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May. 22nd, 2002

the fatal shore by robert hughes.

the fatal shore is a big book, five hundred pages of dense words. you can compare it and birmingham's leviathan together, and even though i am half way through the first, it's considerably more intelligent and thought out than the second.

anyhow.

to chapters.

chapter one: the harbour and the exiles.

this first chapter is dedicated to the landscape that was sydney at this point, and the aborigines, which he calls the iora. it's a spelling i've never come across before, but i can't imagine it being incorrect in such a detailed study of a book. maybe it's one of those translation things. anyhow, hughes spends time talking about violent koalas, dangerous platypus, and the such. it's all true, mind you, and the quote about the platypus where, he says, holding it you are actively "avoiding the hind legs, which carry a poison spur, like many 'cute' things in australia" is pretty funny because i'd forgotten all about that.

he also spends time talking about the aborigines, comparing them to the other native people in the islands around. not as war like as the maori, and not as beautiful as the tahitians, he says that this was one of the reasons australia was chosen. perhaps if the aborigines had thrown rocks at the boats as they came, or speared cook on the beat as he fired shots. but still, the maori people didn't not get colonized. hughes also talks about the lack of technology and advancement in the aborigines community (they had not developed the bow and arrow, for example) while at the same time saying that they were not backwards. they were adapted for life in australia, and thus had no use for bows and arrows, being nomadic hunters.

chapter two: a horse foaled by an acorn.

here hughes details what the situation was like in prisons in england, and how the american revolution was a large reason for australia being founded as a prison. without america to take the prisoners, england had to look elsewhere, and at the same time, they were worried about the french landing down in australia. they combination of these three situations, lack of space, lack of america, fear of france, lead to a colony being established down there.

in a way, i guess, it's america's fault. if they hadn't gone for independence, this wouldn't have happened... we would have been dutch, or french. heh.

actually, it's not real surprise that australia mirrors america in many ways. both are relatively 'new' countries, in the western sense, that is. a natural sway from england was probably realistic given that there was a large stigma about being a convict country at until about the fifties (or so they say), and american culture was bright new and shiny.

chapter three: the geographical unconscious.

an emphasis on what exile meant to the convicts here, being the complete shattering of family values and the such. exile to the end of the planet. eight months journey. never to see your family again.

the rest of the chapter deals with cook finding botany bay, and the spanish and other explorers who discovered bits of the coast in the fifteen hundreds, and so on and so forth. the first contact between british and aborigine involved a lot of spear chucking and shooting. then we go to the setting sail of the first fleet, a bit about arthur phillip, the problems he faced in making sure the ships were properly filled, and so on and so forth.

chapter four: the starvation years.

in sydney cove, equality lasted as long as phillip was there: four years. but that equality, of course, was only measured in the food. already a divide was set up between west and east, and the soldiers made sure the convicts understood where they were in the scheme of things. which of course caused resentment towards the aborigines, because these fish oiled smelling naked black men and women were considered more important than them, the convicts. resentment was born early in the time, and it is probably not surprised that since most of the convicts stayed when their time was done, that it took so long for aborigines to get half of what they deserved.

everything was measured by food in those early years, and phillip was not entirely liked by the people he ruled over, with as much equality as he could. it's a detailed chapter, this.

chapter five: the voyage.

it's a chapter that deals with transportation, and how nasty it was. in sydney, transportation stopped in 1840, in tasmania, 1853, and in western australia in was in the 1860's. william redfern, the already mentioned convict turned doctor to maquarie, was the man responsible for the cleaning up of the transports after britain starting selling the transportation to companies, who did it on a much harsher scale. virtual slave trading, you might say.

chapter six: who were the convicts?

the convicts, according to hughes, were not political prisoners, nor innocent men and women who had been caught with a loaf of bread and sent over for their first offense. no. they were men and women who had been caught with the bread at least two times prior, and who were part of the 'criminal class' the london was promoting back then. that they were driven by inadequate standards in life, and that often what they stole was hardly equal to transportation, they were still sent. apparently there is a myth in australia that those sent were political prisoners or innocents, but i've not heard it. of course, it's been years since i vaguely discussed australia history.

there were political dissidents sent over, however, mainly from the irish. but percentage wise, these numbered about 20%, and as hughes said, they had no bearing whatsoever on the future of australia or sydney. there was an irish uprising in toongabbie and castle hill, but this uprising was put down pretty quickly by the english, as the irish were poorly armed and poorly organised.

in sydney they did fear an irish uprising, however. the irish were the first white minority to find themselves in sydney, and were often the target of suspicion and worry. there is a story about a boy being whipped till his backbone showed, his buttocks were jelly, and his thighs a mess, and this irish lad, when asked about an uprising said he didn't know and wouldn't tell, so you might as well hang me now.

so, this is the first half of the book. next half to follow.