‘Im­por­ta­tion’ to a dis­tant shore

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

EL­IZ­A­BETH Rushen’s Colo­nial Duchesses is the story of young Ir­ish women who had the courage to im­mi­grate alone to New South Wales in the 1830s. It cov­ers two voy­ages by the ves­sel Duchess of Northum­ber­land in 1835 and 1836, and one by James Pat­ti­son in 1836. To­gether the ships brought 750 free sin­gle women to the colony at a time when more and more men were land­ing as con­victs.

Rushen ex­am­ines the women’s lives and their ex­pe­ri­ences be­fore and after mi­gra­tion, seek­ing an­swers to some of the ques­tions raised by their decision to em­i­grate. What in­spired them to leave Ire­land? Was there a se­lec­tion process? How were they treated dur­ing the voy­age. How did they cope with the process of mi­gra­tion? What was their re­cep­tion in Syd­ney?

Most came from parish work­houses or char­i­ta­ble in­sti­tu­tions such as the Cork Foundling Home or the House of In­dus­try. Their num­bers in­cluded some who took the op­por­tu­nity to pave the way for rel­a­tives who fol­lowed later, or to re­unite with fam­ily al­ready in the colonies. Re­gard­less of back­ground, all have been tra­di­tion­ally dis­par­aged as prod­ucts of poverty, dis­ease and hope­less­ness who were in ef­fect dumped on the colony by un­scrupu­lous agents.

Ac­cord­ing to Rushen, how­ever, close ex­am­i­na­tion of the records re­veals ‘‘the women were en­ter­pris­ing and em­braced the op­por­tu­nity of­fered ... to im­prove their liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions … [T]hey chose to es­cape the en­trenched poverty and af­flic­tions of their home­land for a life of op­por­tu­nity.’’

A gov­ern­ment-funded scheme brought emi­gra­tion within their reach. Mass emi­gra­tion of young women be­gan with the ships Red Rover (from Ire­land) and Princess Royal (from Bri­tain) in 1832. In the five years it op­er­ated, 16 ships de­liv­ered more than 1200 women to the colonies. The scheme was ad­min­is­tered ini­tially by an emi­gra­tion com­mis­sion based in London but sub­se­quently by com­mit­tees that op­er­ated in Dublin as well. They were es­tab­lished to char­ter ships, pro­mote the idea of fe­male emi­gra­tion and ad­min­is­ter ap­pli­ca­tions for a pas­sage.

The se­lec­tors in Bri­tain and Ire­land took se­ri­ously their brief to choose ‘‘in­dus­tri­ous and vir­tu­ous’’ women. Know­ing there had been com­plaints from colonists, they even wrote to NSW gov­er­nor Richard Bourke, as­sur­ing him ‘‘the ut­most care and judge­ment has been ex­er­cised in their se­lec­tion”. As a pre­cau­tion, the com­mit­tees gave each woman a cer­tifi­cate of character be­fore she left.

For­go­ing rev­enue to im­port im­mi­grants cre­ated a pro­pri­eto­rial at­ti­tude among the colonists, who sub­jected the women to in­tense scru­tiny through a prism of ‘‘re­spectabil­ity’’. When James Pat­ti­son ar­rived in Fe­bru­ary 1836, the Ladies Re­cep­tion Com­mit­tee was de­lighted. Declar­ing the women to be ‘‘the best im­por­ta­tion yet’’, it re­ported that ‘‘the whole, with the ex­cep­tion of two who are of un­sound mind, ap­peared to be in ex­cel­lent health and very cleanly and or­derly in their dress and ap­pear­ance’’. And it as­sured the com­mu­nity that none had left their em­ploy­ment for ‘‘im­pro­pri­ety of con­duct’’. When Duchess of Northum­ber­land ar­rived later the same year, its pas­sen­gers were also ini­tially de­scribed as ‘‘The best im­por­ta­tion yet!’’

The women were ex­pected to find their own work. As Rushen ex­plains, tra­di­tional ‘‘hir­ing fairs’’ were fa­mil­iar ground but their ig­no­rance of lo­cal wages and con­di­tions must have made many feel anx­ious about the terms they agreed. Rushen’s ex­am­i­na­tion of their em­ploy­ment out­comes is one of the fas­ci­nat­ing de­tails in the book. Gov­ern­ment ac­com­mo­da­tion was pro­vided for a limited time but the women were ex­pected to find an em­ployer and move off the

Colo­nial Duchesses gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial hands as quickly as pos­si­ble. There was no support for those who had dif­fi­culty in find­ing jobs or whose first choice did not work out. Three months, at most, and they were on their own.

Rushen re­con­structs the lives of many in­di­vid­ual women. Kitty Berry, for ex­am­ple, was typ­i­cal of her ship­mates. She ac­cepted a job with a pas­toral­ist far from Syd­ney. Within eight months, with the support of her em­ployer, she mar­ried an English con­vict who was still serv­ing his sen­tence. Ul­ti­mately the cou­ple set­tled in Braid­wood, where they bought a 100 acre (40ha) farm. By the time Kitty died, she had con­trib­uted nine chil­dren to her new home­land and was liv­ing in com­fort­able, although not wealthy, cir­cum­stances.

Some women turned to crime. About 10 per cent of those who ar­rived on the two Duchess voy­ages and 3 per cent from James Pat­ti­son went to prison, but few com­mit­ted se­ri­ous crimes. Six women joined con­victs in the Fe­male Fac­tory for of­fences such as lar­ceny, ‘‘cut­ting and wound­ing’’, steal­ing from another im­mi­grant, or be­ing drunk or disor­derly. After a suc­ces­sion of ap­pear­ances be­fore the bench for drunk­en­ness, Cather­ine Mer­ritt was found drowned in Syd­ney Har­bour barely four years after she ar­rived.

In 1837 the emi­gra­tion com­mit­tees were re­placed by an agent-gen­eral for emi­gra­tion, and in 1840 a com­mis­sion was cre­ated to over­see all mi­gra­tion from Bri­tain and Ire­land.

The em­pha­sis switched from young women to the im­por­ta­tion of fam­i­lies, trades­men and labour­ers.

Colo­nial Duchesses pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of fe­male emi­gra­tion in the 1830s from ev­ery pos­si­ble an­gle. It adds to Rushen’s im­pres­sive body of work on this topic and is a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to our knowl­edge of th­ese un­sung women and the part they played in de­vel­op­ing our com­mu­nity.

A land­ing party: de­tail from the cover of El­iz­a­beth Rushen’s

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