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The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes.

I can't seem to catch a break, and find a nice, light history book about brave and heroic warriors, happy and industrious peasants, curious and intrepid explorers, and wise and farsighted rulers. Instead, it's modern gulags, iron-willed perpetrators of dreadful massacres, prisoner-of-war tales of endurance and survival, and now the proto-gulag from the 19th century. Ah well, I suppose for happy things there is always fantasy.

This is a book about Australia as Hellhole, the place where a seriously screwed up early 19th century Britain dumped its convicts, for crimes as trivial as stealing a slice of bread. On top of that, it's the story of a succession of governors, usually sent out with orders like "make everybody afraid of this place, so that we can deter crime in Britain." They lashed people thousands of times, sold them as "assigned servants," made them work in hundred degree heat, and devised excruciating psychological punishments. On the far side of the world from Britain, in communication only by sailing ship, the governors had enormous latitude to be sadistic, and given their orders, many of them gave making Australia hell a good try.

To be fair, the author does note that the excesses of the worst penal colonies, usually reserved for repeat offenders, were quite far from the regular life of the colony, which could be pleasant and offer plenty of opportunity. But he's magnetically drawn back to stories of places like Norfolk Island, where the worst things happened. These places differed from modern gulags and concentration camps only in the lack of precision, and the greater arbitrariness of evil.

The book meanders a bit, but the exposition is good, and the stories are so macabre and awful it's actually a little hard to set it aside. I read it before going to bed, which did my dreams no good at all.
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August 2013

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