The Fatal Shore

The wreck of the Loch Ard in 1878 near Cape Otway, Victoria. Image source: State Library of Victoria

by Mark Gwynn

Last week on 6 August renowned art critic, historian, and man of letters Robert Hughes, AO, died in New York at the age of 74. Hughes, who left Australia in the 1960s to pursue opportunities overseas, is one of a group of expatriate Australian trailblazers and intellectuals that includes Clive James and Germaine Greer.  Hughes had a successful career as a writer and critic before undertaking his major historical work The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787–1868. This international bestseller, published in the year before Australia’s 1988 bicentenary, sought to re-examine the foundation of modern Australia and the role that transported criminals from Britain had in this story.

The title of Robert Hughes’s book, The Fatal Shore, emphasises past perceptions of Australia as an inhospitable and dangerous dumping ground for convicted criminals. It also alludes to the dangers of sea travel, particularly to the numerous shipwrecks that occurred during Australia’s early colonial history. The term fatal shore was well established as a poetic trope in relation to shipwrecks, to fatal encounters with unfriendly natives in exploration and colonial endeavours, and to wartime naval ventures. One of the earliest examples occurs in the 1611 Jacobean play The Atheist’s Tragedy, written by Cyril Tourneur, where ‘fatal’ bears the full weight of the OED’s definition ‘deadly, destructive, ruinous’, in the consequences of shipwreck: ‘Walking upon the fatal shore,/ Among the slaughter’d bodies of their men,/ Which the full-stomach’d sea had cast upon/ The sands’. Nineteenth-century Australian records often use the term fatal shore in both historical and literary contexts.

Robert Hughes takes the title of his book from the words that appear in a convict ballad:

The very day we landed upon the Fatal Shore,
The planters stood around us, full twenty score or more;
They ranked us up like horses and sold us out of hand,
They chained us up to pull the plough, upon Van Diemen’s Land.

The date Hughes gives to this ballad is c.1825–1830. There are a number of versions of the ballad, including one entitled ‘Van Dieman’s [sic] Land’, which was published in 1830 and includes the line ‘The first day that we landed upon that fatal shore’. The ballad recounts the hardships of three English poachers convicted for their crimes and sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Many convicts transported to Australia were assigned (contracted) to farmers to work on the land as part of their punishment and for the purposes of developing the land. While the records show that convicts were often treated well by their overseers, often receiving pardons or tickets-of-leave (a partial pardon with some restrictions), many still faced the vicissitudes of hard labour in a harsh environment:

Our cottages that we live in were built of clod and clay,
And rotten straw for bedding, & we dare not say nay,
Our cots were fenc’d with fire, we slumber when we can,
To drive away wolves and tigers upon Van Dieman’s land.

The hardships of early colonial life are similarly conjured up in a song published in the book Old Bush Songs edited by the poet Banjo Paterson in 1905:

Here are boundless plains where it seldom rains, and you’ll maybe die of thirst;
But should you so dispose your bones, you’ll scarcely be the first,
For there’s many a strong and stalwart man come out to make his pile,
Who never leaves the fatal shore of this thrice accursed isle.

The associations of the term fatal shore with the hardships endured by convicts and early settlers took on a more specific sense after the First World War. The landing of Australian soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, as part of an attempt to remove Turkey from the war, ended in defeat and the death of over 8000 Australian soldiers. The fatal shore had now moved offshore. In 1916, on the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, the South Bourke and Mornington Journal (Richmond) reports:

A large concourse of the citizens of Dandenong and adjacent districts attended at the State school to celebrate the first anniversary of the now historic Anzac Day, when the soldiers of the Commonwealth received their baptism of fire on the distant fatal shores of Gallipoli, where they won such imperishable fame, as constitutes a new epoch in the annals of the richly endowed land of the Southern Cross.

Such poeticising continues into the 1920s: ‘Who had not heard the story of the landing on Gallipoli and of the part played there by Australia’s gallant sons in the fight for a foothold, the digging in and the holding on to that fatal shore?’ (Melbourne Argus, 28 Apr. 1925)

By 1931 the poeticising had become poetry:

Gallipoli, to thee we leave
Our dead, Oh, fatal shore,
But glory consecrates thy name
And theirs for evermore. (Barcaldine Western Champion, 25 Apr. 1931)

Thus, as a result of the Gallipoli campaign, the term fatal shore developed specific Australian connotations.

Robert Hughes

In the nineteenth-century evidence we can see some glimmers of another specific Australian sense, with the shores of Australia perceived by some to be sites of tragedy for those transported there as convicts. But this sense did not really take hold until after the 1987 publication of Robert Hughes’s book The Fatal Shore. The title of the book became popularised, and in common usage ‘the fatal shore’ often became equated with ‘Australia’. Thus in 2005: ‘The fatal shore may now be a prosperous one, but Aussies know you cannot stand still.’ (Sydney Daily Telegraph, 30 Oct. 2005) Similarly in 2009: ‘The cry “Death or liberty” was a call to arms for a host of revolutionaries, rebels and reformers transported as political prisoners to Australia who had no reason to idealise the British state that had exiled them to our fatal shore’. (Australian, 5 Oct. 2009)

While Hughes’s book sought to dispel many of the myths associated with the convict period in Australian history, the title of the book gave (or cemented) a specifically Australian sense to the term fatal shore, and brought it once again into the Australian consciousness.

Listen to the Van Dieman’s Land ballad.