Relations between Aborigines
Friends or foes?
Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?
Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence
The myth of terra nullius
Not a good fence builder
Mary Anne Bugg
Justice or resistance?
Gentlemen in the Victorian era had a range of etiquettes that stipulated how they should deal with the fairer sex. For example, some of the etiquettes proposed that a gentleman should tip his hat to a lady and walk on her outside. Furthermore, if a gentleman felt compelled to refer to his leg coverings, instead of using profane words like ‘trousers’, he should use euphemisms like ‘the southern necessity.’
It would be fair to say that there were few gentlemen in penal Australia and if any did exist, they didn’t follow their etiquette guide books when making their acquaintance with Convict women.
The Convict women first arrived in 1790 aboad the transport ship the Lady Juliana. Records indicate that almost all the women were convicted of minor theft; however, some of the men on board the ship were of the opinion that most were prostitutes. For example, steward on the ship, John Nicol, wrote,
"There were not a great many very bad characters; the greater number were for petty crimes, and a great proportion for only being disorderly, that is, street walkers; the colony at the time being in great want of women."
Defining the women as prostitutes to serve the colony's need for women in turn influenced how the women were treated. For example, Nichol wrote how all the men had "taken a wife" (himself included) by the time they were out to sea. He also wrote that the ship entertained other sailors when it stopped in ports on the way to Australia.
As the women were disembarked, a drunkard orgy broke out. Perhaps the women were willing parties in the orgy, but if they weren’t, they probably didn’t have much choice other than to go along. Either way, the Convict women became known as depraved and immoral. One witness wrote,
“Scenes of riot and debauchery after the disembarkation of the women convicts tonight transformed Sydney cove into something resembling a gin palace attached to a brothel.
All this took place at night during a violent storm with lightening bolts which, at one place, split a tree in half, killing five sheep and a pig that were penned below it.
The licentious merriment began when some merchant seamen requested some grog from their captain. No doubt the man had good reason to comply, in the relief at getting rid of the last of his convicts, as he had faced a penalty of £40 for every convict missing.
Soon the sailors and convicts were in and around the women's tents, some queuing for sex, others making love with women they had forged attachments on the voyage. Others were swearing, fighting or singing.
While the scene was deplorable no action by the Governor nor his officers. Presumably they thought that intervention would have provoked a serious riot, and that it was best to wait for the morning to re-establish order.
The women, cooped up on the voyage and for another 10 hot and intolerable days outside Sydney Cove, had not too many chaste figures among them.”
Because the women carried a very negative stigma, morals crusaders often tried to educate them regarding the folly of their ways. Some re-education techniques included shaving the women's heads, putting a gag in their mouth and forcing them to wear an iron collar as a mark of disgrace.
The most difficult women were sent to female factories, which were forced labour camps. Here they continued to be educated about the virtues of morality. At the Cascades Female Factory in 1838, however, the moralising became too much for the women and they decided to make a point. The governor of Van Diemens Land visited the factory and attended a service in the chapel. Entertaining the governor was the Reverend William Bedford; a morals campaigner whose hypocrisy had elicited the lady's scorn. Keen to impress the governor with a fine speech, Bedford addressed the women from an elevated dais, then:
"the three hundred women turned right around and at one impulse pulled up their clothes showing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise. This was the work of a moment, and although constables, warders etc. were there in plenty, yet 300 women could not well be all arrested and tried for such an offence and when all did the same act the ringleaders could not be picked out."
This cheeky behaviour 'horrified and astounded' the governor and the male members of the party. As for the ladies in the governor's party, it was said, in a rare moment of collusion with the Convict women, they 'could not control their laughter'.
On another occasion, Reverend Bedford was crossing the courtyard of the Female House of Correction, when "some dozen or twenty women seized upon him, took off his trousers and deliberately endeavoured to deprive him of his manhood. They were, however, unable to effect their purpose in consequence of the opportune arrival of a few constables who seized the fair ladies and place them in durance vile. "
The hardships endured by the women seemed to build a strong sense of female solidarity. The women sang songs, which were often labelled “very disgusting.” When matrons tried to separate agitators from the group, the entire group would sometimes chant “we are all alike, we are all alike.” Not only did the actions protect individual women, they also made Convict life a bit more bearable. The True Colonist reported in 1837 that while the 'horrors of the crime class' had shocked the inhabitants of Van Diemen's Land, what was more disagreeable to moral evangelical sensibilities was the fact that many women prefer this class to the others, because it is more lively! There is more fun there than in the others; and we have been informed, that some of the most sprightly of the ladies divert their companions by acting plays! "
As if often the case, out of something bad, came something good. The hardships endured by the Convict women seemed to build an ethic to alleviate the hardships in others. Successful Convict women such as Molly Morgan never forgot their own hardships earlier in life, and donated freely to establish schools, hospitals, and even churches. Free immigrants like Caroline Chisholm also decided to do something about the suffering she saw around her. She took some women into her house and travelled the colony to find employment for others. Within two years she had found employment and accommodation for over a thousand women and girls. She then went on to found the Family Colonisation Loan Society to help break the cycle of dependence and poverty. Chisolm’s compassion always came with strings attached. In her hostels, she employed a tough love approach in which she made it clear that guests should never get too comfortable because they should be out looking for a job.
Mother Mary MacKillop was another whose compassion probably flowed from seeing the horrors of the day. Mary took a vow of personal poverty and always shared the hardships of the people she was trying to help. She was able to personally survive largely because people helped her as well. A society that started off as one in which everyone looked out for themselves, evolved into one in which people started looking out for others.
Convicts and their legacy
Regrets and floggings
Power and morality
White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese
Escaping the Convict stain
Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered
Dying for liberty
A rebel and a saint