The Fatal Shore – Robert Hughes.

My introduction to Hughes was, like most art students, loud bold and uncompromising. Shock of the New both in print and television became the basis for my exposure to modern art…

This heavy tome which can only be described as an epic, surely requires a dedication and commitment to read to the end. It’s long. The Appendixes run at sixty seven pages. Its dense with narrative and historical fact. It has the potential to be as exhausting and tedious to read as the sea voyages to New Holland were themselves, but Hughes has managed to wrap the historical volume of text in pure engagement. In fact the book is so engaging one could only have hoped it was even thicker.

Originally published in 1986, it has subsequently been printed in 1987 and most recently in 1998 as a premium edition by the Folio Society. Rightly so, it is worthy. Australian settlement by the British is a topic that, as a white Australian myself, is rife with many emotions. As Hughes notes early in the book “An unstated bias rooted deep in Australian life seemed to be a wish that ‘real’ Australian history had begun with Australian respectability … the creation of an Australian middle class.” This ‘respectability’ ignored who Hughes was interested in, the convicts. They “lurked.. some 160,000 of them, clanking in their fetters in the penumbral darkness.”

Over the course of the British stocking of their new pacific penal colony men, women and children were sailed halfway around the world in conditions that could only be described as horrific at best, and inhuman at the worst. The period lasted for eighty years, from the first fleet to the ending of transportation policy in 1868.

Hughes digs deep into the root causes for the infamous penal policy. He begins in Georgian London where one in eight lived by crime, the desperate struggle for survival began long before the boats sailed. Previous troublemakers had been sent to America to supply the new land with slave labour, with the advent of the dreadful African slave labour supply, Britain began to be swamped with its own undesirables, its petty thieves, its poor and its lower class.

It’s a fascinating read, Hughes proves his research acumen over and over with deep dives into letters, documents and personal insight. We hear about the sea voyages, the “bolters” who attempt to reach China via inland Australia, the desperation to return to Britain and plots to do so. He also covers Van Diemans Land, including its notorious childrens prison.

However there are also tales of bravery and heroism. Hughes is a proud Australian at heart and reveals not only the negative roots of the settlement but also the tough and resilient foundations for the character traits Australians today pride themselves on.

Reminiscent of other historical accounts, Hughes depiction of the early convict settlement in Australia does expose dark hours. The criminality of its early inhabitants is not glossed over. The breakdown of Aboriginal relations, the taking of land and treatment of indigenous people can be traced directly to convict behaviour and personal criminality and not just the policies barked from London.

This however, is really an account of the convicts. The deportees and subsequent immigrants in those early eighty years. It is full of research and historical fact, yet reads as a cinematic and engaging story. One full of heart and depth, a recommended long read.

The Fatal Shore





  • Engaging
  • Well researched
  • Cinematic and engrossing
  • Well written


  • Leaves you wanting second volume