Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Fatal Shore

Wrapping up my annual 'learn more about the world' book reading journey, I just finished "The Fatal Shore", which is about the early days of Australia. Earlier this year, I read about the formation of South Africa, so you could say I had the British Empire on my mind. Australia has a bit of a mysterious and magical quality to it in the minds of young Americans. A country that is a whole continent with exotic animals and vermin, odd natives like our almost ghost like American Indians, and that kicked out of England vibe that we have but on steroids as this whole thing started as a prison colony. This wonderful book was a great read as well as a library of information of the period of settlement and development from small outpost to bustling colony.

That transformation was an arduous path. Australia was an experiment in how to handle prisoners that were not so wicked as to be hanged yet still required punishment. The closing off of America and indentured servitude created a need for the toilet flush that was "transportation". The land was at the edge fo the Earth, far away from mother England. The land itself was extremely hard even for the free. Convicts, soldiers, and emigrants all tried to survive, and managed to create what is now an upstanding citizen of the world scene (and loyal US ally).

The author brings the large themes as well as marginal groups to life. As he writes, much of pre-1850 Aussie history is not well known or wonderfully documented because of the convict stain. He does a marvellous job of shining the light on the big names and moments as well as portraying how varied the experience was for soldiers, convicts, emigrants, etc. One cannot just lump a "group" all in together because they happen to be convicts, masters or former convicts. The author sometimes lists the very punishments a prisoner suffered over 5+ years, and use that example as a way to show how systematic the entire transportation game was during a particular proconsul's era. He did this with many different concepts he explained. The treatment of female prisoners reminded me of the story of an Americna black former slave who after the civil war remarked that she was not a slave to a white master anymore but still to her husband. I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style as it was a 600 page book, yet flowed easily and came to life on the page.

For years, I have seen this book at Barnes and Noble or Borders but never bought it. I am glad I asked for it for Christmas. I know some Australian history and culture through friends or random Aussies I have met. It is a unique birth for a nation to start as a settlement for convicts. I have to say convict because they were not truly prisoners since prison was not a concept yet formulated for the Brits. From my Brit history classes, I knew already you either were hanged, exiled or pardoned through string pulling. It's amazing how small offenses could get a person sent to the gallows in the Georgian epoch. There is something romantic and a sort of kinship that Americans feel with Australians and Australia: English roots, large Irish influence, funny accented English, exiled from the motherland, wild west/outback sections, dealing with natives in horrible ways, an appreciation of the bikini, etc. While I see those similarities still, I now understand that our nations are worlds apart in history and framework.

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