The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, Reviewed by Joe Brydon

           the-fatal-shore

            Class in The Fatal Shore is one of Hughes’ central concepts and he argues for a more nuanced understanding of class dynamics than any offered by Marx or Engels. Hughes teases out all the complexity in class throughout the development of the penal system. Early on Hughes states that, “The language of class in the 1830s was mostly invented and used by trying to describe the social complications that surrounded it.[1]” As one of the first statements on class in the work, Hughes sets up the framework he will use to understand further contradictions in Marx and Engels’ theories on class. With the focus of The Fatal Shore  being a penal colony, Hughes’ initial challenge is to ascribe a class to those who, in Marx and Engels’ work, do not have one; namely the so called lumpenproletariate’. The lumpenproletariate is not kindly looked upon by Marx or Engels, “this scum, offal, refuse of all classes.[2]” Both refuse to recognize that these undesirables could develop any class consciousness. Worse still in the eyes of Orthodox Marxists, those criminals transported to Australia then became closely engaged in agricultural work, another group Marx does not allow to develop class consciousness. To be clear, Marx and Engels state, “ the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class.[3]” Hughes shows how from the beginning the lumpen proletarians sent to Australia were, at least to those higher on a class ladder, a class unto themselves, “The idea of a criminal class, as understood by the English in the 1830s, meant that a distinct social group “produced” crime, as hatters produced hats or miners coal. It was part mob, part tribe and part guild, and it led a subterranean existence below and between the lower social structures of England.[4]”This recognition of the lumpen proletariat as a class is, for Hughes, a self fulfilling prophecy, where the reactions of the upper classes fueled the need for banding among those caught in the ‘criminal’ or ‘lumpen’ class. Thus, even before leaving for Australia, those who would have been dismissed by Marx as classless could have developed some consciousness, whether forced upon them or not. Still, though, the question remains as to how, in a predominantly agricultural economy, any established class could be sustained or expanded?

This could be accounted for, in Hughes’ work, through the tremendous dislocation caused by the transport of convicts to Australia. To compare the classes of England and Australia, though under the same government at the time, is to compare two wildly different groups. As Hughes clearly states, “One speaks of “colonial gentry” as though there were gentlemen in early Australia; but there were not.[5]” If the classes in Australia were very dissimilar to those in England, it follows that they differed in their establishment and in how they related to each other. The convict workers were in explicit bondage compared to the ‘free’ rural peasantry of England and, as such, arguably acquired some type of class consciousness through their “shared experience of servitude.[6]“ It was not, according to Hughes, impossible for those whom Marxists decry as rural peasantry to develop an understanding of their class through servitude.  Indeed much of Marxist theory is based off of such a struggle through servitude; specifically, Hegel’s famous Master-Slave dialectic. Hughes uses many well sourced examples to show solidarity between convicts more developed than simple friendship[7].

This convincing reassessment of class consciousness and development, both before and after traveling to the antipode, is still not without its weaknesses. Hughes does not account for how the discussions around class and class consciousness only truly arise in England around 1830 while transports of prisoners to Australia had been underway for nearly four decades. Furthermore, if convicts could establish some sort of class awareness through their servitude and solitude why is it that earlier unrest in Australia had been drawn along political lines, such as rekindled Irish rebelliousness, or classical lumpenproletarian action, in the likes highwaymen and bush wranglers? Hughes’ account of class development in early Australia is fascinating and demonstrates that there were important examples of class differentiation in existence even before Marx and Engels began their hugely influential works. But the important observations Hughes makes about class in Australia after 1830 are not present in his account of Australia prior to that period. Hughes’ ruminations on class then are interesting, if half formed.

This, admittedly rather minor complaint, should not overshadow what is otherwise a powerful work of the highest order. As popular history goes it is hard to find any as richly detailed and engaging while remaining scholarly. Readers gain a window into the reasons for England’s establishment of a penal colony in Australia while also remaining intimately tied to those who lived and died under the often brutal Australian sun. The Fatal Shore is a truly remarkable work with an incredible scope, ensuring that most will find something to love.


[1] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia’s founding (New York, Random House: 1988), p.164

[2] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (London: Electric Book Co., 2001)

[3] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (London: Electric Book Co., 2001)

[4] Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p.164

[5] Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p.324

[6] Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p.353

[7] Hughes, The Fatal Shore, ps.353-354

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