Botany Bay, although no jewel in the Crown, was a British colony, a colony where, almost without exception, the settlers were from British stock. But it was not a replica of British society for most of the colonists during the foundation years were from the one level of society, defined by their contemporaries as belonging to the "criminal class...those who normally commit crimes...the poor and indigent". They did not, therefore, bring with them to New South Wales a familiarity with, or expectation of, those standards, values, customs, obligations and privileges which were an intrinsic part of the British hierarchical social system. Instead, they brought with them the memories of experiences which had resulted directly from their economic and social background as members of the lowest order of British society.

Australia - Aboriginal Tiwi Tribe

The contemporaries, New South Wales was inhabited almost exclusively by "the scum, the sweepings of the gaols, hulks, and prisons", men and women who became "infinitely more depraved" in that penal colony than at the time of their arrival. It was accepted that Botany Bay had been founded as a convict colony, a place to which felons would be transported as the most severe form of punishment short of death itself. Their transportation was not expected to lead to any significant reformation of morals or manners, for even the increasing harshness, severity and deprivations of imprisonment in Britain had failed to reduce the numbers of second and third offenders. It was certainly not considered that banishment among their own kind might lead to any level of economic independence, prosperity or social respectability. What class distinctions could there be among those who had arrived as convicts? Without question, they would remain as vile, as infamous, as criminal and immoral as they were known to be in Britain.

Assumptions such as these were not confined to the foundation years of New South Wales. They continued to be expressed and accepted well into the nineteenth century in Britain  and the shame attaching to this "convict taint" was still evident among mid-twentieth century Australians. The English description "Botany Bay" continued to infer all the infamy of criminality and immorality, of crime and punishment, long after it had ceased to refer to a specific geographic location. Any changes in the nature and structure of the population, any development of a new and distinct system of class hierarchy based on the economic achievements of those "depraved" convicts was unremarked in New South Wales during the administration of governor Lachlan Macquarie. By 1820 settlement had spread far beyond the struggling penal camp that had been Botany Bay. The townships and settlements scattered throughout and beyond the Cumberland Plain were as indicative of the increasingly ex-convict "free" communities as was the bustling seaport of Sydney itself. Respectable Britishers, however, continued to believe in the infamy and degradation of the inhabitants of Botany Bay.

Aboriginal bush camp

This was not the opinion of the men and women who had adopted New South Wales as their homeland, nor was it the opinion of their native-born children. The most distinguished of those children, William Charles Wentworth, himself the illegitimate son of a convict woman, unhesitatingly named the first privately owned colonial newspaper the Australian. There was no colonial shame, no stigma attached to his public identification with a convict Botany Bay for, in the colony, were astounded at its "civilisation". Instead of huts and hovels they saw mansions "which would grace Hanover Square...streets as long as Oxford Street", magnificent churches and public buildings, roads and bridges, shops and businesses of all descriptions, neat cottages for labourers, fine carriages for the wealthy... "everything belied it was a convict colony".

This commendable development "in the short space of thirty years" was, of course, judged and praised by English standards. What was found to be "un-English" was peculiar to the colony itself. This was the tangible and visible evidence of the punishment of British criminals. The chain gangs which slowly worked their miserable way along George Street, "half-starved and near-naked", the reports of the living dead at Norfolk Island and Port Arthur, the flagrant immorality of the abandoned convict women at Parramatta Female Factory, all these were the "un-English" "cruel" aspects of the colony, characteristics condemned as indigenous to Botany Bay.

Aboriginal ceremony

The transportation system, designed to settle and maintain the convict colony, had been born from the English criminal law and nurtured by continuing British attitudes towards crime, criminals and punishment. It was, therefore, these "un-English" aspects of New South Wales which continued to be emphasised, to dominate opinions and to shape attitudes in Britain. British visitors might praise the unexpected "civilisation " of Botany Bay but they remained unaware that colonial development owed much to an intrinsic and unrecognised feature of that transportation system: the unexpected opportunities it had given to the transported convicts. There was little, if any, recognition that it was mainly the labour, industry and enterprise of the men and women who had arrived as convicts which had built and developed a penal camp into a free settlement.

It had been the peculiar and unique nature of the convict colony which had allowed and encouraged individual response to the opportunities for material advancement at all levels of society, convicted and free. For a price in human endeavour, the lands of Australia offered far greater rewards for labour than any which could have been imagined by a British labourer, tradesman or military officer, or dreamed of by any country servant girl or working woman in any of the towns and cities of Great Britain.

It was the level of economic success which resulted from individual response to those opportunities which created the first "Australian" class system among those who arrived as convicts. colonial society remained divided by the stigma of criminal conviction, but those who arrived as convicts did not necessarily or inevitably remain the uniform "criminal class" they had been in Britain. Within convicted society there developed the normal hierarchical levels and gradings of contemporary society, but all based on economic achievement or failure in the colony.

The convicted women as well as men were part of this social and economic development of a penal colony into a free society was unnoticed by contemporaries, ignored or misrepresented by later generations of historians and commentators. The colonial women of New South Wales remained tainted with the description "the convict women of Botany Bay" The conviction of most of them for major felonies in Britain had made them even more infamous than the male convicts in the opinions of their respectable British contemporaries, their prosecutors, their gaolers. That they were criminal woman meant, to contemporaries, that they were also degraded, vicious, depraved and dissolute whores, characteristics supported not only by the "evidence" of their lifestyles prior to their conviction, but by the reports of their obscene and abandoned behaviour in the prisons and gaols of Britain which was clear proof that they were depraved women, incapable of reformation. That such women were transported to Botany Bay was the basis of the assumption that there could only be one class of women in that penal colony-convict women, women so devoid of any sense of decency or shame, so lacking in any of the expected womanly virtues that "their very children imbibed vice with their mothers' milk".

Their reputation was a British, not a criminal one. It was firmly based on their status as convicted felons, British criminals from the lowest orders of society. contemporaries had little doubt as to their viciousness for British newspapers reported almost daily on the alarming and increasing depredations of highwaywomen, of female footpads, cutpurses, pickpockets, shoplifters, housebreakers-and worse. Did not women and girls, singly, in pairs or in gangs, attack, assault and rob indiscriminately throughout Britain? Were not the good people from almost every marketplace, village, town and city aware of the increasing number of crimes by women in their own localities? And were not those women who were apprehended, tried and convicted for these offences against their neighbours and their betters, "lost as they were to every species of depravity", far worse than the men? Officials, and would-be reformers who visited the prisons holding the convicted women awaiting death or transportation, certainly thought so. They reported again and again that these wretched females were "of the lowest and worst description, the very scum both of the city and country".

With such a reputation in their home country, what standards of decency, honesty and morality could be expected in a convict colony? What hope of reformation could there be for second and third offenders, women whom no punishment could reclaim from their evil ways? women who had previously been whipped, or burnt in the hand, imprisoned, sent to the Houses of Correction - and again come before the Courts and found guilty of the same offences. Was not the learned judge correct in his summing up that these "night-walking strumpets who infest our streets" belonged at Botany Bay?

Their British reputation continued to dominate attitudes towards the women of Botany Bay. There was little comment on the differing patterns of behaviour which emerged in their colonial lives, little recognition of their roles within colonial society, especially as ex-convict, technically free women. The emergence and growth of a new social structure of class among women who had shared the same class origins in their native country passed unobserved. Many of these convict women endured with their free sisters the fears and privations of a pioneering life in the isolation of the outlying settlements, in the strange and alien loneliness of the Australian bushy. They too knew the fear and danger of floods, of bushfires, of droughts. They too experienced the anguish of childbirth and child-death far from the assistance and comfort of other women. They endured equal privations, faced the same dangers and fears as the few free migrant women in the early years of the penal settlement. Despite their very real involvement as the first European women to settle the Australian bush, these convict and ex-convict women did not become a part of the legends and mythology of the bush. Nor did those women who remained in the towns and townships of working women, as family women, or as both, find any place in the history of early Australia, although they were as enterprising in their economic activities as were the transported men. either by themselves or with husbands or male partners, these women "of no trade" set up small businesses, opened shops, became market women, dealers and street-sellers, worked as dressmakers, seamstresses, milliners, laundresses, washerwomen, pastry cooks and confectioners, sometimes employing other women in these trades. The ex-convict women who married convict or ticket-of-leave men found themselves in a new role as "wives", for they became the technical head of the family, a convict being ineligible to own land or to apply for licenses. The ex-convict wife, therefore, was the one who petitioned for land grant, leave or licence. She was the one who, with testimonials to her "proven good character" applied for government licences to brew, to distil, to bake, to own or lease an inn or public house, to engage in trade, to sell to the commissariat. it was the convict wife who applied for any indulgence, such as additional convict servants, assigned men or women with specific skills or trades, or for the loan of government cattle. 

The direct involvement of many ex-convict women, single, married or widowed, in the economic life of the colony was not only ignored by contemporaries but overlooked by most historians. The economic role of colonial women and the very nature of the colonial economy became so distorted that a mid-twentieth century historian could claim that "the social and economic conditions of the first fifty years...fostered whores not wives".

All of the convicted women needed to establish new lives in the colony almost in defiance of their unsavoury British reputation. The determining influence on their individual responses to the new conditions, opportunities and difficulties they found at Botany Bay was not their British criminality with its associated expectations of depravity, immorality and vice, but the experiences which had been commonplace before their conviction . It was the contrast between those experiences as women of the lowest order of British society and as colonial women with opportunities both as family women and working women, that was determinative for the nature of the emerging "Australian" female society. Despite this, despite success or failure in New South Wales, these women remained the victims, not of the male-dominated penal society, but of the vast misunderstanding which existed between British assumptions and the reality that was New South Wales.

*     *     *

It has taken almost two hundred years for the British and colonial lives of Australia's first women pioneers to be reconstructed. It has taken almost as long for a reinterpretation of their role in and contribution to Australian society on the basis of their own lives within their own times. To their own children, there was little shame or disgrace in their "convict" parentage. These native-born children knew their parents through their colonial achievements and failures, possibly unaware of their British reputations. The real taint and stigma of convictism became entrenched in colonial attitudes following the drastic changes within the transportation system from the 1820s, increasing with the Victorian emphasis on respectability, morality and class consciousness which came to New South Wales with each new shipload of British migrants throughout the nineteenth century. This "shame" of convict origins gradually entered the Australian consciousness, fostered by the "pure merinos" of colonial society, bolstered by the increasing migration of free and respectable families at all levels of the social scale. The labour, the enterprise, the contribution of the first "convict" settlers was ignored. There remained only horror, revulsion and rejection of the "convict" origins of Australian society.

It was not until 1922 that there was any significant swing of the pendulum against this shame of Australia's tainted origins. In that year Professor G.A. Wood gave a Paper to the Royal Australian Historical Society entitled "The Convicts". Wood's new interpretation was revolutionary in the sense that it rejected entirely the traditional "depravity and infamy" of Australia's first convict settlers. According to Professor Wood our founding fathers were not the despicable and degraded criminals guilty of the vilest of crimes. They were, he argued, the real victims of a harsh British social and criminal code. Innocent and manly, these "village Hampdens" suffered the effects of a relentless and uncaring policy instigated by the British aristocracy to protect their property, wealth and privileges. At the most, these despairing and starving men stole a loaf of bread, or poached a rabbit, or thieved a handkerchief as an alternative to death from starvation for themselves and for their families. For these trivial offences they suffered the agonies of transportation and, at Botany Bay, were flogged and ironed and starved and worked until death was a merciful release from unendurable hardships.

Wood's view emphasised the compassion, pity and pride with which, he argued, Australia's origins should be viewed. shame, if shame there were, should be transferred from the miserable victims to their oppressors, the British upper classes safe and secure in the mother country. Pity for the miserable wretches who suffered helplessly under the tyranny and inhumanity believed to typify the transportation system replaced shame of the convict taint. This nobility of suffering became evident in the horror of banishment, of ceaseless toil without reward, of the spiritual deprivation and desolation, of lives dragged out in misery and pain, without hope, without purpose.

It was from this view of Australia's origins that the myth or legend of the "noble convict" grew. Gradually, very gradually, gaining popular acceptance, replacing the stigma of convict ancestry with pride in those innocent "victims". The legend of the noble convict, however, was a male legend. The nobility of suffering, the injustice, the miseries, the fearsome cruelties, did not include the convicted women. They were damned to remain without place or acknowledgment in the history of their adopted country, their colonial lives overshadowed and submerged by their British reputation.

The noble convict legend is an undeserved apology for the men (and women and children) who were Australian society in its foundation years. It had given a new perspective to the Australian legend, had brought into open discussion aspects of early Australia which had remained obscured and neglected. But the "innocent and many victims" theory was as biased and distorted as the belief that the convicts were degraded, vile criminal outcasts. The first settlers needed no apology, nor did they need their crimes whitewashed. It would be as erroneous to claim that all the convicted men were honest, sober and industrious, and all the women dutiful and virtuous-even sober-as it would to assert that they were the victims of a harsh and oppressive system.

Suffering, inhumanity, cruelty, spiritual deprivation - all were part of the convict system, and their influence cannot be underestimated. The despair and failure, the desolation of mind and body were characteristics which must take their place beside the successes and triumphs, great and small, the hopes, the dreams, the achievements of Britain's exiles. It was this multiplicity of experiences, which shaped the new and distinct society which grew from Botany Bay to become "Australia", experiences which were not necessarily based on the attitudes, values and expectations of the Old Country, nor rooted in the great heritage of Europe's civilisation. Britain's outcasts came to a land new to Europeans but where an ancient and unrecognised civilisation had stood still for time beyond the compass of the mind. The suffering and misery which came with the Europeans to the old land of Terra Australis was integral to the origins of the society created at Botany Bay. It cannot be ignored or glossed over; neither should it be stressed and emphasized for it was not the determining characteristic of the new society. It was the dark side of the European heritage, the physical embodiment of the criminal law of England. As such it entered the Australian consciousness and remained embedded in the mythology as a dominant feature of Australia's founding years.

The first faint attempts to reinterpret the role of convict women damned them still further, for the feminist writers of the second half of the twentieth century described their colonial contribution on the evidence of the opinions and reports of a handful of "respectable" contemporaries interpreted in accordance with prevailing mid-twentieth century feminist theories. This resulted in an excuse-explanation of the place of convicted women in colonial society. It accepted the contemporary assumption, based mainly on the British reputations of these women, that they continued their immoral behaviour in the male-dominated penal colony, but excused it. The reason? These women had no economic or social value to New South Wales except as sexual objects. This being so, argued the mid-twentieth century feminists, they became the "victims of victims", the convict men. They were the lowest level of colonial society, forced to prostitute themselves to survive. This argument is almost a "noble female convict" legend, owing much to Wood's theories of the 1920s. Wood claimed that the convict men had been forced by circumstances beyond their control to become petty thieves in order to survive and to feed their starving families in Britain. The feminist writers argued that the convict women were also forced by the economic and social circumstances of the colony to become the unhappy victims who had no alternative to prostitution and "enforced whoredom". Whatever may have been the motivation, the first Australian women are labelled the "damned whores" of Botany Bay, with no awareness of the distinction between convict women and ex-convict women, no awareness of the complexity and diversity of the emerging structure of colonial female society in New South Wales.

These women need no excuse, nor do they need apologies. Nor can the assumption that they were the oppressed victims of a convict society remain unchallenged. They may have arrived in New South Wales as a uniform class of despised felons, tainted with all the vile and infamous connotations of that word "convict", but their responses to colonial opportunities and disadvantages were as stridently varied and determinative as were those of the women who came free and unconvicted. English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh or Cornish, country women or town women, married, widowed or single, thieves, robbers, pickpockets, skilled or illiterate, young or old, diseased or healthy, all of those women who came to Botany Bay reacted according to their own individual responses to a life of exile in a convict colony. It is only on this evidence, the evidence of their individual lives, that their contribution to colonial society may be assessed.



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