A handful of troops were enough to quell the poorly armed insurgents, and the ringleaders were soon hanging in chains. Irish bitterness ‘survived most tenaciously as one of the primary images of working-class culture’, and left a permanent legacy of sectarian division between Catholic and Protestant. Some knowledge of far-away torments must have filtered back to Ireland, and helped to feed the nationalist spirit there. Nationalism has always needed enemies to hate; in Ireland it inevitably grew to an excessive degree on hatred of England, still today the alpha and almost the omega of the creed that arms men with bomb and rifle to visit the sins of the fathers on the children.

Australia’s first execution was that of a boy of 17 for stealing food. But soldiers, too, were gracing the gallows; the first years were a purgatory for all, with hunger the ‘hateful equaliser’. Fertile soil was not easily found, crops failed, rations had to be reduced again and again. Arthur Phillip, naval captain turned governor, saved the settlement from collapse by ‘grit, example, and stubborn evenhandedness in the face of hopeless prisoners and near-mutinous marines’. It sounds like as heroic a feat as any ever performed in the outposts of empire. His successors had an easier task, and a few carried it out with decency or common humanity. They were not encouraged to overdo this. What the British Government wanted was a regime harsh enough to frighten the criminal classes at home into mending their ways, and from 1825 there was fresh determination to make the penalties truly draconian. Down to near the end, most judges, bishops, statesmen, continued firmly opposed to any thought of sparing the rod. Two notables who figure in these pages in a very unfavourable light are that fun-loving clergyman, Sydney Smith, and the then unregenerate Tory, Gladstone.

George Arthur, governor of Van Diemen’s Land or Tasmania from 1824, was a puritanically self-righteous person, convinced that mankind is ‘born and saturated in wickedness’ and that his wards, in particular, required to be treated accordingly. He came from the Army; so did many others, of more commonplace military cast, accustomed to corporal punishment as the only way to turn the scum of the earth into useful soldiers; their men in Australia, the ‘Botany Bay Rangers’, were exceptionally poor stuff, and most of their officers not much better. Everywhere Britain’s number one empire-builder was the executioner with his cat-o’-nine-tails. For convicts the worst region was Tasmania, separated from New South Wales in 1825; it had the lowest proportion of free settlers. For men who committed second offences, or for any reason were regarded as more vicious than the rest, special penal settlements were organised, like the remote Norfolk Island where the Irish suspects of 1798 were sent, and Macquarie Harbour on the Tasmanian coast, established in 1821 and for ten years ‘the worst spot in the English-speaking world’. Such places were seldom inspected, and gave a free run to the sadists whom they were likely to engender.

Among those in responsible positions, here as in most of the Empire, many hailed from Scotland. Hughes has something of Carlyle’s talent for vivid verbal snapshot; he captures Major Anderson as ‘a grasping, vigilant and pious Scot, with a face like an irritable osprey – bleak sunken eyes, a blade of a nose, a wiry bush of white whiskers’. He once got through the business of ordering 1500 lashes for five men before breakfast. A still more energetic flogger was Captain Patrick Logan, reckoned the most brutal camp commandant of all. Lachlan Macquarie, on the other hand, in spite of twenty years in the Army, was ‘a fine early example of that breed of Scottish administrators who kept the engine-room of Empire working’, combining ‘moral vigour and paternal evenhandedness’ with ‘bull-headed vanity’. His aim was to transform a jail into a colony, and he had faith in the ability of ex-convicts to make good citizens. This was enough to infuriate a nascent ruling class, bent on ‘unrelenting exploitation’, and its allies in England. Macquarie died a broken man, a target of obloquy and calumny. Another Scot of the praiseworthy sort, and a still more zealous reformer, was Alexander Maconochie, who arrived in Hobart in 1837 as secretary to a new governor, the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Like Macquarie, he soon drew attacks from those who wanted no reforms. Scots tended, it would seem, to be either worse than the common run of English functionaries, or far superior. But between the place of Scotsmen and Irishmen in Australia there was a gulf as wide and deep as within the oddly styled ‘United Kingdom’ in north-west Europe.

Some convicts were kept by the authorities to work in chain-gangs, on road-building and other public works, for which there was at first nothing else available than ‘that least efficient of engines, the human body’. A limited number of educated men, or ‘Specials’, found places as clerks. Far the most were ‘assigned’ or hired out to farmers or other employers. Some masters were good-hearted, and won a grateful response; others were petty tyrants, fond of getting a magistrate – one of themselves – to order floggings. Ill-used drudges could best defend themselves by go-slow tactics, or the sort of dogged silent resistance that served peasants in old Europe better than open revolt. To run away was not difficult, and one temptation was a curious notion that China lay just to the north, and could be reached without swimming. Survival out in the bush, on the other hand, in face of hunger and sometimes unfriendly natives, was hard. Hughes tells a grisly story of a group of fugitives whose adventure ended with them murdering and eating one another. Most men who kept going as outlaws were unromantic sheep-stealers, but a few won some popular regard, and an Irish bushranger, John Donohoe, inspired ballads flavoured by national feeling, and left behind him a legend. Rude ballad verses of this sort are among the materials that Hughes makes good use of.

Civilisation often showed itself in Australasia as barbarous as anything Asia or Africa had to show. It can be said as a palliative that ill-treatment of convicts was at least not racialist, like British conduct in many colonies. In New South Wales between 1830 and 1837 a total of 268,013 lashes were distributed among a male convict population of 32,102. Some clergymen were as savage as any laymen. The Rev. Samuel Marsden, an Anglican and violent anti-Catholic, earned the nickname of ‘the Flogging Parson’. But there were always a few who protested, and some clerics and missionaries are entitled to honourable mention. Atrocities on Norfolk Island were denounced by a chaplain there, T.B. Naylor, followed by the first Catholic bishop in Tasmania, Robert Willson, at the time when Norfolk Island was under the rule of J.G. Price, until his murder by victims goaded beyond endurance. Others among the critics were Quakers.

A great part of the record shows human nature at its worst. Oppression, as Hughes says, is more likely to produce a cowed, submissive mass than men capable of rebellion. Convicts promoted to overseers on the chain-gangs were as thorough slave-drivers as any. Misery and hunger could destroy all fellow-feeling: there is a striking contrast here with the mutual aid so often inspired by neighbourhood spirit in the poorest of London or Glasgow slums. Still, when demoralised individuals were brought together in any stable relationship, solidarity quickly grew, and could make it impossible for the authorities to extract information from one man against another. No such sentiment could link convicts with their fellow sufferers, the aborigines. In their abject condition they had to have someone to look down on, like the office-boy kicking the office cat. ‘Australian racism began with the convicts’, and rapidly percolated upwards to the better-off. In Tasmania bushrangers, besides abducting women, took an active part in the slaughter of the native race, ‘the only true genocide in English colonial history’.

About one-sixth of those transported, or 24,960, were women. Even more defenceless and destitute of rights, they were exploited by all. As justification for this it was assumed that they were more irreclaimable than the men, and were all prostitutes. Their best chance was to find a ‘protector’. Most convicts had to go without, and respectability, religious especially, in Australia and at home, frothed about the sin of sodomy.

On the brighter side, a man with average luck and ability could grit his teeth and work out his time, which could be shortened if he gained parole as a ‘ticket-of-leave man’. Hands being scarce, wages were good; by 1820 he could earn considerably more in Sydney than in London. Thanks to no virtue of John Bull’s, but to the emptiness of Australia and the bounty of nature, those who survived could make a fresh start. It was, Hughes writes in conclusion, ‘by far the most successful form of penal rehabilitation that had ever been tried in English, American, or European history’. Remarkably early, a warm patriotic spirit was showing itself: Australia offered a far better life than the old homeland, to which few wanted to return. No trade-unionist agitation sprouted; none of the politicals or radicals seem to have tried to revive their old activities.

Cross-bred merino sheep gave the economy its real start, and the big holders of land-grants their fortunes. These ‘squatters’ were soon aping aristocracy, going in for horse-racing, balls and high living. Many crops and animals, as well as human beings, were being transplanted to Australia; prominent among them was the upas-tree of private property. As the colony prospered, with a gold rush to accelerate it, most of its people wanted no more criminals dumped among them. There were mounting demonstrations against the system, while at home the long anti-slavery campaign had stirred a feeling that convict and slave labour were unpleasantly alike. In 1853 transportation came smoothly enough to an end, with a brief epilogue in a new quarter, the sparsely peopled west.

But the stain of Australia’s ancestry was corrosive, and had bred an ‘extreme class-consciousness’, a sense of class ‘all-pervasive and pathological’. Botany Bay had to be expunged, pushed out of sight by what Hughes calls a process of ‘historical amnesia’, with a warping effect on the country’s later image of itself. The centenary year 1888 was turned by the politicians into ‘a lavish feast of jingoism’. We may look back on the ‘White Australia’ slogan, and the precocious imperialist ambitions in the Pacific, as necessary to cement Australians into a nation – but a nation subservient for generations to everything British, as since the Second World War to American patronage. Hughes is critical of his countrymen, those of the 1950s at least, for ‘accepting all manner of censorship, Grundyism and excess of police power, but feeling like the freest people on earth because they could go surfing at lunchtime’. He has removed to the USA – where he may have found an atmosphere not very different.

His book includes a chapter on the voyage out, which was not the least part of a felon’s punishment. In early days the death-rate might run as high as one in six. As usual, the Irish fared worst. On one ship sailing from Cork in 1796 the half-crazy captain, in panic fear of a mutiny plot, had the men he suspected given 7900 lashes, and killed half a dozen of them. Even in official circles it was felt that this ‘bordered on too great a degree of severity’. Things improved after 1815, when each ship had to carry a surgeon, who, when conscientious, was the chief if not the only ‘representative of humanity’ aboard.

On this side of the subject, Hughes’s work has an excellent continuation in the work of Dr Woolcock, a Canadian medical historian. One of her findings is that convicts sometimes underwent less hardship than early shiploads of the free emigrants with whom her book is concerned. For some time transport was left to uncontrolled private enterprise, on the principles so much in vogue again today; but the consequences, cholera and typhus and shipwrecks, were so horrific that regulations had to be imposed. More stringent rules were framed at the other end, as soon as Queensland became a separate colony in 1859, imbued from the first with a determination not to be a receptacle for ‘England’s sweepings’. An agency was set up in London, with a strict pattern of selection of suitable immigrants; on board ship, conditions were carefully watched over by a surgeon-superintendent entrusted with a daunting list of responsibilities, and with powers independent of the captain.

Thanks to this, the voyage became much less of an ordeal than has often been supposed. Its length was shortened by steam, to about a hundred days in the 1880s. There was vigilant concern for sanitation: Queensland was subsidising its immigrants and did not want to lose them on the way. Each vessel carried a library of a few hundred books; music had a loud place in its life, and theatricals as well as concerts were organised; games were played – one of the illustrations shows cricket in progress. Altogether, the Queensland Government made an ‘unrelenting effort’ to provide ‘the healthiest possible environment’, and could be justly proud of what it accomplished. It is sad to recall that another sort of immigrant was being brought in to work on the sugar plantations – Pacific islanders sometimes obtained by ‘blackbirding’ or kidnapping, and often held in duress not much unlike what had been the lot of an assigned convict.

From Australia the latest news is of the salvaging of odds and ends from the Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet, which sank in shallow water off Norfolk Island: this is to contribute to next year’s bicentenary celebrations.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences