Picks and Pans Review: The Fatal Shore

updated 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Robert Hughes

A richly detailed account of the early history of Australia, a land increasingly visible these days because of its filmmakers and writers, this book covers almost 100 years, starting in the late 1700s. In overpopulated London, crime, as readers of Charles Dickens know, was rampant. There were few jobs, and most of those were menial and underpaid. A minor theft could bring a sentence of hanging, occasionally commuted to life imprisonment. When America won its freedom, the British had to find another land where the prison overflow could be sent. In 1788 the first fleet of sailing vessels with its convict cargo landed at Botany Bay, an area that proved totally unfit for settlement. A better site was found in Sydney, but decades of near starvation, suffering and death would pass before the colonists—convicts and their guards—became self-sufficient. The author provides sociological and psychological explanations: The London slum dwellers had no farming skills, and most of the convicts were indolent, vicious, antisocial men and women. They, in turn, were treated with shocking cruelty: The lash, applied until there was not an inch of the back unbloodied, was used again as soon as the wounds scabbed over. Hughes describes this grim social experiment as an "ancestor of the Gulag." The author's research is exhaustive. He quotes diaries, letters and documents of the period that, in a few lines, evoke a whole personality or a moment in the distant past with uncanny vividness; he has in fact provided enough dramatic and absorbing plots for a hundred historical novels and a miniseries or two. Hughes, TIME'S art critic and an Australian, has produced a wonderfully readable account of a dark, hideous time in man's past. (Knopf, $24.95)

From Our Partners