Premature Evaluation, pt 3 (The Fatal Shore)

What to do when you haven’t finished a book but find yourself with something to say about it?

Convention dictates that one should finish a book before reviewing it (although I have my doubts about any number of published reviews), but on the other hand, The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes, was published 20 years ago; this is not breaking news. So out with the convention, in with the thoughts.

I was vaguely aware of The Fatal Shore of course–it had been a big seller when I worked in the book business, even four years after its initial release–but hadn’t ever had cause to read it. The spur came from Patrick O’Brian, and his acknowledgement of Hughes’ book as an unusually helpful background source for the Aubrey-Maturin novel Clarissa Oakes. (And how should we recognize O’Brian’s place as a contemporary European author? Does it matter that much of his personal history was invented? Or that he found his greatest popularity in America?)

About a third of the way through, I’m taken by both the scope and the details. Hughes is not a historian by trade, but an art critic, and a popular one rather than an exclusively academic one. (The same mix makes his Barcelona absorbing and informative.) Most directly, that means that he’s used to making pointed judgements and writing clearly about them. That means he gets off some terrific one-liners, and generally draws vivid characters. For example, Rev. Samuel Marsden, one of the colony’s early wealthy landowners and a thoroughgoing prejudiced conservative, was “a grasping Evangelical missionary with heavy shoulders and the face of a petulant ox …[he] showed few … instincts to mercy, but focused his considerable energies on getting land, breeding sturdy suffolk sheep, preaching hellfire sermons and (as magistrate at Parramatta) subjecting convicts to dramatic punishment–hence his nichname, ‘The Flogging Parson’.” (p. 187)

Sometimes Hughes exercises his drollery on the broad sweep of history:

The colonization of Ireland … had been going on since the twelfth century, when the first English Pope, Adrian IV, encuoraged his fellow Anglo-Norman, King Henry II, to invade Ireland and “proclaim the truths of the Christian religion to a rude and ignorant people.” When the English knights landed and started hewing their red way through the Gaelic resistance, Ireland had been Christian for seven hundred years. (p. 183)

Or, relating the unhappy fate of a liberally-minded early transportee: “Palmer died [near Guam] of cholera in June 1802. The Spanish priests, hearing of his radical opinions, refused his body Christian burial; and so the most civilized and liberal-soulded gentleman to breathe Australian air in early colonial days was buried among pirates in a common grave on the beach, until an American captain (himself a man of reforming opinions) took the trouble in 1804 to retrieve Palmer’s body and bring it back to burial in a Boston church.” (p. 180)

Or, on justice in the old country: “Robert Macqueen, Lord Braxfield, Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland … was a coarse cunning old drunk whose remarks during this trial won long notoriety. (When one of the Jacobins pointed out that Christ himself had been a reformer, Braxfield chuckled and snorted: ‘Muckle he made o’ that–He was hanget.’)” (p. 176)

These selections are drawn from a fairly brief part of the text, but it is like that the whole way through. Hughes has no fear at all of pungent judgements, and that makes his history both personable and lively. It’s not a perfect book. For instance, the transition from the “starvation years” of the colony’s beginnings to the slightly more stable situation about two decades later is more assumed than described. I would have liked more on how that came about. And treating many things topically means that he runs back and forth through time quite a bit, and someone not familiar with the territory can sometimes get lost in the differences between the 1820s and 1850s.

Still, these are small quibbles with an enormously satisfying book. It offers insight into class, colonization, trade in the early 19th century, the clash of European empires, how quickly developments can come and much more. Hughes is an opinionated guide to early Australia, one who makes the journey all the more pleasurable with brilliant observation.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

3 thoughts on “Premature Evaluation, pt 3 (The Fatal Shore)

  1. Well, you got my attention. I’ll put this one on my list.

    One good history book deserves another: how ’bout I recommend “Race to Fashoda” by David Levering Lewis for addition to your stack of future reading.

  2. The Fatal Shore is all you said and, unfortunately, a little more. Right after I finnished reading it, I was convinced that it was one of the best books of it’s kind. However, after reading another excellent historical book; Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, I have to lower my score on The Fatal Shore some what. Diamond’s book opened my eyes, indirectly, to see a quite clear bias or perhaps even racist tendensies in Hughes’ book when discriping Australian aboriginies. He left the impression that those people had barely functional minds.

  3. Thanks for the tip, David.

    I do see the point about Hughes’ depiction of the aboriginal peoples, though I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you make out, PJ. Also, I suspect that general perceptions have changed quite a bit over the last 20 years, so that much more sensitivity would be expected from a book published today.