Robert Hughes

The Fatal Shore

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The Fatal Shore Summary

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The Fatal Shore (1986), a monograph by art critic and historian Robert Hughes, details the history of Australia, beginning with its origins as a Victorian penal colony. The book won the Duff Cooper prize in 1987 and the W.H. Smith Literary Award in 1988. Sydney-born, Hughes studied art and architecture during his youth at Sydney University, moving to London in the 1960s, where he wrote the well regarded The Art of Australia (1966). He moved to the United States in 1970, serving as Time magazine’s art critic, where he developed a reputation for forceful enthusiasm – both in his commendations and his condemnations. He is perhaps best known today for having written and narrated a public television show for the BBC called The Shock of the New, a review and celebration of the path taken by what has come to be known as “modern art,” after it was freed from the expectations of representationalism.

The Fatal Shore tells the story of Australia, its focus throughout on that aspect of the country’s history that previous historians had been most wont to gloss over or minimize: it was very pointedly begun as a social landfill for what the Victorians called the “criminal class.” In stark contrast to America, which had emerged as a place of opportunity and, for many, hope, Australia was born of despair: over a span of some sixty years, around 160,000 men and women convicts were shipped over from England. Most often framed as an act of “mercy,” given that Victorian strictness of law had made the death penalty a common verdict for even minor offenses, these were often commuted to sentences of exile to the penal colonies.

The troubling reality of these origins – which Hughes, speaking for Australians generally, describes as “a moral blot soaked into our fabric” – is nonetheless historical reality; reclaiming it is the purpose of his monograph. Hughes begins by describing the London that created Australia, without which it is impossible to understand Australian history. London was, on the one hand, the pinnacle of the urban world at that time, replete with magnificent architecture and parks, and the home of innumerable celebrated artists, scientists, and men of letters. Nevertheless, it was also one of the most polluted, filthy, and noxious cities in the world; the mother of rat hordes, child labor, pestilence, and a considerable number of those forced by poverty into a life of crime.

Regarding the latter, birthrates were climbing, and though the factories spawned by industrialization had made many low paying jobs available, the market had become saturated, leaving criminal activity as the last resort for many. Prostitution, forgery, and theft were especially rampant. Consequently, severe laws were enacted to attempt to rein in the criminal excesses of what Edmund Burke deemed the “swinish multitude.” This, unsurprisingly, led to huge increases in the number of people sentenced to prison each year. However, London’s jails could only hold so many – where was the overflow to go?

To Australia.  After all, in the wake of the War of American Independence, the British could no longer casually cast their unwanted upon America’s shores. Luckily, in 1770, Captain James Cook had “discovered” (to the West) Australia. He named the new continent New South Wales, and in 1786, William Pitt the Younger’s cabinet moved to found the first penal colony at Botany Bay, near modern day Sydney. Hughes details how difficult it was to maintain a system of prisons so far from their administrative center in London. Australia was blighted by shortages of, essentially, everything: resources, skilled labor, capital, and not least, habitable land. It did have plenty of (understandably) angry aborigines, however. For nearly a century, Australia served as England’s go-to penal colony, until a confluence of factors back home – plus the discovery of gold in Australia – suddenly changed how British elites viewed the continent. By that time, most of the usable land in the east and southeast – along with Tasmania and Norfolk Island – was occupied.

Hughes’s monograph is difficult to condense, because it is, after all, the story of a nation. But besides the fact that any such story will necessarily involve so many bits, pieces, and players that it will defy clean summation, there is also the fact that Hughes’s story is, on some level, still a story – a specific storyteller’s version of events. That is, Hughes is not entirely objective and has been criticized for his lack of interest in the aborigines, his occasional overemphasis/overestimation of unimportant details (like Alexander Maconochie’s system of prison reform), and his tendency to follow self-indulgent tangents into lurid side stories that distract from rather than further the overall goal of his work. The Fatal Shore, despite its flaws, remains a widely acclaimed masterwork, as much for Hughes’s inimitable writing style as for his capacious research and unflinching dedication to reclaiming an essential part of Australia’s past.