Robert Hughes has written a full-scale study, often nightmarish yet objective and well-balanced, of something second only to the slave trade as a blot on Britain's record in the world - something that was at the same time the birth of a nation. It was 'the largest forced exile of citizens at the behest of a European government in pre-modern history'; we may compare it with the uprootings of peoples by Assyrian or Mongol conquerors. His book is massively researched, with the fullest use of official papers, but with the greatest weight attached to the convicts' own testimony, surviving in letters, petitions, memoirs, largely unpublished, and plentiful enough to dispel the common notion of the unfortunates as 'a mute mass'. It is, in fact, very much an essay in 'history from below', and must be one of the best that has appeared. The author is not a historian, but an art critic, which helps to explain the range and quality of the illustrations, a veritable art gallery. It may also have something to do with his command of style, both narrative and descriptive - his artist's vision, for instance, of Pacific waves as 'towering hills of indigo and malachite glass, veined in their transparencies with braids of opaque white water, their spumy crests running level with the ship's cross-trees'. His picture of the virgin continent, in two early chapters, has the same graphic quality.
LRB 19 March 1987 | PDF Download