AUSTRALIA - THE WOMEN OF BOTANY BAY - PART 2
The settlement of New South Wales was directly influenced by the English transportation system, and the inhabitants of that colony, free or convicted, were indirectly affected by all the assumptions and connotations which surrounded that infamous word "convict". To contemporaries, Botany Bay had begun purely and simply as a convict colony, a distant penal camp established halfway across the globe, far from the influences of all polite, genteel and civilised society. It was established for the punishment, maintenance and possible reformation of British felons "of the darkest description", no longer welcome to the independent and proudly free United States of America. These men and women were accepted without question as felons who were incorrigible, recalcitrant, incapable of reformation, decency or morality. They were the dregs and outcasts of the despised criminal classes of Britain and Ireland, unfit to remain with decent men and women. With such inhabitants, how could Botany Bay be linked with any achievements, successes, economic or social progress? It was and it remained in British eyes "a land of convicts and kangaroos" where the very children born to those depraved parents inherited the hideous taint of criminality and in turn passed this dominant characteristic on to their children and to their children's children for succeeding generations.
It was completely unrecognised by contemporaries or by later generations of commentators that the land of Australia was itself a major determinative in influencing and shaping the society which was to develop as "Australian". Nor was it recognised that the men, and especially the women, who had been banished to that land would not necessarily remain in the despised, abandoned and worthless objects they had been in Britain, that the land and the needs and opportunities found in New South Wales would lead to the formation of a new class of Britishers, men and women who had accepted the challenges offered in and by the new colony. Successes or failures, these men and women were the first of that new race, the Australians.
The settlement began with transplanted Britishers, but the land to which so many of them were banished was as distinct from the lands of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales as were the convicted settlers from those who had come free to the colony. It was because of and not in spite of the convictism which dominated the structure of the population, the development of the economy, the shaping of society of the untainted, the unconvicted, the "free objects", the came-free who would eventually distinguish themselves as "the pure merinos", "the exclusives", their pride and their prejudices, their standards and values resting unshakeably on their "difference" as "free and respectable". These men and their women and children remained transplanted Britishers, in almost every case attempting to recreate "Another Britannia" in this new world, a Britannia based solely struggling for expression in a land which had remained as isolated from and untouched by European cultures as it had from the diseases and evils of "civilised" European society.
The pure merinos were very much in the minority at Botany Bay; vocal, powerful, authoritative, but a minority. It was not to be their colonial experiences which were to establish the germs of a distinctive Australian society, which were to determine traits and characteristics which became typical and recurring throughout the first two centuries of European settlement, languishing almost unnoticed for the first century, resurrected, misinterpreted and distorted according to prevailing fashions and theories in the next. almost unconsciously and certainly without spoken recognition, new values and new standards emerged within the first thirty years or so and were evident in the colonial definitions of respectability, position, authority. The ex-convict colonists and their families, adapting as pioneers, outgrew the old and accepted definitions of England, outgrew the traditional class distinctions. Assuredly, New South Wales remained a convict society if that society were defined on the basis of the class origins of most of the inhabitants. It was not, however, a convict society if the definition were based on contemporary British assumptions and connotations of that description. To Britain, there was only one class in her penal colony, the convict class, most of whom had originated from the poorest and worst criminal elements in Britain and Ireland. It was completely overlooked that the convicts and the ex-convicts did not necessarily become colonial criminals nor did they form an homogeneous and all-embracing "convict class" in New South Wales. Instead, they became part of a new framework of class distinctions which developed as a direct response to the varying and diverse roles of the convict and ex-convict settlers within the economic development of New South Wales.
These distinctions were firmly and almost exclusively based on colonial economic achievement, self-advancement, enterprise and industry found among men and women who had been transported or had come to join convict husbands and wives. The economic successes, where achieved as individuals, as married or de facto couples, or as family groupings, may have been no greater than that of Hannah Murray and Thomas Stone who proudly recorded that they "owned one cattle and ten acres". It may have been far less, returning a bare subsistence, providing meagre independence, and it may have been far greater, leading to the enjoyment of lifestyles which would have been the envy of many Britain's gentry. It was all, however great, however small, infinitely more than could have been achieved had the ex-convict or his or her family remained in their native land. This new "class structure was most marked and yet least recognised among the women convicts. They had arrived as one class, the damned whores of the criminal haunts of Britain. They found their own levels in the economic strata of convict society. They lived and worked within a class structure which barred no woman, took no account of proven criminality, paid no heed to assumptions of infamy, degradation and depravity. Their stepping stone to colonial respectability was economic achievement, self-dependence, enterprise, initiative and colonial honesty. And work. The only irremovable barrier was the artificial division of society created by the pure merinos intent on preserving the purity and respectability of their "untainted" state in accordance with prevailing standards in Britain. But colonial society had been born from the structure and nature of the penal settlement, bred by the transportation system and nurtured by the nature of the land itself. It was not the ladies of New South Wales but the women of Botany Bay, the despised "convicts" and convict wives, who became such a vital and integral part of every level of their Australian society.
Many of these women became the first white women of the Australian bush, not from choice but necessity. They were women who could and did adapt to the realities of a pioneering life in a strange and unknown environment where, even to the country women of Britain and Ireland "nature seemed reversed". It was a land in which flood, fire and drought vied with each other to push the new settlers from their farms, where snakes and spiders and dust and heat brought fear and exhaustion, where the unimaginable labour of felling trees and digging out huge stumps before crops could be sown seemed endless, where family life meant life in isolation, where family life meant life in isolation, where a child could be born and die and leave no record, where even the comfort of church or priest was denied, and where the company of other women was infrequent and uncertain. Under such conditions these bush women came to know that they must develop self-reliance, self-sufficiency, independence, resources and skill, for the alternative could lead to failure, sickness and even death for themselves and for their families. Children who were lost, or wandered away, who were burned or scalded in accident, hurt by misadventure, sick or ailing with the summer flux, with infant disorders, with sickness or worse, all must be attended to by the mother for in so many cases no other help was at hand.
Mary Long was one of these women. She arrived on the Lady Juliana in 1790 and settled on the land with convict James Ward who had been transported the same year. Their land grant was in the then isolated south Creek district. By 1812 they had developed their property sufficiently for themselves and their three children to be self-supporting. The youngest was barely a year old when James Ward died suddenly from snakebite and Mary Long was left alone to manage the property and raise her family. Her successes as a widow were unremarked in colonial records. Irishwoman Catherine Barry was another convict woman who typified the determination of these exiled "refuse" of the Old Country to adapt and succeed in their adopted homeland. Catherine Barry was transported to the Sugar Cane in 1793 and married James Dunn who had been transported in the same year. They settled on a sixty-acre grant at Portland Head, "an outlying settlement". In 1806 two of their young children were killed when "a tree felled by an assigned servant fell on them". In 1810 they were living with their remaining children in "a stone cottage", cultivating their land. By 1814 these two ex-convicts had thirty acres under cultivation and by 1821 they had added another property at Cumberland Reach, two miles down3the river from their original grant. This "convict" family remained on their properties until their deaths, Catherine Barry living with her married daughter after her husband was drowned in a flooded river. She died at the age of eighty-seven, by which time she had been a respected resident and family woman of the Hawkesbury District for fifty-seven years. she was buried at her own request beside her husband at Sackville Reach. Neither Catherine Barry nor Mary Long, nor any of the family farming women of the bush whom they represented, gained any place as pioneers in the legends and histories of their adopted country, a land to which they themselves had given so much. Successful and respected in their own lifetimes, succeeding generations saw them and their "convict" contemporaries shrouded in the degraded mists of convictism.
The women from the towns and townships fared little better than their bush sisters in gaining recognition in the history of the mythology of Australia. The most well-known exception, Mary Reibey, gained her subsequent fame as the widow of an officer and her wealth and economic interests in the colony rivalled those of almost any "Gentleman". She was, however, a convict woman and the importance of this to Mary Reibey herself is evident in her attempt to escape this stigma by describing herself after she returned from a visit to England as "Mary Reibey, Came Free, Mariner, 1821". Most of her contemporaries, even widows like successful Elizabeth Grey, remained unacknowledged, their successes and enterprise in taking on the business interests of their late husbands completely disregarded.
The really forgotten woman of Botany Bay have been the convict wives, those women who pleased successfully for free passage to "be a consolation and a comfort" to transported husbands in their exile and punishment, women whose convict husbands pleaded with colonial and British authorities that "they could not sleep at nights for thinking of their poor distresses" and begged that wives and children be sent to them at botany Bay. The lives and achievements, the sorrows and the failures of these free women became as great a part of the beginnings of Australian society as were the sufferings and anxieties of the husbands from whom they had been exiled. For these men, the knowledge that the colony could offer benefits and living standards so far in excess of the poverty and deprivation in which they knew their families were living, added to the punishment of their banishment. Josiah Godbyr, a transported machine-breaker, wrote to his dearest wife Rebecker (sic) not only of his distress, but of the life they could lead together in New South Wales if she could join him:
...I have said before my Dear Wife what would I Give to here from you they Say that absence and Length of Time will whay the thoughts of one another from our minds but my Dear wife if I could but wonse moore Injoy your company all the Powers on Earth should not Part us O my Deare To think that wee have lived To Gether so maney years and the Tourn a Sunder at Last it all moost Destracts mee when I think of it my dear...
I am very well of for a prisoner Government man To one Master Dioxson a merchant and minor Hee hath a Larg mill gose by a Steam Enguine I Dress flour for you and has Done ever since I came my alowance is Seven pounds flour and Seven pounds of Beef or Poark and Seven shillings that is my weeks allowance and a very good one for a Prisoner I have my Lodgins and Cloaths to find out of it but I have...as good Lodgins as any in the Town...my Dear I could like to have you with mee and be Happy...
Was it description such as these sent back by convict men and women to relatives in Britain which so greatly encouraged their families to do their utmost to rejoin them, or was it simply means of escape from starvation and indescribable poverty which caused so many convict wives to come and "comfort" their husbands "in their great afflictions"? Mary Cassidy of Clonmel was so desperate to bring her children to join her husband at botany Bay that she herself became a convict. In 1826 "Mary Cassidy pleaded guilty to a theft which she said she had committed with the hope of being sent to botany Bay and of joining her husband to whom that fate was assigned last year...
The convict wives arrived in the colony expecting to be supported and protected by their husbands. Few were daunted when they found that they must petition the governor to have their husbands assigned to them, that they must become the "master" of the household, they must apply for land, for servants, for indulgences, for licences. It was their positive responses to this entirely new family situation, their strident and repeated demands to the colonial authorities for their rights, for assistance, for advice, which contributed so greatly to the characteristics of the emerging Australian female identity. As the bush women and the townswomen needed the qualities of self-reliance and determination, so did those wives who had accepted banishment and exile. It was the strength and often strident and vocal determination which added so greatly to their "domestic" influence on family life in the colony and, in many cases, changed entirely the roles and expectations of wives in New South Wales. convict wives could be even more determined than the convict women to demand from the colonial authorities attention, redress, indulgences of any form of assistance of which they felt in need.
Almost all the achievements of the women of Botany Bay died with them, held only in the remembrances of their families. There was, however, one isolated and exceptional comment made by a correspondent of the Australian, whose letters were published in April 1825. Barbra and her brother Richard Diaper came to the Colony after Barbra's disappointing love affair. The brother set up as a wholesale draper in Sydney. His discussions with his sister and their opinions of many aspects of the Colony were printed in letters to the editor. Barbra was an outspoken and literate woman. The first letter was a satirical commentary on the supposed effects of the temperance movement on New South Wales. A week later, the Bigge report was criticised as "no more nor less than a parcel of old washerwoman's chatter." This was followed by the observations of Sydney Thursday's markets:
In another part of the Market you will find groups of hale and jocular looking butter and egg woman - probably persons who have passed through every graduation of vice and misery - but now transformed into careful purse keeping housewives: - the women have made the money here, at least laid the foundation for all that followed.
This free migrant woman and her brother saw the women of botany Bay in a different light from almost all of their "respectable contemporaries. It was a limited recognition of their achievements for it did not include those woman who may have reached a far higher level of economic or domestic success than the "egg and butter woman". Nor was there any recognition of the very real contribution of the Colony's family women or pioneer woman. The Diapers did, however unwittingly, sum up concisely the real contribution of the women of botany Bay to Australian society, for these were the women who "laid the foundation for all that followed".
* * *