Hard Looks at Hidden History

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One of the more unlikely results of the American Revolution was Australia. Most American colonists came here voluntarily, of course, but until 1776 we meekly accepted boatloads of His Majesty’s convicts as indentured servants. Then, after our unexpected victory over the world’s most powerful nation (and with thousands of fresh African slaves conveniently arriving on the Atlantic Coast each year), we righteously barred our gates to those unfortunates whom Jeremy Bentham would call an “excrementitious mass.” Forced to seek a new dumping ground for what it firmly believed was an incurably criminal class, the Crown chose a new spot as far from Britain as possible—empty Australia, fourteen thousand miles away, on the other side of the world.

Robert Hughes’s big new book, The Fatal Shore, memorably chronicles the first eight decades of Australian history and in the process shows what a gifted writer can do to bring vivid life to the sort of patchy documentary evidence too many academic writers would be content merely to reproduce. Hughes is best known to Americans as the art critic of Time magazine and as the tousled host of the excellent PBS series of several seasons past, The Shock of the New. He is that rare thing, a writer about art who makes sense; his criticism is shrewd, concrete, knowledgeable, openminded but unmoved by trendiness. He has now proved himself a fine popular historian as well, worthy of comparison to his mentor and fellow-countryman, the late Alan Moorehead, to whose memory The Fatal Shore in part is dedicated.

Hughes is consistently crisp and unsparing. Nothing escapes his cool, appraising eye, not even the koalas that greeted the first arrivals: “These were not the winsome, cuddly teddy bears of the Quantas commercial, but slow, irritable, aldermanic creatures with furry ears and a boot-heel nose, which ate two pounds of fresh gum leaves a day and, when captured, scratched furiously and drenched the offending hand with eucalyptus-scented piss.”

 

His portrait of the miserable, ginsoaked Georgian world that his forebears and ours escaped by such different means makes Hogarth seem a romantic. Nor does he sentimentalize the transported convicts, who were, for the most part, repeat offenders, not the hapless innocents their descendants fondly wish they’d been. But nothing they’d done in the Old World could justify the brutality with which they were routinely treated by the officers sent to supervise them in the New. Sadism was officially sanctioned down under, and the meticulousness with which records of all this cruelty were kept would not be matched again until the Germans began keeping their careful tallies during World War II; precisely 304,327 lashes were laid on in New South Wales in 1863, for example; a single prisoner received 1,000 lashes in two years on Norfolk Island for such offenses as “Smiling while on the Chain,” “Getting a light to smoke,” “Singing a Song,” and “Asking Gaoler for a Chew of Tobacco.” Another endured 2,000 lashes in three years—so many, a soldier noted, that his back appeared “quite bare of flesh and his collar bones were exposed looking very much like two Ivory Polished horns. It was with some difficulty that we could find another place to flog him. [The overseer] suggested to me that we had better [do it on] the soles of his feet next time.”

The American frontier represented opportunity to those who pushed it westward; the Australian frontier meant only exile and imprisonment to those forced to endure it. “Every underdog needs a dog below him,” Hughes writes, “so he can feel canine,” and the convicts, in turn, took out their stored-up rage upon the original inhabitants of their new continent, the Aborigines, raping and murdering them with a cheerful abandon that even our own most bloody-minded pioneers might have found disquieting.

Transportation of convicts finally ended in 1868; 160,000 cast-off men and women had made the journey. Their legacy to their descendants, according to the author, was distinctly mixed: “Mateship, fatalism, contempt for do-gooders and God-botherers, harsh humor, opportunism, survivor’s disdain for introspection, and an attitude to authority in which private resentment mingled with ostensible resignation....”

Until comparatively recently, Australians have been perhaps understandably reluctant to examine what Hughes calls their “felon origins.” To do so was simply too painful.

Vietnam has had something of the same effect on us. Platoon, Oliver Stone’s film about a band of ordinary Americans caught up in that war, was recently the number-one box-office attraction in the country and has won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is popular not only with the same public that so recently cheered Rambo I and II, but with critics who deplored those mindless fantasies, and who profess to see in the general enthusiasm for Platoon evidence that a dozen years after the last overloaded helicopter lumbered into the air from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, we seem ready soberly to reexamine our ordeal in Southeast Asia.

The action centers on a decent young middle-class volunteer, eager to fight his country’s enemies as his father and grandfather had before him, who finds himself caught up instead in a civil war between two sergeants, one willing to do anything to win, the other still possessed of moral scruples.