Convict Women and Sexual Subjugation in Nineteenth-Century Australia

Randall Bass PhD '91, Assistant Professor of English, Georgetown University

[From Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore Follow for a view highly critical of Hughes's accuracy. Is this critic writing about the same period as Highes?]

Whore and prostitute, then, were bandied about to serve the moral views of middle-class ideology; and neither the male nor the female convicts thought it disgraceful, or even wrong, to live together out of wedlock. However, female convicts in Australia were all to greater or lesser degrees oppressed as women -- as members of an inferior sex. The sexism of English society was brought to Australia and then amplified by penal conditions. A convict woman needed unusual strength of character not to be crushed by its assumptions. Language itself confirmed her degradation, and some sense of this may be gleaned from the slang and cant words applied to women in Georgian times -- a brusque, stinging argot of appropriation and dismissal.

A woman was a bat, a crack, a buntel, a case for cattle, a mort, a burick, or a convenient. If she had a regular man, she was his natural or peculiar. If married, she was an autem mott; if blonde, a bleached mott; if a very young prostitute, almost a child, a kinchin mott; if beautiful, a rum blowen, a ewe, a flash piece of mutton. If she had gonorrhea, she was a queer mott. This language was the lower millstone; the upper was the pompous moral phraseology of the Establishment, the good flogging Christians. Ground between the two, a woman would need unusual reserves of tenacity and self-esteem to resist the pressure of the stereotype. The pervasive belief in their whorishness and worthlessness must have struck deep into the souls of these women. The double-bind to which they were condemned was piercingly illustrated by the remark of one Scottish settler, Peter Murdoch, who had more than 6,000 acres in Van Diemen's Land and had helped set up the penal station on Maria Island, to the 1838 Select Committee in London. "They are generally so bad," he said, "that the settlers have no heart to treat them well."

The brutalization of women in the colony had gone on so long that it was virtually a social reflex by the end of the 1830s. The first full account of it was given by Robert Jones, Major Foveaux's chief jailer on Norfolk Island in the early 1800's, who thought the lot of the women prisoners there "must surely have been greater than the male convicts.... Several have not recovered yet from their treatment at the hands of the Major." Passages in Jones's memoir show how absolute the chattel status of women was. "Ted Kimberley chief constable considered the convicts of Norfolk Island no better than heathens unfit to grace the earth. Women were in his estimation born for the convenience of men. He was a bright intelligent Irishman." Jones's sentiments are echoed in a fragmentary letter from a free settler on Norfolk Island, an ex-missionary turned trader named James Mitchell. "Surely no common mortal could demand treatment so brutal," he wrote around 1815. "Heaven give their weary footsteps their aching hearts to a better place of rest for here there is none. During governorship of Major Foveaux convicts both male and female were held as slaves. Poor female convicts were treated shamefully. Governor King being mainly responsible."

The rituals of courtship on Norfolk Island were, to put it mildly, brusque. We see the "bright intelligent" Kimberley pursuing a married convict woman named Mary Ginders with an axe, shouting that "if she did not come and live with him he would report her to the Major and have her placed in the cells." Major Foveaux got the woman of his choice, Ann Sherwin, away from one of his subordinate officers by throwing him in jail on a trumped-up charge "so that," claimed the Irish rebel leader Joseph Holt, a Norfolk prisoner at the time, "the poor fellow, seeing the danger he was in, thought it better to save his life, and lose his wife, than to lose both" (451). At least their union lasted: Foveaux married Ann Sherwin in England in 1815.

In such a moral environment, although male convicts had some rights however attenuated, the women had none except the right to be fed; they had to fend for themselves against both guards and male prisoners. "England for white slaves, why were they sent here," Jones scribbled in one of his outbursts of delayed guilt, while reflecting on the fate of three women sent to Norfolk Island for the "crime" of abortion,

for crimes that required pity more than punishment. Heaven forbid [sicl England if that is her way of populating her hellholes. What would our noble persons think of our virgin settlements and their white slaves. In every case the women treated as slaves, good stock to trade with and a convict having the good chance to possess one did not want much encouragement to do so.

Postcolonial Web Australia Victorian Web