Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled beyond the Seas

Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled beyond the Seas

Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled beyond the Seas

Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled beyond the Seas

Synopsis

From the crowded tenements of Edinburgh to the Female Factory nestling in the shadow of Mt Wellington, dozens of Scottish women convicts were exiled to Van Diemen's Land with their young children. This is a rich and evocative account of the lives of women at the bottom of society two hundred years ago. In the early nineteenth century, crofters and villagers streamed into the burgeoning cities of Scotland, and families splintered. Orphan girls, single mothers and women on their own all struggled to feed and clothe themselves. For some, petty theft became a part of life. Any woman deemed "habite & repute a thief" might find herself before the High Court of Justiciary, tried for yet another minor theft and sentenced to transportation "beyond Seas." Lucy Frost memorably paints the portrait of a boatload of women and their children who arrived in Hobart in 1838. Instead of serving time in prison, the women were sent to work as unpaid servants in the houses of settlers. Feisty Scottish convicts, unaccustomed to bowing and scraping, often irritated their middle-class employers, who charged them with insolence, or refusing to work, or getting drunk. A stint in the female factory became their punishment. Many women survived the convict system and shaped their own lives once they were free. They married, had children and found a place in the community. Others, though, continued to be plagued by errors and disasters until death.

Excerpt

Abandoned’ women, the Scottish convicts were called by an eminent twentieth-century Australian historian—worse than the English, even worse than the Irish. and the worst of the worst were shipped to the island of Van Diemen’s Land, later re-named Tasmania to cover its convict stain. the fulminating historian quoted a judge in Edinburgh who pronounced ‘utterly irreclaimable’ a 64-year-old domestic servant found guilty of theft, and of being ‘habite and repute a thief’. Into a weighty Minutebook of Scotland’s High Court of Justiciary, a clerk duly inscribed her sentence in the ritual phrasing, ‘to be transported beyond Seas’.

But who were these ‘abandoned’ women? What were their lives like in Scotland? and what happened to them in Australia? Sentenced to transportation, they became travellers who left behind the life they knew in industrial cities, villages, and the countryside. Sailing to the other side of the world, they entered the peculiar society of a penal colony where they would serve their sentences not in prison, but as the unfree domestic servants of settlers scrambling to make their fortunes. Though some convicts were alert to the similarity between their circumstances and those of slaves, there was an important difference. While slavery was for life, most convicts were serving defined sentences of seven or fourteen years, and their lives would continue after they were ‘free by servitude’. What then? What did freedom mean to women without money to pay for a passage Home? What kinds of lives could they lead when they were stranded on an island ‘beyond Seas’?

These are questions I have been asking as I follow the lives of women convicted in Scotland and transported to Van Diemen’s Land on a ship . . .

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