The Fatal Shore, A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868

by Robert Hughes

Hardcover, 1998




The Folio Society (1998) new Edition, 643 pages


An account of the convict settlements in Australia based upon letters, diaries, and documents from the first landing in Botany Bay in 1788 to the last shipload of convicts in 1868.

Media reviews

Hughes' descriptions of sadism and suffering, desperate escape attempts, rape, murder, cannibalism, and forays into the bush to exterminate the aboriginal and other indigenous peoples, become, in their accumulation, wearying, mind-numbing. Yet it is the story of the founding of a modern nation whose development was coetaneous with the last century of America's slave period, if even more savage and barbaric. "The Fatal Shore" is an unexpected, original and important work of history.
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The New Yorker
Hughes might have attempted this book in his youth, and got the story out of proportion, even if he had not skimped it. Fortunately, he has made The Fatal Shore the magnum opus of his maturity. By now his sense of historical scale is sound, as for this task it needed to be. It would have been easy to call the Australian system of penal settlements a Gulag Archipelago before the fact. The term ‘concentration camp’, in its full modern sense, would not have been out of place: at least one of the system’s satellites, Norfolk Island, was, if not an out-and-out extermination camp, certainly designed to make its victims long for death, like Dachau in those awful years before the war when the idea was not so much to kill people as to see how much they could suffer and still want to stay alive. And, indeed, Hughes draws these parallels. The analogies are inescapable. But he doesn’t let them do his thinking for him. He is able to bring out the full dimensions of the tragedy while keeping it in perspective. The penal colony surely prefigured the modern totalitarian catastrophe... When there was no one else left to absorb, the real Hughes might have emerged, as happened in his prose. In those years, you could always tell what he had been reading the day before. Even today, he is a magpie for vocables: no shimmering word he spots in any of the languages he understands, and in several more that he doesn’t, is safe from being plucked loose and flown back to his nest. Omnivorous rather than eclectic, that type of curiosity is the slowest to find coherence. But his fluency was always his own, and by persistence he has arrived at a solidity to match it: a disciplined style that controls without crippling all that early virtuosity, and blessedly also contains his keen glance, getting the whole picture into a phrase the way he once got his fellow-students’ faces into a single racing line. It is exactly right, as well as funny, to call a merino sheep ‘a pompous ambling peruke’. Scores of such felicities could be picked out, but only on the understanding that they are not the book’s decoration. They are its architecture.
In the early 1970's, while filming a television program on Australian art in Port Arthur, Tasmania, the Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes became curious about the city's prisons, which date from the period (1788-1868) when criminals were shipped from the British Isles to Australia. The prisons are ''the monuments of Australia - the Paestums,'' he said recently in his New York apartment, and the period ''was an extraordinary time - an effort to exile en masse a whole class. The English felt that just as shoemakers make shoes, this class produced crime.''

User reviews

LibraryThing member Joycepa
One of the current trends in historical research and writing today can be called deconstruction--that is, a fresh look at a period or major figure with the intent of taking apart the myths, legends, assumptions, whitewashes, romanticisms and trying to ascertain (rather, come closer to) the reality.Published in 1986, Robert Hughes’ remarkable history of Australia and its settling up until 1865 was written with that idea in mind.

Of course, “everyone knows” how Australia was settled--England’s penal colony. But few of us who aren’t Australians think much beyond that. Hughes has done an absolutely outstanding job of documenting that history from the British government’s sending of the First Fleet to colonize Australia in 1787 to the end of transportation until the end of the imperial convict system in Tasmania in 1886.

It is an appalling story. The brutal punishments, the sadism, the genocide of the indigenous peoples, the near-fatal conditions of the early settlements--much of this is known on a general basis. But Hughes demonstrates that there is too simplistic a view of that period. At the time of his publication, he asserts that Australians did not really know their own history, that much had been whitewashed, and aspects that might be embarrassing ignored.

For example, the factors driving the set-up of The System, as it came to be known--transportation--were many and interwoven. Hughes examines every aspect of The System and its effects on the people under it--the convicts, who became slave labor--and those administering it. One of Hughes’ conclusions is the government didn’t actually seek out sadists to administer the hellholes of Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s land, but that when a system is deliberately set up to administer what we would now agree is cruel and unusual punishment--when the avowed aim of a government is to make punishment so dreadful that it would deter crime in Britain through terror of transportation--such conditions will bring out the sadists who are already there, but have been repressed through social strictures. It allowed men like the Flogging Parson, the Evangelical Reverend Samuel Marsden who hated the Irish with a passion that surely was insanity let loose to order floggings of hundreds of lashes at a time--500 was not too much for an Irish. Norfolk Island was terrorized by not one but several sadistic commandants, actually ordered to create “the ultimate punishment”. Van Diemen’s Land was better only by comparison with Norfolk Island; in reality it was a horror.

The story is sickening. No one comes out looking good except a few humane men like Governor MacQuarrie. Hughes blasts the ideas that convicts always hung together. During the first years in New South Wales, the Starvation Years, the strong robbed the poor of food and it was every man and woman for himself. The Australian idea of “matehood” actually came from the Irish, NOT the general convict population.

All this, of course, marked the Australian psyche. Hughes is brilliant in describing the attitudes, the politics of the day. And while it is true that today the majority of the descendants of European extraction come from the waves of immigration during and after World War II, the marks are still there.

The last chapter is a superb summary of what has gone before, and ties it all together.

This is a landmark history. It is a very, very hard read--i had to stop several times--but it is worth the effort. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
A few years ago I was visiting Bath Abbey and fell into conversation with one of the priests. When he found out I was from Australia, he mentioned there was a bridge nearby which still, to this day, has a worn and faded sign warning people that if they vandalise or steal from the bridge they may be "subject to transportation" to New Holland. "Perhaps," he said jocularly, "one of your ancestors vandalised that bridge!"

"Nah," I said casually, and with some relish. "He killed a guy."

The story, as I understand it, is that he and his brothers were poaching deer on a lord's estate. The gamekeeper caught them in the act, and in the ensuing fight they accidentally killed him. One was hung, one was imprisoned, and one was transported to Australia.

Like most Australians, I consider my convict ancestry to be nothing more than an interesting anecdote, one you can use to discomfit reverends in Somserset. Apparently it was not always so. Although the transportation system was winding down by the 1840s, and the very last convict ship landed in 1868, and more free settlers arrived in the gold rush years (in 1852 alone, more than twice as many free settlers arrived than the total number of convicts ever transported), Australians were for many years ashamed and embarrassed about what they considered "the convict stain." The ludicrous concept that criminal behaviour is genetically hereditary evidently took a long time to die.

In more recent years - prompted, in part, by reasonable historical examinations like Hughes' - Australians have grown less reticient about recognising their past. I only vaguely remember hearing a small amount of convict history, only in primary school, and mostly about the First Fleet. Specifically - and this is a common thread when I ask people of my age - I remember being taught something along the lines of, "The first settlers in Australia were English convicts, but that's OK, because back then you could be sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread." (It's always a loaf of bread). It seemed to me that my Australian history education could do with some fleshing out, and The Fatal Shore is commonly regarded as one of the best histories on colonial Australia.

I expected to find this book quite difficult, and it did take me several weeks to read, but it was far easier than I thought. Hughes tells history in a narrative fashion, and has a strong talent for prose; some of his decriptions are wonderful:

Past the entrance, past another rust-streaked rock named Bonnet Island, the harbour opens to view. It is so long that its far end is lost in the greyness. The water is tobacco-brown with a urinous froth, dyed by the peat and bark washed into it by Australia's last wild river, the Gordon, which flows into the eastern end of the harbour. The sky is grey, the headlands grey, receding one behind the other like flat paper cut-outs. It is an utterly primordial landscape of unceasing interchange, shafts of pallid light reaching down from the low sky, scarves of mist streaming up from impenetrable valleys, water sifting forever down and fuming perpetually back. Macquarie Harbour is the wettest place in Australia, receiving 80 inches of rain a year.

(He claims, though, that "no-one has ever lived there or ever will," which isn't true - I've met the caretaker.)

Hughes has a keen eye for detail, selecting interesting journal entries and letters and ship's logs, and and amid the vast sweep of history there are dozens of fascinating individual stories. I particularly liked that of James Porter, a convict who escaped from Van Diemen's Land with several compatriots by comandeering a naval ship they had been building, sailing across the Pacific to Chile, convincing the locals they were British aristocracy and living happily there for several years until the Royal Navy finally tracked them down. Hauled back to Australia to face trial, Porter knew that he would be hanged, because the British took their navy very seriously and piracy was one of the worst crimes that could be committed. He escaped execution with one of the most awesome legal defences ever: because he'd stolen the ship before it was officially launched, he had not in fact stolen a ship at all, legally speaking - merely a collection of wood and sailcloth in the shape of a ship. The tales of Mary Bryant, Alexander Pearce, and Martin Howe were equally fascinating.

This is, of course, still a history book, and about halfway through I was getting a little weary of being buried under statistics. But there is far more of an emphasis on social attitudes and cause and effect, rather than dates and figures, which is of course the most important aspect of history. Hughes begins his story in England, examining why there was such an unprecedented crime wave in England in the mid-19th century (the Industrial Revolution caused widespread unemployment among tradesmen, coupled with an unprecedented population boom, which drove people into cities and plunged them into poverty), why transportation was seen as the solution (because of Victorian attitudes of a "criminal class," which could not be reformed, only purged), and why it was Australia that was chosen (the American colonies were gone, Australia was satisfyingly remote, and its natives were passive and easy to deal with).

The thing about The Fatal Shore is that it's not a comprehensive history of early Australia. It's a comprehensive history of the convict system, which comprises about 80% of early Australia's history, but not all of it. Virtually the entire book is focused on New South Wales and Tasmania, because that was where the bulk of the convicts were transported. Queensland gets only a brief chapter, and only relating to Brisbane. Victoria is mentioned only in the last 50 pages, and Western Australia only in the last 30. South Australia, the only state that never received convicts, is not mentioned at all. There is only one chapter on the Aborigines, and while it's more sympathetic to them than a book of that time might otherwise be (yes, it was written in 1987; yes, Australia really is that backward) it still gives short shrift to Australia's first people. Virtually nothing is mentioned of the Rum Rebellion, and Hughes is utterly silent about New Zealand - a different country, yes, but one in such close proximity to New South Wales, in such a distant part of the world, that surely it must have figured prominently in Australian society in the 19th century. The gold rush is discussed, but only in relation to how it was a factor in the end of the transportation system. One should be clear, when embarking upon this book, that it's not a history of colonial Australia but rather a history of the British convict transportation system.

Apart from that misunderstanding, I also felt that sometimes Hughes was stuck in an awkward place between being a dry textbook and being a historical narrative; his timeline jumps awkwardly, the book divided into chapters examining different aspects of the convict system (women, bushrangers, free settlers etc) rather than flowing chronologically. There's also quite a bit of repetition; I certainly read far more about convicts getting flogged on Norfolk Island than I needed to.

The Fatal Shore is thus not a perfect book, but still a good one. I have a much better understanding of Australian convict history now than I did from school (in particular, the fact that it's a very small part of our history; that fact about the gold rush settlers in 1852 really surprised me). It's not the last book you'd ever want to read to understand Australian history, but it's certainly a good place to start - and an enjoyable one, too.
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LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
Growing up in Australia in the 1970s and 80s the Australian history I was taught consisted of Captain Cook, the First Fleet, explorers and the fact that sometimes they had spears thrown at them, bushrangers and a bit of local South Australian history. It was mentioned that there were convicts in Australia but nothing more. These days I’d like to think there would be more coverage of Aboriginals and convicts, with “The Fatal Shore” used as a primary text for covering the latter.

Extremely well written and as fine a tribute to those thousands of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh men and women sent to Australia as one could wish, “The Fatal Shore” doesn’t flinch as it covers the godawful conditions the convicts were held in, from the foetid atmosphere on their boat trip over to the particularly non-PC working conditions they laboured under, the torture of the cat o’ nine tails if one got out of step and the ultimate penalty of Norfolk Island.

Intermixed in this is more sodomy than I thought possible, genocide and a streak of cruelty that still astonishes centuries later.
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LibraryThing member piemouth
This is what a non-fiction books should be: a wonderful, absorbing history book. He starts by describing Georgian England and the many crimes that could get you locked up or hanged. (He points out that there were more slang words associated with hanging than with sex.) The jails were full, so they put hulks of battleships in the Thames and filled them with prisoners. (Any of this sound familiar?) Still not enough room. I know – let’s send them “beyond the seas” to this new land we just discovered, and make them support themselves. They can send back flax and timber from Norfolk Island, plus this will keep Boney and the Frenchies from claiming this part of the world! Win-win! Well, it didn’t work out quite like that, but it’s a fascinating story.
Tons of interesting facts from primary sources – letters, criminal records, etc. One example: apparently descendents of Irish convicts in Australia pride themselves on being the scion of political prisoners, when in fact political prisoners were only a tiny percentage – most Irish sentenced to transportation were common criminals. The Irish were treated more harshly than other convicts; there was one rebellion that was quickly crushed. Political uprising was easily quashed by dispersing the rebels – ending up on a remote farm where none of the other convicts had the energy to care pretty much put an end to that.
Australians also get a kick out of the idea that their formothers were whores, but that actually wasn’t a transportable offence. They were just thieves, mostly.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff about class issues and how historians disagree about whether the convicts can be considered a class; there was much loyalty amoung them, but as time went by some of them acquired wealth and disassociated themselves. Of course the military people and the folks who came over to farm (with land grants and convict labor) never saw them as anything but convicts, and the children of convicts were just as bad as their parents.
Along the way he mentions a bunch of stories of people that deserve to be made into books or movies: bushrangers; Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked, along with her husband, on an island off the Australian coast, married a convict who’d lived with the Aborigines, and eventually returned to England (there is a book about that one, Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves); William Buckley, who escaped and was taken in by a group of Aborigines because they thought he was the returned spirit of one woman’s husband and lived with them for thirty-two years; Mary Bryant and her family, who rowed to Timor in a six-oar cutter they stole from the harbor and claimed to be shipwreck survivors. James Boswell gave her a pension.
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LibraryThing member ben_a
There's nothing like reading history to make you grateful. The past is a dark place.

Hughes doesn't strike me as entirely reliable, but he has a tremendous turn of phrase and eye for the novelistic detail. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Great Britain has been blessed with good public relations. Its atrocities and global missteps have been, time and again, swept under the carpet, foremost among those crimes committed against the poor Irish. The horrors of the penal colony established in Australia has also been nearly forgotten. The gold rush in Australia, similar to that in California, allowed it a reboot of its history. The new immigrants swamped the comparatively few survivors of the earlier penal colony system. Thus, Australia's dark past has been buried and forgotten, except in the archives, song and folk memory.

Robert Hughes combines these three sources to present a vivid portrait of Australia's beginning as a British penal colony. The lack of decent planning and control made the penal system needlessly cruel. In contrast to the indenture system used to send the rabble to America, the criminals (mostly thieves) sent to Australia were considered doomed cases without rights as Englishmen and only fit for the whip (a pure theory X approach). This no way out approach created its own problem in that the administration had to create dedicated mini-hells within the penal system in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) and Norfolk Island. The development of Tasmania was dented by the poor image created by the presence of relatively large numbers of ex-convicts. The economic failure of a penal colony doomed its existence. It took some time for the British ruling class to absorb the message of Les Misérables that it is circumstance not inherent evil that turns men into committing many crimes and that redemption is possible and far cheaper. Russia, China and the United States of today could learn from the Australian example that large prison systems dehumanize life and destroy economic value. As those deciding about the system are rarely those affected by the system, changes happen at a glacial pace. Today's beautiful and prosperous Australia is the best example that redemption even from wretched beginnings is possible.

Hughes' tour de force is highly recommended both as an introduction to early Australian history and as a testament to what men are willing to inflict on other men.
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LibraryThing member elimatta
There's no doubt that the lash and hangman's rope played an important role in early New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). About 1830, the death rate by execution was about 1 per 1000 of the European population of NSW (30 per year out of 30,000). The first criminal trial in Australia led to a sentence of 150 lashes for being drunk and abusive. Thus began the operation of law in Australia, only a fortnight after the colony commenced. But a few months later, in Cable v Sinclair, two young convicts successfully sued the master of a first fleet ship because their luggage had gone missing on the voyage. English law would not have allowed attainted convicts to sue, let alone hold property. One of those convicts, Henry Kable, went on to a career as constable, jailer and merchant, even if his finances did crash spectacularly. This was a new land with a new approach to law and egalitarianism.
Hughes emphasises blood and the lash, glorying in it. He tells a great story, like an airport novel. But he doesn't tell us anything about the ordinary social and commercial life which began so quickly after the first colony began in 1788. He tells only half the story, and as a result, academic historians ignore his work. There are many much better histories of convict Australia than this. Try Grace Karskens, The Rocks, for a start.
Some of the men and women of early NSW were dishonest, gaining what they could when they could. That applied to officers as well as convicts. But they had relationships (often without marriage) and children, developed trade, lived their lives as well as they could. The surprise is that the place was so successful, not that it was so bloody. And of course the most significant blood lost was that of the indigenous people, a story not unique to Australia.
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LibraryThing member thorold
I've been meaning to read this for a long time: when I visited Australia back in 1989, it was pretty obvious that the two books you were supposed to have read were Songlines and The fatal shore, not (as I had fondly imagined) Voss and Oscar and Lucinda. All the same, the main cultural reference point for 99% of the people I met seemed to be Crocodile Dundee... Anyway, somehow I didn't get around to Hughes until I chanced to see a secondhand copy a couple of days after hearing of his death.

Twenty-six years on, it's not quite as shocking a read as it would have been in the late eighties, because so many other writers have drawn on what Hughes says about the brutality and corruption of the British Gulag — we expect chain gangs, flogging and arbitrary abuse, and we're not surprised to find them here. We have become rather desensitised to the lash after reading so many graphic descriptions of it. What's more interesting and unexpected about the book is not so much the "what" as the "why": the way it seeks to develop a balanced view of what transportation was meant to achieve, how it fits into the history of penology, what its real effects on Australian culture and economic development were. In the process (as usual with that sort of analysis), it becomes clear that it's rather misleading to think of "transportation" as a single, uniform process. Ideas and objectives changed over the eighty years during which convicts were sent to Australia, as did the nature of the places they were sent to; the situation in New South Wales was quite different from that in Van Diemen's Land; convicts assigned to work for farmers fared quite differently from those working for the government; only relatively small numbers of convicts experienced the notoriously harsh conditions of places like Norfolk Island and Port Arthur, and so on.

British thinking on transportation seems — at least when seen from Hughes's steadfastly antipodean viewpoint — to have been at best intermittent and confused. It was obviously a lunatic idea to send a fleet of ships on a nine-month voyage to build a prison in a place that had been visited by Europeans only once before, for a matter of a few days. Of course, that's always in the nature of political approaches to crime and punishment: then as now, politicians were never quite sure if they were more interested in retribution, deterrence or restraint. The main concern seems to have been to shift the problem of crime out of sight without too much conspicuous expenditure of taxpayers' money. Sending convicts to Australia and supporting them there cost a fortune in the early years of the project, but it was 100% successful in getting rid of them. Unfortunately, it turned out that there were always more criminals on the doorstep, however many were shipped away. Georgian thinkers didn't seriously consider the possibility that criminals could be reformed — ironically, transportation was one penal strategy that did offer many convicts the chance to learn a trade and build a new life in a place with greater opportunities. Obviously, it wasn't every pickpocket or burglar that could become a Magwich, but at least the chance was there. As Australia developed, it became increasingly difficult to present transportation as a deterrent, hence the need for the extremes of Norfolk Island and the rest; even so, what finally killed transportation was the Australian gold-rush.

A fascinating, lively read, with a good mix of detail and deeper analysis. I think Hughes was right to keep his viewpoint in Australia and look at what was happening London only from that perspective, but that does mean that you have to know a bit about British politics in the Georgian and early Victorian period to keep track of who was who. Probably not a problem for Hughes's Australian contemporaries, brought up on an anglocentric view of history, but perhaps tricky for American readers to follow.
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LibraryThing member Oregonreader
This novel of the early settling of Australia and the transportation of convicts to penal colonies is an ambitious undertaking. Hughes does a good job of incorporating historical research into a readable novel. Very entertaining.
LibraryThing member J.v.d.A.
Magnificent history of the transportation of convicts to Australia and the penal colony itself. Hughes sprawling masterpiece is wonderfully researched and beautifully written - a poignant evocation of this fascinating chapter in Australia's history. A must read for history lovers.
LibraryThing member corgidog2
Fascinating account of the settlement of Australia. Quite enlightening.
LibraryThing member wenestvedt
I always had a soft spot for Australia, feeling that they were a lot like us Americans, and now I have some facts to go with it. A really horrible way to settle a new land, but really nice people resulted. One line summary: convicts, yes, and some even worse people than that.
LibraryThing member celtic
Epic! I read this on a plane to Australia the year it was published. The contrast between my mode of transport and the convicts made the impact of this book even greater. Apart from the vivid descriptions of the conditions in the ships and in Australia, the achievements of some of the transported convicts beyond their sentences was fascinating and quite humbling. This must be the standard work on the subject now.… (more)
LibraryThing member assemgids
Excellent narrative; very entertaining; a must for anybody interested in Australian history.
LibraryThing member pnorman4345
This is the story of the transportation of convicts to Australia starting in the late 18th century and going on until the middle of the 19th century. The story is beyond belief and horrifying.
The book raises basic questions about the culture of England, Australia, Ireland, indeed, about 'culture' in general. It raises questions about sadism, sadism and the British military. After reading one wants to know more, much more. Here is one example of the kind of issue that comes up: the British industrial revolution produced huge amounts wealth, but also huge amounts of poverty and with that lots of crime. And hence the supposed need for transportation. Most political decisions concerning this issue were made from principals or perhaps we should say from prejudice. Getting facts was not part of the argument. How far have we come in treating wide spread crime?… (more)
LibraryThing member LynnB
Robert Hughes has written an excellent history of the founding of Australia. This work is well researched and documented. What is more important to me is that it is highly readable. It's long (600 pages) but never tedious.

Robert Hughes is a very good writer. He has used enough personal stories and description to make the history come alive, as well as providing historical context about life in both Australia and Britain.

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LibraryThing member joeydag
Fantastic history. The odd theory of exiling criminals to start a colony - the tragic history of the encounter between 18th century Western Civilization and the Native Australians - the bizarre end of the system with the Gold Rushes. Another lesson in "the past is another world". The details of the prison life are so disgusting and brutal - that part of the book seemed to last forever. I highly recommend this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member BethCamp
This book fascinates me for its scope and depth of reporting/analysis, no matter how many times I've dipped into a chapter.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
History of the founding of the Australian colony on a grand scale. Tells of the absolutely terrifying conditions and utter cruelty which prevailed for only too long.
LibraryThing member snotbottom
Good on you, Australia! A rough history, to be sure, but you have more than overcome. I'd often heard of the convict settlements, but had no idea of the brutality that was suffered, or the odds that were laid against the founding of the colony. Goes to show what humanity is capable of , both the bad, and the good.
LibraryThing member jdjdjd
History of Australia’s beginning as a penal colony. Well written but lengthy and detailed, with altogether way too much flogging. Wouldn’t recommend it for casual reading but it’s an impressive source for understanding the founding of modern Australia and Tasmania.
LibraryThing member melikebooks
Fascinating, captivating, novel-like account of the genesis of Australia's colonial "founding" as a penal colony for Britain's most unwanted. Thick as a brick, packed with facts, but written in such a compelling way that it's an interesting, but sobering, read. Read it many years ago, when it was first published, but it still sticks with me.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tpoi
I enjoyed this very much but wouldn't recommend it to too many people as it might seem rather dry and does assume some knowledge of 18th and 19th century history. That said it's a horrible history and one that was hard to put down. I hadn't realized that Australia's conquest/founding/invention was that brutal.
LibraryThing member name99
This disappointed me because I expected something different.
I was hoping for a general history of Australia, but this was very much a history of nothing but Australia as a penal colony; starting with the first ship of convicts, ending with the last ship of convicts, and covering nothing else, not even, for example, relationships with the aborigines.

I imagine this is material of substantial interest to some people, but for me it was rather too much.
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