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.