Crime and punishment

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I'm not quite done with Robert Hughes's excellent history of The System, otherwise known as the settlement of a continent with petty criminals, but since I'm actually going to Australia in a week (!), and I can see the writing on the wall as far as things getting crazier before I leave, I wanted to be sure to sneak in a blog entry now. More specifically, I wanted to recommend this book highly; despite the often brutal facts of the case, I have seldom enjoyed a history more.

Hughes's writing is clear and evocative, which is, I think, the primary reason I so enjoyed his book. I read a good amount of biography and popular history, but dislike the current trend toward "nonfiction" that is actually a novel masquerading as fact (The Devil in the White City, I'm looking at you!). Nothing against historical fiction, but I really feel that there is a marketing niche in book publishing right now that's trying to have its cake and eat it too: capitalize on the growing popularity of nonfiction by almost marketing certain novels as true fact. Which seems kind of scummy to me personally. The Fatal Shore, on the other hand, is as readable and welcoming as a novel, without the addition of fictional characters or subtly fantasist alternative realities. (Again, nothing against subtly alternative realities; I just dislike becoming embroiled in asinine debates with the people who read these historical novels as straight history, and start spouting off the "facts" they learned from them.)

ANYway, Hughes's prose is crisp and readable, and he has a fantastic story to tell. The Fatal Shore is not a novel, but it consistently evokes times, places and situations that make me want to read (or even write!) fiction set in early colonial Australia. He has a fine eye for detail, and uses primary sources to great advantage. I find that biography and history sometimes struggle with the constant transition between covering broad trends and including enough specific detail to keep things interesting, but Hughes has the technique down. Witness his description of the arrival in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) of the mediocre early Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey:

"The two men hated one another on sight. Davey thought Macquerie a Scottish prig; and Macquerie considered his new lieutenant-governor a wastrel and a drunk, who manifested 'an extraordinary degree of frivolity and low buffoonery in his manners.' "So he did. Davey marked his arrival in Hobart Town in February 1813 by lurching to the ship's gangway, casting an owlish look at his new domain and emptying a bottle of port over his wife's hat. He then took off his coat, remarking that the place was as hot as Hades, and marched uphill to Government House in his shirtsleeves. Nicknamed 'Mad Tom' by the settlers, he would later make it his custom to broach a keg of rum outside Government House on royal birthdays and ladle it out to the passerby."

As well as enjoying the hilarious image of port being emptied over Davey's wife's hat, I love how this short passage communicates vividly and succinctly so much about the dueling characters of the two colonial administrators. Also, "low buffoonery"? Definitely going in my arsenal of excellent old-timey put-downs.

Hughes's talent for choosing just the right detail to resonate and amaze is spot-on. Describing the widespread myth among early Irish convicts in Australia that there existed an overland route to China, and the tragic escape attempts that resulted, he notes that "Since none of them had a compass (and few possessed any idea of how to use it even if they had had one), they went out armed with a magical facsimile consisting of a circle crudely sketched on paper or bark with the cardinal points but no needle." What could more forcibly communicate the pathetic desperation of these people, uprooted from everything familiar and dumped into a foreign and hostile environment?

Likewise, when Hughes is describing what passed for "education" at the boys' jail at Point Puer in Van Diemen's Land, where children were put through perfunctory scholastic and religious paces after a twelve- or fourteen-hour day of hard labor, he relates that "a few of the boys could parrot bits of an Anglican catechism, but none could recite the Commandments in correct order or show much grasp of scriptural history. Even their hymn-singing had declined, to the point that 'the screaming is almost intolerable to any person whose ears have not been rendered callous.'" The image of the exhausted, damp and caterwauling boys, often transported for trifles like "stealing two pairs of stockings," is both chilling and touching. Also chilling is this passage about the children of soldiers and free settlers, who

"played flogging games and judgment games as freely as their descendents would play bushrangers. 'I have observed children playing,' wrote one colonial observer in 1850, 'at the Botany Bay game of Courts and Petty Sessions, and noted the cruel sentences which were uniformly passed on those who were doomed to be 'damned,' and the favour and partiality which was extended to others! Justice appeared never to be thought of: - the gratification of a licentious and an unlimited Power being all they sought."

Although I'm not one to idealize the innocence of children, this paragraph certainly gives a clear view of the dark side of culture-formation.

And there is plenty of dark stuff in The Fatal Shore, from sadistic prison wardens to snobbish would-be-aristocrats, to prisoners whose flesh was crawling with maggots while they were still alive. Yes, there's even a vivid first-person account of cannibalism. The most difficult chapters for me to read, though, were those dealing with the plight of women and Aborigines, and with the role of homosexuality in the colony.

This book comes right on the heels, for me, of James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, and there were some depressing similarities between the two histories, despite an entire hemisphere's separation. The insane sense of entitlement felt and exercised by the European colonists; the gradual (or not-so-gradual) descent into a cycle of violence; the issuance of self-righteous tracts setting down legal boundaries, which the native people are unable to read as they are available solely in English: it all rings unpleasantly familiar in the ears of a United States citizen.

Perhaps the most confusing and circular part of European/Native relations in both America and Australia, is Europeans' fixation on a settled, capitalist existence as the only kind of life they were willing to acknowledge as legitimate. On both continents, the colonists assumed that nomadic peoples were "wasting" the land, that their movable lifestyle obliterated any claim they may have had to it - a tragedy of epic proportions, considering that connection to the land was usually much more integral to the native peoples' sense of self than it ever was to Europeans. Equally galling to the European interlopers was the lack of a fiat money system among native peoples, which the Europeans, tellingly, took as a sign of godlessness and dissipation. This is especially ironic in Australia, which was being settled in the first place because England had come to so fetishize Property that people were sentenced to death for offenses like "poaching a rabbit," "stealing a length of ribbon," or "cutting down an ornamental shrub." As a newborn infant could have predicted, this led to SO MANY death sentences that most of them had to be commuted, hence the waves of convicts and their attendant administrators, eager to convert the natives to their own property-loving way of life. In Tasmania, as in the American south-east, native people were herded into what were essentially concentration camps, where "they were shown how to buy and sell things, so that they might acquire a reverence for property." Awesome idea, guys! And those were the progressive settlers; most just wanted to kill as many natives as possible.

The chapters on treatment of women was also horrifying. Much of it, such as the passage describing how the new female convicts were sold at the country store, were grotesque parodies of still-familiar attitudes:

"The same woman might be sold several times during her Norfolk Island sentence, with Potter 'in most cases reselling them for a gallon or two of rum until they were in such a Condition as to be of little or no further use.' The sales would be held in an old store where the women had to strip naked and 'race around the room' while Potter kept up a running commentary on their 'respective values.'"

Female convicts were essentially the slaves of slaves, but the most infuriating part from an intellectual perspective is that they were looked down on as "prostitutes" as a result. Even female convicts who were never sold and re-sold on Norfolk Island, even those who had long-term, loving relationships, were viewed as whores by the self-styled "respectable" colonists:

As the historian Michael Sturma points out, the idea that the convicts shared the same ideas about sexual behavior as their superiors is very dubious: 'Working-class mores [in England] differed markedly from those of upper and middle classes...[A]mong the British working-class, cohabitation was prevalent. It is highly unlikely that working-class men, and in particular male convicts, considered the women convicts to be in some way sexually immoral...The stereotype of women convicts as prostitutes emerged ignorance of working-class habits.'"

Huh, how eerily familiar. It's disturbing how difficult it is to perceive, let alone acknowledge, value systems that differ from our own. It's also interesting - and problematic - to me, how few modern people know about the widespread acceptance of cohabitation among the Victorian working classes. The Victorian era is so often seen as the epitome of prudishness and ramrod respectability, wherein premarital sex is the Ultimate Evil that can befall a virtuous young woman, and while there was certainly truth to the stereotype, it's also important to remember that there were other realities as well.

If the way that misogyny played out in early Australia was tiresomely predictable, the role of homosexuality was much more complex, and tricky for a modern young lefty like myself to digest. Since the vast majority of the convicts were men, and since the jails were gender-segregated, homosexual activity among convicts was prevalent. To the bigwigs back in England, sodomy was "the unimaginable crime," unspeakable and disgusting regardless of the circumstances, so not a lot of effort was expended on distinguishing the pairings that resulted from genuine attachment, in which convicts bestowed the last, most human parts of themselves on loving another person, from those that represented stereotypical prison rape or other coercive power-plays. There's no doubt that both kinds of relationship existed, along everything in between, but to the mainstream English mind all was equally repulsive; in fact, one English reformer who visited Norfolk Island in the 1830's was especially shocked to see the male/male convict relationships which seemed genuine and caring, "parodying" a traditional marriage. As it turns out, the menace of sodomy was a key speaking-point in the movement to abolish the transportation system, as ex-convicts published memoirs about their horror at coercive sex, and the English public shuddered at the idea of any homosex at all.

For the modern mind, all of this is fascinating and difficult to parse - particularly when Hughes goes on to discuss how the perception of rampant sodomy among convicts contributed to the virulent homophobia of post-transportation Australians, who wanted to purge their society of "the convict stain." Anything suggestive of convictry was to be energetically suppressed, including homosexuality. In some cases, this homophobic urge was maintained after all consciousness of a convict past had been forgotten. If nothing else, reading this section was a good reminder that the "progressive" values of one age are often couched so differently as to be unrecognizable next to those of two hundred years later.

I seldom stopped underlining and note-taking throughout my reading of The Fatal Shore, and I could go on and on. However! Packing, list-making, and pattern-sizing await. Suffice to say, it was a very evocative and thought-provoking read, and one I highly recommend. Anyone with a passing interest in colonial, English or Australian history, gender studies or penal history would be well-advised to give it a look.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography