Colo­nial hard labour is brought to life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Les­ley Pot­ter’s Mistress of Her Pro­fes­sion opens with the grip­ping case study of mid­wife Sarah Ann Hop­kins, who im­mi­grated to NSW with her fam­ily in 1848. Few mid­wives had for­mal cre­den­tials at the time, but Hop­kins held a mid­wifery diploma by di­rect in­struc­tion from the West­min­ster Ly­ing-in Hospi­tal in Lon­don.

On Hop­kins’s voy­age to Aus­tralia aboard the Stead­fast she was ap­pointed to the vol­un­tary po­si­tion of ma­tron, work­ing un­der sur­geon su­per­in­ten­dent John Read. Their team con­sisted of two as­sis­tant ma­trons and a male nurse at­ten­dant. Pot­ter says the records re­veal “the stress, anx­i­eties, stren­u­ous nurs­ing and mid­wifery care” that con­fronted them. Ship­board con­di­tions dic­tated the re­sponse of those re­spon­si­ble for the health and well­be­ing of the pas­sen­gers. The on-board con­di­tions for con­fine­ment were gen­er­ally in­ad­e­quate. Some women were con­fined in their berths, which in steer­age was ex­tremely lim­ited, with lit­tle if any pri­vacy. Some women were moved into the ship’s hospi­tal. All women con­tended with re­stricted space, lack of hy­giene and lim­ited ven­ti­la­tion, plus the pitch­ing and rolling of the ship.

There were 16 deaths, 14 of them in­fants, and seven births dur­ing the five-month jour­ney. All the con­fine­ments took place dur­ing the fi­nal hot months when “high tem­per­a­tures would have in­creased both the dis­com­fort for women in labour as well as the risk of de­hy­dra­tion for the chil­dren”. Through­out this, Hop­kins was preg­nant her­self. She was safely de­liv­ered of her child on Fe­bru­ary 22, 1849. On March 18, Read noted that she was back at work.

Pot­ter’s ex­am­i­na­tion of the is­sues for mid­wives in Aus­tralia through­out the 19th cen­tury is com­pre­hen­sive. Chap­ters de­scribe the broader con­text to mid­wifery work, details of the ma­ter­nity care of­fered at the Fe­male Fac­tory, Par­ra­matta, and the be­gin­nings of ma­ter­nity care in Syd­ney.

She deals with mid­wifery as a busi­ness, the colo­nial law and mid­wives who gave ev­i­dence at in­quests. And she does not ne­glect what she calls “the dark side of mid­wifery prac­tice”, when their skills were ap­plied to ter­mi­na­tion of preg­nan­cies rather than de­liv­ery.

In 1877 the Benev­o­lent So­ci­ety was first to es­tab­lish a for­mal train­ing course for mid­wives in Syd­ney. In the early decades of the 20th cen- tury, Aus­tralian states, one by one, passed leg­is­la­tion that re­quired mid­wives to be reg­is­tered.

Each chap­ter is il­lus­trated by a case study, all of which I found as ab­sorb­ing as that of Hop­kins’s. They in­clude ground­break­ing in­for­ma­tion about Abo­rig­i­nal mid­wives, who can be even harder to find than the Euro­pean ver­sion.

Pot­ter’s first ex­am­ple is a re­mark­able 1788 de­scrip­tion of an Abo­rig­i­nal birth, ap­par­ently re­counted to First Fleet judge ad­vo­cate David Collins. With the con­sent of the mother, whose name was War-re-weer, Abo­rig­i­nal women had paid some (un­named) Euro­pean women the com­pli­ment of invit­ing them to at­tend the birth.

As one of them told Collins, she watched as the three Abo­rig­i­nal mid­wives ‘‘poured cold water over the ab­domen of the labour­ing woman, War-re-weer. An­other per­formed the cu­ri­ous prac­tice of ty­ing a cord around War-re­weer’s neck and with the other end of the cord rub­bing her own lips un­til they bled.” Pot­ter un-

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