Booze and blokes dis­tracted fe­male con­victs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ba­bette Smith

Jen­nifer Har­ri­son’s Shack­led makes a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to our knowl­edge of fe­male con­victs. She also adds to our gen­eral knowl­edge of the pe­nal set­tle­ment of More­ton Bay in Queensland. The north­ern colony was im­por­tant in the re­design of sec­ondary pun­ish­ment af­ter the re­port of com­mis­sioner JT Bigge in the early 1820s but there are few books about it.

Un­like Nor­folk Is­land, its in­fa­mous coun­ter­part, More­ton Bay re­ceived colo­nially con­victed women as well as men. Har­ri­son’s aim is to es­tab­lish who were the women at More­ton Bay, the con­di­tions they en­coun­tered there and whether or not they had any im­pact on the em­bry­onic out­post.

The More­ton Bay set­tle­ment lasted from 1826 to 1839. Dur­ing those 13 years it was man­aged con­sec­u­tively by seven com­man­dants, eight fac­tory ma­trons who were mainly sol­diers’ wives, three med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers plus locums, two cler­gy­men in­ter­spersed with vis­its from oth­ers, one long-term su­per­in­ten­dent of agri­cul­ture and one long-term su­per­in­ten­dent of con­victs, and two suc­ces­sive chief con­sta­bles of doubt­ful in­tegrity backed up by a turnover of ex-con­vict over­seers and con­sta­bles.

Such chop­ping and chang­ing among the man­age­ment cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties for prison- ers. Har­ri­son notes, for ex­am­ple, how the ar­rival of six ba­bies be­tween the end of Septem­ber and Novem­ber 1836 re­vealed that some ‘‘un­ruly con­duct’’ had oc­curred dur­ing the changeover of com­man­dants that year.

About 2200 male con­victs were trans­ported to More­ton Bay. Har­ri­son has es­tab­lished that over the years they were joined by 144 women whose colo­nial crimes ranged from mur­der (two cases) and vi­o­lent acts against the per­son in­clud­ing as­sault to bushrang­ing, us­ing force of arms and high­way rob­bery (11 cases). Most, how­ever, were re­con­victed in Aus­tralia for theft or re­ceiv­ing stolen goods.

The ti­tle Shack­led sug­gests the women at More­ton Bay wore leg irons. The con­tent how­ever re­veals that ‘‘shack­led’’ is Har­ri­son’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of their cir­cum­stances. ‘‘They were fet­tered to a sys­tem which sought to im­pose uni­form rul­ings and per­mit­ted lit­tle in­di­vid­u­al­ity. While un­der de­ten­tion these fe­males did not al­ways adapt eas­ily to the strict rou­tine im­posed upon them but the place was in­tended as a gaol; they were be­ing pun­ished and forced to lead a very con­trolled ex­is­tence.’’

De­spite her con­cept of sys­temic shack­les, Har­ri­son’s ma­te­rial in­di­cates that to a large ex­tent the women ran their own race, find­ing ways to sub­vert con­trol and dis­rupt most at­tempts to im­pose ‘‘uni­form rul­ings’’. She does com­ment that they had ‘‘too much spare time for in­dulging in mis­chief’’.

Only a hand­ful of do­mes­tic jobs, in­clud­ing work­ing at the hos­pi­tal, were avail­able for the women. Of­fi­cials were con­stantly search­ing for more col­lec­tive tasks to keep them busy. Over the pe­riod of the set­tle­ment fe­male pris­on­ers had du­ties such as wash­ing, sewing slops, shelling corn and pick­ing oakum. By 1837 nearly all 69 women then at More­ton Bay were at Ea­gle Farm, where they did agri­cul­tural work sup­ported by a few male con­victs, who per­formed the heav­ier labour. At that time the farm had 190ha un­der cul­ti­va­tion, mainly planted with maize, and a fur­ther 120ha used for pas­ture.

A pur­pose-built fe­male fac­tory opened in 1830 but failed to pre­vent frater­ni­sa­tion be­tween the sexes. Des­per­ate to iso­late the women, the au­thor­i­ties built walls 5m high with spikes on top. Ea­gle Farm be­came a place to send the ‘‘worst’’ women far from male dis­trac­tions but they soon sub­verted this tidy so­lu­tion. Vis­its to the hos­pi­tal in­creased ex­po­nen­tially, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a lengthy walk with mil­i­tary es- cort to make an at­ten­tion-grab­bing en­trance down the main street of the set­tle­ment. Even­tu­ally a hos­pi­tal was es­tab­lished at the out­sta­tion.

At­tempts to end per­sonal re­la­tions failed at al­most ev­ery turn, al­though se­ri­ous dis­tress was caused to some women by dis­rup­tion to long­stand­ing re­la­tion­ships with hus­bands or chil­dren in Syd­ney. In More­ton Bay, how­ever, ea­ger rank and file from the mil­i­tary, cor­rupt of­fi­cials such as chief con­sta­ble McIn­tosh, plus sundry gen­tle­men and of­fi­cers, helped them pass the time. Henry Cow­per, a doc­tor, was among those who in­vaded the Fe­male Fac­tory bear­ing gifts of grog and, no doubt, other in­duce­ments. Such in­ci­dents ap­peared to cause rau­cous cel­e­bra­tion among the women rather than fear.

Ac­cord­ing to Har­ri­son, the re­cidi­vist women were usu­ally al­lowed to take chil­dren un­der three years with them, but some chil­dren who stayed in Syd­ney were placed in the or­phan schools. From the mid-1830s most women could take their chil­dren re­gard­less of age. In Au­gust 1836, 39 chil­dren were at More­ton Bay with their moth­ers.

By the end of the book Har­ri­son’s con­cept of ‘‘shack­led’’ has broad­ened to en­com­pass the en­tire life of the pris­on­ers.

She con­cludes that ‘‘the women re­cidi­vists of More­ton Bay proved they were in­stinc­tively brave, in­domitable and coura­geous sur­viv­ing pi­o­neers de­spite be­ing shack­led to a life­time of thiev­ing, pris­ons and in­tox­i­ca­tion within an un­com­pro­mis­ing so­ci­ety’’. spe­cialises in con­vict his­tory. Her lat­est book is The Luck of the Ir­ish.

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