Thursday, February 12, 2009

Robert Hughes' Fatal Shore

I tend to alternate the type of books I read between pure unadulterated fun books and serious knowledge-building books.  I've found that the two complement each other nicely because, say, an author of a fun book mentions England's Queen Isabella and her affair with Roger Mortimer, and I can hark back to that biography I read of Isabella a couple of years ago and go "Oh, yeah.  I remember that.  She was one tough broad."

I think the most challenging book I've read since November was Fatal Shore, a history of the founding of Australia.  The matter of convict ancestry is, apparently, something of a taboo subject in Australian public schools (this according to the author of Fatal Shore), so he decided to write about the convict settlements in detail.  And I mean DETAIL.  It was fascinating, of course, reading about the settlement, but when I say it's a "serious knowledge-building book", I mean there's so much knowledge to absorb that not a whole lot of the nitty-gritty details actually stuck around.  I've got the basics of the settlement down pat, and why it became such an unpopular way of dealing with the "convict problem" in England at the time.  And, fortunately, an essay I read in college about Panopticism and Jeremy Bentham (prison reformer) helped me gain even more insight into the book (see Panopticism, by Michel Foucault).

But it was difficult to read.

Yeah, there was some complex sentence structure and "higher level vocabulary."  That's not what I mean.  The descriptions of the way the prisoners were treated was horrifying.  Men would be sent to Australia for relatively small crimes (stealing a purse and pawning the handkerchief inside in order to feed their families) and then literally flogged to death for small infractions (not standing up straight, or having disrespectful looks on their faces).  So an added "bonus" for ridding merry old England of its convicts was that it also managed to deport a good number of its resident sadists to the penal colony to look after the convicts.

All in all, thought, the book was remarkably well-written.  Although definitely not for everyone (my mom, for instance, probably shouldn't read it.  She doesn't deal well with violence in literature, unless it's ensconced in an Agatha-Christie-type setting where the perpetrator is guaranteed to get his comeuppance), it would definitely benefit those history buffs who are curious about Australia's origins, particularly with all the hoopla surrounding the movie Australia.  It's also an interesting sociological exploration of how there came to be a "convict problem" in England - London particularly - in the first place.

Consider yourself forewarned, however: this is not a book for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.

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