Sydney’s Colonial History Distorted in “The Fatal Shore”?

Flagstaff Hill, Sydney c1844. Joseph Fowles

For anyone interested in Sydney Colonial history, Luke Slattery’s critique in the Weekend Australian 15 -16th April, was worth a read. It is thirty years since Robert Hughes wrote his most influential best seller, ‘The Fatal Shore’. In it he describes cruelty and despair in the early settlement.  “In Australia” he writes, “England drew the sketch for our own century’s vaster and more terrible fresco of repression, the Gulag.”

Two Contrary Views

Certainly the ‘first fleet’ convicts and their masters all had a torrid time until agriculture was established in Parramatta and the Hawkesbury and food became plentiful. However life wasn’t as bad as Hughes paints and what was omitted from his book was very telling. Although Hughes acknowledged the arrival of Charles Darwin on the ‘Beagle’ in 1836, he ignores Darwin’s positive assessment of the colony. “On the whole” writes Darwin “as a place of punishment the object is scarcely gained, but as a means of making men outwardly honest – of converting vagabonds, most useless in one hemisphere, into active citizens in another, and thus giving birth to a new and splendid country – a grand Centre of Civilisation – it has succeeded to a degree perhaps unparalleled in history.”

Jacques Arago was an illustrator-writer on Louis de Freycinet’s ship who arrived in Sydney Cove in 1819. In Argo’s book ‘Narrative of a Voyage’ published in 1822, he describes Sydney Cove thus –  “Spacious buildings assume the place of smoky huts; an active and intelligent population is now in motion, and eager in pursuit of pleasure, on the very spot where savages formally engaged in bloody combats,” he writes. “Obscure paths become broad and level roads: a town arises – a colony is formed – Sydney becomes a flourishing city.”

The Positive Side

In these early years, tickets of leave, i.e. early pardons were granted to honest men and women often four years into their seven year sentence. They were required to build the colony, either farming granted land, building roads and homes, as mid-wives, seamstresses, marrying and producing strong young Australians. Educated convicts were placed in clerical jobs for the bureaucracy, teaching, architecture, newspaper editing and the church.

Luke Slattery’s article gives us a chance to re evaluate the lives of these first settlers and the progress that was made in such a short time. And with reference to the late Robert Hughes, it certainly wasn’t a Gulag. My book “Against the Tide” is a more positive look at Sydney’s Colonial History through the lives of the citizens of New South Wales 50 years on.

A women’s perspective of the colony

Nixon, Francis Russell, 1803-1879 Louisa Anne Meredith seated on a stone bench’ at Buckland, Tasmania 1858-1863 Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office

Writing ‘Against the Tide’ has been an interesting journey especially as I wanted to capture the female perspective of life in the colony. As the months went by all I had was a collection of facts neatly diarised which, on their own, were pretty dry. When I began to overlay my family story with the happenings of the day, the book began to take shape. There was so much happening in the colony at this time.

The adventure starts in Sydney in 1831 some forty odd years after the first settlement and so much was achieved, especially for women. Despite the hardships, New South Wales provided many women with job opportunities and sometimes wealth:convicts, immigrants, free settlers and even Governor’s wives.Enterprising women like Elizabeth Macarthur, Elizabeth Macquarie, Sarah Bird, Ann Howe, Sarah Wills Howe,Caroline Chisholm, Mary Reibey, Louisa Meredith and Adelaide Ironside. Women whose names rarely made the history books ran inns, dress shops, bakeries, taught children,delivered babies and contributed to the success of their new homeland. Some of these women are mentioned in my book,others I have used their story as background.

For example Louisa Anne Meredith arrived in the colony of NSW as a young bride on the Letitia with her husband Charles Meredith in September 1939. She was an educated woman skilled in the gentle pursuits of poetry and art although fiercely independent with a mind of her own. Having been previously published in England, in 1844 she wrote her fourth book on life in the young colony of NSW. Among her stories was an account of crossing the Blue Mountains on their way to Bathurst where Charles had acquired land. She describes her anguish of spending nights in flea infested inns,poor food and intoxicated landlords. Her frank comments of Sydney society angered the local gentry although the book was widely read. Louisa and Charles Meredith left NSW to settle in Twamley, Buckland, Tasmania where she pursued a successful career as a writer, illustrator and environmentalist.

Welcome to the new site

Welcome to my new website. Here you’ll find everything you need to know about my new book Against The Tide. The book has been the culmination of many years reseach, many years of writing, editing and then many weeks movng into design and print.

So far reader’s feedback has been gratifying. Thanks to everyone who’s been involved so far.

I trust Against the Tide will be widely read and appreciated.


A modest book launch was held at the Waldorf, Sydney NSW on September 11th, 2016.