Putting Australia on the Map

GEWEN, BARRY

Writers & Writing PUTTING AUSTRALIA ON THE MAP BY BARRY GEWEN A few years ago, Fort Worth's civic fathers were dismayed to learn that a poll on the popular conception of their city revealed...

...Writers & Writing PUTTING AUSTRALIA ON THE MAP BY BARRY GEWEN A few years ago, Fort Worth's civic fathers were dismayed to learn that a poll on the popular conception of their city revealed people had no conception of Fort Worth...
...by the middle of the 19th century there was an excess of cell space for the first time in living memory and no longer a need to exile criminals...
...Most of the former convicts stayed on after winning their freedom, becoming Emancipists in a highly stratified social order, a provincial recreation of England, where the upper rungs were monopolized by the colonial gentry, or Exclusives...
...We will not find similar stories in the works of Solzhenitsyn...
...The government, meanwhile, was building penitentiaries in imitation of American prisons...
...Convicts were cruelly worked and more cruelly abused...
...It deserves its success...
...In the first years of settlement, punishments of 500, even 1,000, were not unknown...
...Above all, since the country was a British penal colony during the years covered by the book, his narrative tells a tale of what men invested with total power who possessed a hard Victorian faith in the system they embodied were willing to inflict on others...
...The passage of the convicts is traced step by grueling step...
...In Australia itself, a maturing and settled native population had become sufficiently self-assured and assertive to start protesting against the practice of transportation...
...That position was reserved for the recidivists and incorrigibles, whom the Australian authorities treated the way England was treating its criminal populationóby shipping them out...
...Judges, Hughes observed, "could be extraordinarily careful of convicts' and former convicts' rights...
...Death from disease, overcrowding and brutality was a possibility in the early years...
...Hughes fleshes out this skeleton with a splendid array of description and detail...
...Before long, other outposts had been established at Port Macquarie, Port Arthur, Macquarie Harbor, Moreton Bay, and Norfolk Island...
...A chapter entitled "The Voyage" starts with the judge's sentence to transportation "beyond the seas," continuing through the separation from loved ones and the transfer to the hulks, where prisoners waited in irons as "'every kind of graft and corruption flourished...
...Asked to describe Sydney, a metropolis of approximately 3 million, the best-informed, after noting it has a famous opera house, are apt to lapse into silence...
...they could take their masters to court for mistreatment...
...As early as 1801 a penal colony was created at Newcastle, 70 miles north of Sydney...
...Hughes reports that many English soldiers envied the lives of the Australian prisoners they oversaw, and in some cases purposely broke the law in order to become convicts themselves...
...Reformers in England began to attract public support with their argument that continued transportation was turning Australia into a cesspool of vice and corruption (a myth Hughes refutes with first-person testimony and crime-rate statistics...
...Sadists and malefactors existed up and down Australia's bureaucratic chain, causing terrible suffering, but unlike their counterparts in the Soviet system, they operated outside of the law, not within it...
...SUCH accounts, as well as the statistics on floggings inflicted outside of the penal colonies, lead Hughes, generally a fair-minded, untendentious writer, into his one serious misstep...
...More likely, he would be "assigned" to a private settler, to serve as a laborer until he earned a pardon or completed his term...
...Flogging was the engine of Australia's penal colonies, and Hughes is a connoisseur, an encyclopedist of the practice, recounting its punctilios with almost sadomasochistic fervor...
...By the 1830s, Australia was as class-obsessed a society as any in the world...
...Something similar might be said of Australia...
...Known as "the Botany Bay of Botany Bay," they were notorious hellholes, the end of the line for any prisoner condemned to one...
...Once in Australia, a prisoner might be sent to work on a government road gang...
...The peak came in the 1830s, when 51,200 prisoners were banished to Australia, more than in the previous two decades combined...
...Great Britain had been shipping hundreds of convicts across the Atlantic each year, until the War for Independence closed the western outlet and produced a crisis of overcrowding in English jails...
...A compassionate writer, he is especially adept at getting us to see events through the eyes of the participants themselves, most notably the victims of the system...
...Repeatedly throughout The Fatal Shore, he compares transportation to more modern horrors, declaring that the system constituted a "not-so-small, not-so-primitive ancestor of the Gulag...
...Colonial Australia's failing, it is important to understand, was not the presence of a Stalinist spirit, but the absence of a Jeffersonian one...
...One victim wrote: "I was literally alive with Maggots and Vermin...
...On board were 1,030 people, including 548 male and 188 female convicts...
...Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, with a combined population of over 3 million, draw complete blanks...
...Absolute power is frighteningly heady stuff, and the darkest pages of The Fatal Shore remind us that the best protection against it is a polity founded on unalienable rights, even for those hardened criminals we might prefer to lock up and forget about...
...Convicts serving out their terms did not occupy the lowest rung in this rigid hierarchy...
...He explains that 25 lashes were "a draconic torture, able to skin a man's back," yet convicts were sentenced to 200 and 300 strokes...
...All of this may now change...
...Elsewhere, he calls the police-state administration of Van Diemen's Land "totalitarian...
...Hughes presents a rollicking panorama of exploration and settlement, cultural warfare and frontier debauchery, rugged individuals battling a still more rugged environment...
...Robert Hughes' colorful account of Australia's first 80 years, The Fatal Shore (Knopf, 671 pp., $24.95), a main selection of both the Book-of-theMonth Club and the History Book Club, has become an instant best-seller...
...Australia can boast a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but do not hold your breath waiting to encounter an American familiar with the novels of Patrick White...
...Bowing to manifold pressures, Britain ended transportation to the most populous colony, New South Wales, in 1840...
...They ranged in age from a nineyear-old chimney sweep who had stolen clothes and a pistol to an 82-year-old woman sentenced to seven years for perjury...
...Individual sections of the book deal with women (whom Hughes calls "prisoners of prisoners"), homosexuals, and Aborigines, the inevitable losers in an equally inevitable clash of cultures...
...Only the isolated penal colonies, where men were utterly at the mercy of the guards, represent an exception, and their grim example should give pause to anyone today who scoffs at the need to scrupulously maintain legal protections for prison inmates...
...to such a wretched and truly miserable state was I reduced, that I even hated the look of myself...
...In Australia, prisoners retained crucial rights: They could not be beaten except upon order of two magistrates...
...Although Captain James Cook set foot on the continent in 1770, colonization did not begin for another 18 years...
...Yet the 1830s were also the time that a campaign to abolish the system seriously got under way...
...The abolition movement derived from several sources...
...few were violent lawbreakers...
...Sentences of 50 and 100 lashes were meted out for such offenses as smiling while on a chain gang, asking a guard for some tobacco, and singing a song...
...The system lingered on in Western Australia, where the economic survival of a struggling settlement depended on forced immigration, but in 1868 the last convict ship unloaded its human cargo of 279 souls at Fremantle, on the isolated western shore...
...Twelve years later the traffic to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) was stopped as well...
...Its immediate cause was the American Revolution...
...Except for their acquaintance with kangaroos and other exotic fauna, most Americans have no image whatsoever of life down under...
...Over the next eight decades about 160,000 convicts would follow these pioneers to the distant colony, "the largest forced exile of citizens at the behest of a European government in pre-modern history...
...Most had been transported for petty theft and other minor crimes against property...
...Later, there was the tedium of the three-and-a-half month trip and the consuming fear of the unknown...
...My object," a governor wrote of Norfolk Island, "was to hold out that Settlement as aplace of the extremest Punishment, short of Death...
...Nor did the torture end with the beatings, for the men were intentionally given inadequate treatment after being cut down...
...The intellectual patrons of Australia, in its first colonial years, " writes Hughes, "were Hobbes and Sade...
...Authoritarian 19th-century England should not be conflated with totalitarian 20th-century Russia...
...With the attention it is currently receiving from American readers, The Fatal Shore could, in a manner of speaking, put Australia on the map...
...He quotes eye-witnesses, who report "ants were carrying away great pieces of human flesh that the lash had scattered about the ground...
...Though the Reagan Administation may have demonstrated the folly of trying to base a foreign policy on the distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, it is surely a mistake to ignore the distinction altogether...
...By then," says Hughes, "transportation had been accepted by most respectable Englishmen as the best of all answers to crime...
...A new dumping ground had to be found, and on May 13, 1787, afleet of 11 ships set sailfor Australia, arriving at Botany Bay on January 20, 1788, after ajourneyof 252 days and 48 fatalities, "one of the great sea voyages in English history...
...It concludes with the rigors and uncertainties of the journey...

Vol. 70 • February 1987 • No. 2


 
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