Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2008

1788, (2008) The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet, by David Hil

1788 I liked this.  1788 by David Hill is  a chunky, easy-to-read simple narrative of Australia’s first years of European settlement, but there was detail and gossip I didn’t know about, and it was a forceful reminder of the astonishing courage of those who came here on the First Fleet.

That doesn’t include the convicts – we don’t know enough about their attitudes to know whether they were brave or not since there are no written records, and they had no choice anyway.  But officers who came out of retirement to take on this long and perilous voyage, and then deal with the complexities of setting up here where there was nothing familiar and not even shelter or recognisable foodstuffs – they were truly heroic, notwithstanding the complex moral ambiguities of indigenous ownership of the land.

Joseph Banks doesn’t come out of it very well.  He enthused about Australia as a verdant land of opportunity when (a) his own notes were less effusive, and (b) he’d seen hardly anything of the place and was only here for a week.  How the First Fleet didn’t starve to death is a miracle…

Something else too: Austria has marketed the idea that Mozart was born there and Hitler wasn’t;  the US has sold itself as the ‘Land of the Free’ – when in fact it had transportation of British convicts for many years just as Australia did.  Many of their pioneers must also have been convicts, but we don’t hear about any so-called ‘convict stain’ – they’ve air-brushed it away as if it never happened.  Interesting…

The sub-title of 1788 is ‘the largest single migration ever’ and it’s true.  The scale and effrontery of this movement of people from one side of the globe to the other is amazing, especially since they did it in leaky shops full of unwilling passengers.  Mutinies and escapes were foiled and at a time when deaths at sea were commonplace, the numbers lost were low, especially compared with the Second Fleet. 

One other thing I learned from this remarkable book: there were originally plans to ‘get’ women from nearby Pacific Islands to redress the gender imbalance of the colony.  These plans if implemented would have resulted in – and presumably sanctioned  – mixed-race children.  Hill doesn’t say so, but I suspect that these plans were shelved because Australians would have been ‘coffee-coloured’ right from the colony’s inception and not because abducting women as sex-slaves is morally reprehensible. 

I won’t be at all surprised if this book ends up on the reading list for Australian History in schools.

Author: David Hill
Title: 1788, The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet,
Publisher: Random House (William Heinemann)
ISBN: 9781741668001
Source: Personal library

Fishpond: 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet


  1. […] 1788, the Brutal Truth of the First Fleet by David Hill […]


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