No, no - surely not! My God - not more of those damned whores! Never have I known worse women!

Lt Ralph Clark of the First Fleet, on sighting the Lady Juliana of the Second Fleet coming into Sydney Harbour with over two hundred female convicts aboard, June 1790.

Though how many (of the female convicts) were prostitutes will never be known, almost all contemporaries regarded them as particularly "abandoned"; and even if these contemporaries exaggerated, the picture they presented is a singularly unattractive one!

          A.G.L. Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, 1966

The social and economic conditions of the first fifty years of white colonisation of Australia fostered whores rather than wives. The traditional Jedaeo-Christian notion that all women could be categorised as being exclusively either good or evil - with the virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene being in prototypes of each kind - was brought to Australia with the First Fleet. but its application to the women in this country was totally lopsided. From 1788 until the 1840s almost all women were categorised as whores - or "damned whores" - as Lt Ralph Clark called them. this categorisation was initially based on the fact that virtually all of the white women to come here in the first two decades of colonisation were transported convicts, but it was continually reinforced by the social structure which evolved in the penal colony. thus even female convicts who had served their sentences had little chance of having their status redefined and the stereotype came to be applied to many other women in the colony who had not been transported.

Aboriginal Bora Ceremony - Arrival of the King c1905

The First Fleet consisted of 1480 people more than half of whom were convicts. There were 586 male and 192 female convicts as well as a large number seamen, marines, servants and officials. Only a tiny fraction of these were accompanied by their wives and children. governor Arthur Phillip hoped he was to be the first superintendent of a new outpost of British civilisation.  He wanted free settlers to be encouraged to migrate and he wrote, "As I would not wish convicts to lay the foundations of an empire, I think they should ever remain separated from the garrison and other settlers that may come from Europe."

The British Home Office had other ideas, however, and intended New South Wales to be little more than a dumping ground for the excess of convicts which British gaols could not accommodate. Within this penal colony, women were assigned only one main function - they were there primarily as objects of sexual gratification. the main difficulty, as far as the British authorities were concerned, was to find a sufficient number of women convicts, and to do this they had to impose peponderantly harsher sentences on women: "Whereas only the more hardened male offenders under sentence of transportation were actually transported to the Colonies, all women under sentence, provided they were healthy and under forty-five were transported".

Even this measure could not secure enough women and Governor Phillip's instruction included the following order:

And whereas, as from the great disproportion of female convicts to those of the males who are put under your superintendance, it appears advisable that a further number of the latter should be introduced into the new intended settlement, you are, whenever the Sirius or the tender shall touch at any of the islands in those seas, to instruct their commanders to take aboard any of the women who may be disposed to accompany them to the said settlement.

Aboriginal man

Phillip declined to obey this instruction but he did not disagree with its underlying assumption about women's role in the penal settlement. Four months after landing at Port Jackson he wrote to Lord Sydney in England: "The very small proportion of females makes the sending of an additional number absolutely necessary, for I am certain your Lordship will think that to send women from the Islands, in our present situation, would answer no purpose than that of bringing them to pine away in misery".

The sexual abuse of female convicts began on the ships. Although after 1811 the women travelled on separate ships from the male convicts, they had the crews to contend with. W.H.R. Brown told the Select Committee on the State of Gaols in 1819 that:

These women informed me, as well as others of their shipmates, that they were subject to every insult from the mast of the ship and sailors; that the master stript several of them and publickly whipped them; that one young women, from ill treatment, threw herself into the sea and perished, that the master beat one of the women that lived with me with a rope with his own hands till she was much bruised in  her arms, breasts, and other parts of her body. I am certain, from her general good conduct, she could not have merited any cruelty from him.

He also reported that "the youngest and handsomest of the women were selected from the other convicts and sent on board, by order of the master, the king's ships...for the vilest purposes..." One convict women, Elisabeth Barber, accused Thomas Arndell, the assistant surgeon of the ship on which she was transported of being "a poxy blood-letter who seduced innocent girls while treating them for the fever, using his surgery as a floating whore-house". Some convict women did not even reach their expected destination. In 1797 the military guard and several of the sailors aboard the female transport Lady Shore seized control of the ship and sailed it to Montevideo. there the mutineers were made prisoners of war and the 65 convict women were distributed as servants to Spanish ladies of the port. After this incident guards were no longer placed on ships carrying female convicts, but the transportees could do little to escape the advances of the surgeons or sailors.

When the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson, the female convicts were kept aboard for five days while the other ships were unloaded and elementary shelters were constructed. governor Phillip turned a blind eye to the riotous two-day debauch which ensued when the women landed. This Bacchanalia, and Phillip's response, signalled the kind of treatment which was to be the lot of the female convicts. One settler wrote to England:

It will perhaps scarcely be believed that, on the arrival of a female convict ship. the custom has been to suffer the inhabitants of the colony each to select one at his pleasure, not only as servants but as avowed objects of intercourse, which is without even the plea of the slightest previous attachment as an excuse, rendering he whole colony little better than an extensive brothel...

The 1812 Select Committee on Transportation reported that female convicts "were indiscriminately given to such of the inhabitants as demanded them, and were in general received rather as prostitutes than as servants". The women were distributed to the men almost as part of the daily rations. In 1803 forty women were listed, baldly, as "women allowed to the New South Wales Corps'. In a penal settlement where there were at first no gaols - since the entire island continent was regarded as a prison - and which was both physically and morally remote from England, the usual sexual division of labour assumed a particularly brutal and oppressive form. The men were set to work at constructing the basic requirements of a new settlement - building, roads, fences - or to farming or manufacturing. they were forced to work hard, on near-starvation rations in the first few years, and were brutally punished for even minor transgressions. there was little employment for the women. Since there were so few free settlers the demand for servant was minimal and light manufacturing or other industries which could have absorbed them developed rather slowly.

The women's punishment comprised transportation plus enforced whoredom. For at least the first twenty years they had no means of escaping this fate. the best a woman could do was to form an attachment with one man and live with him as his wife and in this way protect herself from the unwelcome attentions of any other man who fancied her. but whether she was concubine to one man or available to all she was still considered a whore. "Since there was virtually no escape from the colony which required women to be whores, there was no escaping whoredom. Even those convict women who formed attachments with governors or other prominent men, and bore them children, were unable to shake off the common status and assume anything matching the social standing of either these men or the wives and daughters of men of similar rank.  The list of time-expired male convicts who were able to cast aside their past and acquire wealth and respectability is long and impressive. Very few women could match their success. Mary  Reiby, who inherited her husband's merchant business and expanded it successfully, is conspicuous because she was unique.

Marriage did not automatically ensure that women could flee from the whore stereotype. the taint borne by the female convicts seems to have been more permanent than it was for men. In any case, not many female convicts had the opportunity to marry, especially in the first three decades. Although the British authorities had made a perfunctory recommendation to governor Phillip that he encourage "the promotion of matrimonial connexion between the unmarried people - a measure which must tend to the improvement of their morals" in practice women were transported solely to serve as sexual commodities and the British Government acted as Imperial whoremaster. Its attitude was one of sheer hypocrisy. Although Phillip, who wanted to govern a new society not just a penal settlement, did encourage marriage, there was little incentive, and several obstacles, to these first settlers marrying. soon after landing in 1788 Phillip had approved the marriage of thirty couples but many of these marriages were contracted in the expectation that married people would receive comforts and privileges denied to single people. when these hopes proved false many asked to be released from their contract and after 24 February 1788 the percentage of marriages per population was greatly reduced. time-expired convicts and other free settlers received grants of land in Phillip's time, and married men received larger grants if they had a wife, as well as getting an additional ten acres for each child. but this was a limited inducement. the majority of convicts had come from cities and had little intr4est in land cultivation. Many admitt4d signing over their land holdings - at no charge - because they had no use for them. Neither was marriage encouraged by the legal position prior to 1834 whereby a marriage was invalid unless an Anglican clergyman officiated an where a licence from the Governor was necessary. roman Catholics, Presbyterians and other non-Anglicans were thus prevented from being married within their religion because of the first provision while the high costs of the licence deterred others. 

Aboriginal dance

During his governorship from 1809 to 1820, Lachlan Macquarie made some attempt to alter the situation of female convicts. Viscount Castlereagh wrote to Macquarie:

It has been represented to me that upon the arrival of female convicts in New South Wales, the unfortunate females have been given into the possession of such of the inhabitants free settlers and convicts, indiscriminately, as made a demand for them from the Governor. If a practice so extraordinary and disgraceful has not been abolished, you will by no means suffer it to continue, and I am to desire you will take the proper means for having the female convicts, upon their arrival, kept separate until they can be properly distributed in such a manner as may encourage industry and character.

But neither pompous-sounding instructions from across the ocean, nor Macquarie's efforts, could substantially alter what was by then a deeply entrenched attitude. The men of the colony were accustomed to having convict women at their disposal, even if there were at least three men to every woman, and it was impossible to prevent servants being regarded as prostitutes both by their employers and any other men on the place. Single men were supposedly not able to have female convicts assigned to them, but in 1837 James Mudie, a colonist, reported to the Select Committee on Transportation that "they generally manage to get them".

The major obstacle to reform was the strength of the Damned Whore stereotype. the ideology had become so powerful that it was confused with reality. Even if large numbers of women did not conform to the attributed of the stereotype, their behaviour was overlooked and the ideology that all convict women were whores remained unchallenged. Female convicts were universally condemned. Thomas McQueen, a magistrate and a former convict himself, described the women he sentenced as "the most disgusting objects that ever disgraced the female form". governor Darling wrote in 1830 - a decade after Macquarie's term of reform had ended - that "the women sent out to this country are of the very worst description, not in general being transported until there is no longer any hope of their reformation at home". James Mudie thought that they were "the lowest possible...they all smoke, drink and in fact, to speak in plain language, I consider them all prostitutes". Even Macquarie was condemnatory and he wrote to Earl Bathurst in 1813 that the female convicts were "so very depraved that they are frequently concerned in the most dreadful acts of atrocity". although he wanted more male convicts to be sent out since the prosperity of the Colony depended on labour being available for public works and agriculture, he considered that "female convicts are as great a drawback as others are beneficial".

None of these men tempered their vilifications with any recognition of the lack of choice open to women. they had been transported to service the sexual needs of the males of the Colony and were then condemned for their behaviour. This has always been the fate of prostitutes in a patriarchal and sexist society: the women are chastised while their male patrons, without whom prostitution would not exist, escape criticism or punishment. governor Macquarie indicated that he was unwilling to perpetuate the enforced whoredom when he requested that no more women be transported. this pleas was ignored and women continued to be sent out. but neither did Macquarie show much sympathy for women. It could have been expected that, in his zealou7s attempts to transform the penal colony into a civilised society, he would have applauded female convicts marrying and leaving the colony. but he reported to Castlereagh in 1810 that he had been "induced to grant more free pardons than I could have wished; in order to enable a number of women, who had lived for many years with and had children by soldiers of the 102nd regiment, to marry those men, and accompany them home". although he regretted having to take this course of action, he was comforted by the thought that it had at least saved the government the expense of victualling the women and their progeny, and since economy was being demanded of him by England he could be assured that his actions would be approved.

Like the contemporary observers, historians of the convict period have condemned the female convicts. A.G.L. Shaw was quoted at the beginning of this Web site: he evidently found the picture too horrifying even to allow further investigations. L.L. Robson, the other main authority on transportation, is less reserved and reinforces the contemporary judgments by reinvoking them in modern terms of moral abuse. He finds evidence of "indiscriminate love-making" by some of the women, and notes that "some female prisoners, particularly those from the cities of Britain, were accustomed to loose living". A tone of disapproval pervades his descriptions of the convict women: he clearly agrees with the Damned Whore stereotype. That many of the women were whores is beyond dispute. What historians have failed to appreciate is the extent to which the women had any choice about this. Nor have they distinguished the extent of the reputation from the extent of the crime.

Australia - Woman Convicts - Part 2


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