Saturday, February 27, 2016

Not your "Sara Dane" - real women from the Edges of Empire

From Goodreads
Original 1955 cover
There are certain myths attached to Australia’s stories of convict women that have been perpetuated in a fair bit of romantic literature. These often feature the innocent and impoverished or orphaned young woman - usually English or Irish - and sexy and beautiful too! - who steals something small, a handkerchief, a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Although she is sentenced to hang, by stroke of luck she is reprieved at the last minute and transported beyond the seas, usually to New South Wales or the more dreaded Van Diemen’s Land. In spite of all that she endures and the challenges she faces, our heroine succeeds in some way, either through an advantageous marriage or sheer grit and determination to better herself. She manages to put her shameful past behind her and becomes one of the founding mothers of the nation. 

The famous novel Sara Dane by Catherine Gaskin, which was inspired by the real story of Mary Reibey [see note below] started this trend back in the mid 1950s and, with variations, has been the basis of many a romantic “convict novel” ever since. 

The historical reality is that beauty was in short supply among convicts and not many of them were totally innocent, the majority being career criminals with a history of offending and re-offending. Sadly, any of those who may have been comparatively naïve or innocent before their sentences were often dragged down into the mire by forced association with these hardened individuals and the brutal treatment they received at the hands of those in authority.

There are many records still in existence in various archives of countries that used to be part of the British Empire detailing the circumstances, trials and sentences of a group of women who came under British laws and jurisdictions and these form the basis of From the Edges of Empire: Convict Women from Beyond the British Isles, edited by Lucy Frost and Colette McAlpine for the Convict Women’s Press.

Available from Convict Womens Press

This absorbing compilation throws new light on some of the amazing 200 or so women who don’t fit the accepted image of convicts all being of British heritage. Although only a tiny fraction of the 25,000 women who were transported were tried and sentenced in countries other than the British Isles, very few them were described of colour with others simply being described as foreign - which could mean anything including race or colour - but more often that simply she could not speak English. Some were slaves with no rights or no-one to defend them, some were just girls, some had aristocratic or influential connections in Europe yet still fell foul of British law. Their crimes were of passion or hate or necessity. Some were victims of men and a cruel system, others were manipulative and immoral by nature. Fascinating, and even disturbing reading in places, several of these women could be subjects of novels in their own right. 

It is somewhat ironic that having a convict in the family tree was something Australians used to try and hide but now has turned into a badge of honour and pride, although modern people do tend to rose-tint the facts about their ancestors and give them attributes that are more wishful thinking than fact. It’s fine to have a clever or pretty “Sara Dane” in your family tree, but please don’t let her be ugly or diseased or an imbecile, a prostitute, a poisoner or creepy child abuser; nor should she be a “person of colour”. Some Australians with a convict background may assume their dark colouring comes from an Aboriginal connection but won’t know they are in fact descended from black slaves from the West Indies or mixed race individuals from India, Mauritius, or the Cape of Good Hope. 

If these women survived the tough system, once they served their sentences and were no longer under the eagle eye of jurisprudence or in the paper records, many simply disappeared into the general population, probably taking new names or camouflaging their pasts. One particularly shocking story related in the book involved a Scots missionary woman in India who was suspected of incest with her brother and who was transported for whipping to death her seven year old niece. In later years, she moved frequently through the southern part of Australia, perhaps deliberately hiding her trail. If her descendants alive today know nothing of her story, it may be better that they never do, as some convict crimes still border on the unspeakable and can never be equated with the romantic stolen handkerchief version.

Another woman who appears in the list of foreign-born female convicts in this book is the con woman and serial bigamist, Hannah Mary Anson, who sometimes gave her birthplace as Madras, India. After her final release in 1854, it is assumed she went on to reinvent a different life for herself and it may well be that she is another convict with living descendants today who know nothing of her at all. Her story appeared earlier in this blog and can be read here (1) and here (2).

One contributor From the Edges of Empire, Kay Buttfield, in writing about women sent from South Africa, gives this apt closing to one of the chapters:
"The lives of these people, like all the convict lives whose stories are narrated, come to us through the records - some more detailed than others - but all allow a moment to contemplate these people. In the gathering of these threads of lives we will never know all the answers. However their lives gain a little dignity when we can tease out their stories and our history of the British Empire becomes the richer for knowing them."
(And not to forget the men of different heritage - another exceptional book from another Tasmanian author is Black Founders by Cassandra Pybus.) 

Note:  The real Mary Reibey was hardly the glamorous Sara Dane of book covers but she is worth reading about.  Most Australians will probably look at her image every day and never give her a second thought - she features on the $20 bill - and is about due for rediscovery by a new generation of enterprising women.


Leanne Goss said...

So true. One of my female forebears was described as having a big nose. She came to a sad demise after being run over by a cart after being thrown out of the pub in a drunk and abusive state. Reality does not always make for a happy ending.

Leanne Goss said...

So true. One of my female forebears was described as having a big nose. She came to a sad demise after being run over by a cart after being thrown out of the pub in a drunk and abusive state. Reality does not always make for a happy ending.

Regina of Arbeia said...

Poor woman, wonder if her drinking had anything to do with what people said about her appearance? Nothing romantic about those days.