The transportation to Botany Bay has the advantage of the former mode of Transportation to America, in securing the kingdom from the dread of being again infected with these pernicious members of society. From the mortality which has already taken place on the transports, it is supposed not more than 1 in 5 will survive the voyage; and should the remainder live to the expiration of their sentence, they can never pay the (sic) expence of a passage home.

Sailors used to complain that a woman on board a vessel was bad luck. Yet the practice of transporting female convicts, rescued from the stocks by the ‘king’s mercy’, in the 1780s by being sent across the world to Australia was quite common. They were intended for numerous purposes by the Empire, as an impromptu ‘birthing bank’, for the stranded colony, as well as a source of sexual relief for the colonial overseers stationed there.

From the point of view of the seaman on board these vessels therefore, they were very lucky indeed. As these were women of ill-repute, without the protection of either family or class, completely at their mercy. What Siân Rees teases out is a complicated series of relations between the men and women on these ships, that speaks not only to the hypocrisy of the Georgian era, but also to the entrepreneurial origins of the Australian colony itself.

I also should point out this book was lent to me by one of my in-laws.

The London of the 1780s was a grim metropolis of extremes. With the wealth of the British Empire funding extraordinary examples of architecture, palatial homes and spacious town houses marking the presence of the upper classes. Meanwhile ghettos of impoverished labourers and the unemployed ran rampant with disease and starvation. Crime was often seen as a necessary adjunct to survival. For women, prostitution became one of an ever narrowing selection of options. Rees presents a dizzying array of names and examples of ‘fallen’, young women. Some seasoned criminals, others desperate for a crust following the early termination of their employment, still others the innocent victims of a nefarious plot. All of the names given belonged to women who faced death sentences for crimes such as theft, prostitution and muggings ‘on the king’s highway’.

In a perhaps dubious show of mercy, to celebrate the alleviation of George III’s madness the prisons were ordered to discharge their prisoners scheduled for execution for ‘transportation to lands beyond the seas’. The vessels were intended to make the long voyage from London to Cape Hope and then onwards to Sydney cove. There the women brought on board in shackles would in a stunning show of hypocrisy be prostituted to the British officers waiting as ‘wives’. This was an urgent solution intended to both solve the issue of providing breeding stock to the colonists, as well as defeat the temptation of resorting to sodomy.

What Rees reveals, however, is a story that contains a great deal of hope as well as despair. For one there is the tale of John Niccol ship steward and cooper on the good ship Lady Julian. As soon as he laid eyes on the young Sarah Whitelam he fell in love. They would even have a child together, although his duties would take him away from her eventually. Returning to his young bride would become an obsession that would come to define the rest of his life. Also despite the hardships face by the colonists at Sydney Cove and neighbouring islands, some of the women managed to serve their sentences and even return to England as free women.

At times the wide series of ship names and prisoners overwhelms the fascinating narrative. Eventually Rees settles for focusing on the fraught romance between Niccol and Whitelam. She also employs a wry sense of humour to lighten the grim fare of forced exportation to Australia, press gangs and institutionalised rape. Ultimately though the story told is a hopeful one.

I closed the book fascinated to learn more about the era and the history of this nation. So chalk it up to a win.

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