What I've Been Reading

Last night I finished The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes' epic account of transportation to Australia. Because it's nearly 600 pages long, I'd put off reading it for ages, but it was riveting stuff.

Hughes has a wonderfully vivid turn of phrase. For example, his description of the hulks (old ships into which the overflow of prisoners were crammed, prior to transportation): "The bulbous oak walls of these pensioned-off warships rose sheer out of the sea... They wallowed to the slap of the waves, and dark fleeces of weed streamed in the current from the rotting waterlines... cramped and wet inside, dark and vile-smelling."

The story he tells is utterly compelling. Modern Australia was founded as a bottomless pit into which England could pour its criminals. When the First Fleet set off for Botany Bay in 1787, they might as well have been heading for Mars, so little was known about their destination. Convicts were shipped out to the colony for another eighty years. Some ended up as respectable farmers or tradesmen; others rotted in the hellholes of Norfolk Island or Port Arthur, where flogging and leg-irons were daily reality.

I did wish for a little more attention to the original inhabitants of this country, the Aborigines, maybe because I've done a lot of reading on that topic lately, but anyone who wants to read about the first interactions between the British and the Aborigines should seek out Inga Clendinnen's brilliant (and also highly readable) account in Dancing With Strangers.

I can't believe I ever thought Australian history was boring! All I remember from school was endless lists of dull explorers and a visit to Sovereign Hill. They left all the meaty bits out!

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