Thieves who became heroes
TWO HUNDRED and thirty years ago a small wooden flotilla sailed into Sydney Cove. This First Fleet of 1788 consisted of two warships and three store vessels which contained sheep, cattle and horses plus enough provisions for two years. Its most important cargo was contained in six transportation ships — 789 convicts from Britain accompanied by four companies of marines to watch over them.
Amongst them were 14 Jews plus a toddler — these bewildered and bedraggled prisoners constituted the founding fathers and mothers of the Jewish presence in Australia.
The voyage had taken eight months with stops at Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. This new land was known to the Dutch and the French, but taking possession of a new colony in the name of George III replaced the loss of the American colonies some five years previously.
It had been British practice to rid themselves of their criminal class by either executing them or placing them in rusting ship hulks — or transporting them to the Americas to become virtual slave labour. The latter option now no longer existed yet the problem of severe overcrowding of convicts had to be solved. These British prisoners joined the indigenous aboriginal clans who had inhabited Australia for the previous 50,000 years.
Peter Opley, an 18 year old Jewish labourer from Greenwich was sentenced on March 13 1786 for stealing a woman’s printed cotton gown, worth nine shillings. He was imprisoned in a ship’s hulk and then transferred to the Alexander for passage to Australia in January 1787. Within a few months he took to stealing once more and was punished several times by 100 lashes. Yet these were difficult times, land proved arid, crops withered on the vine, food stocks were gradually running down. On March 15 1789 he was given 25 lashes for stealing a crust of bread and eventually transferred to the penal colony on Norfolk Island. Yet he rehabilitated himself, bought livestock and owned his own land to emerge as a free man — and made his way back to England.
Such details are known because of the assiduous research carried out by John S Levi, an emeritus progressive rabbi from Melbourne, who for the last half century has documented the lives and times of the founders of Australian Jewry — some convicts, some free settlers. His remarkable book, These are the Names, documents The First Fleet: 11 British Navy ships which took 750 British convicts to Australia, 1788 the life stories of 1500 Jews who settled in Australia between 1788 and 1850.
Many of the first Jews on the First Fleet were convicted of petty crimes. Daniel Daniels was sentenced to seven years at the Old Bailey for stealing “a copper pot, a pewter dish and a pair of shoes from Joseph Solomon”. David Jacobs, a lemon seller, was transported for stealing two livery greatcoats from a coach.
Others were hardened criminals. Henry Abrahams was convicted on three counts of highway robbery. Originally sentenced to death, he was sentenced to transportation for life. In Australia, he achieved infamy by informing on fellow convicts and testifying against them in court.
The men outnumbered the women by three to one. Liaisons were not uncommon — even between guards and guarded. A fortnight after the landing of the convicts, the first marriage between two Jews took place. John Hart was accused of stealing a package from a coach, bound for Stratford, in Whitechapel in London’s East End. He was given seven years and incarcerated in Newgate prison. His new wife, Flora “Sara” Larah, had similarly been placed in Newgate for stealing “a mahogany tea chest and a half guinea gold coin”.
Amelia Levy, described as “a loose girl”, was accused of theft on one occasion and of using “scandalous and abusive language” on another, yet her deposition on oath when tried in 1789, was sworn on the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). The deposition was marked by an “x”, for the illiterate Amelia could not write.
Some Jewish convicts can truly be acclaimed as the founders of Australian society. John Harris, a wax chandler with four children, was accused of stealing seven silver table spoons. He was originally sentenced to death, then commuted to 14 years transportation to America in 1783. Involved in a mutiny, he was then sentenced to life transportation on board the First Fleet.
Within a year of landing, the deprivations and conditions led to Harris’s proposal to the Judge Advocate that a night watch should be established from amongst the convicts. The authorities warmed to this idea and on August 8 1789, the first steps towards establishing an Australian police force were taken.
Perhaps the most remarkable story of these first Jewish settlers is that of Esther Abrahams. Aged 15, she was charged with stealing “two cards of black silk lace, valued at 50 shillings” and incarcerated in Newgate prison in 1786. A few months later, she gave birth to a little girl, Rosanna, in prison. Transferred to the Lady Penryhn, bound for New South Wales, Rosanna became the first free Jew to walk on Australian soil. On board, Esther commenced a life long relationship with First Lieutenant George Johnston —with whom she had seven children. Johnston became the commanding officer of the New South Wales Corps, deposing Governor William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame). For half a year, Johnson took over the reins as Lieutenant Governor— and Esther became “First Lady”.
Esther Johnston is mentioned in records from 1828 as “a free settler” in possession of 2000 acres of land and living at the Annandale Estate in Petersham with her son and daughters.
For a long period, to claim ancestry back to these convicts was a badge of shame. Today for many Australians, it is a mark of yichus — great pride.
In the UK and in many other countries, communities regard rabbis and philanthropists, statesmen and writers of the past as Jewish heroes. In Australia, it is the sinners, the poor and the illiterate, who are highly regarded. Those who found themselves in a strange land and an alien environment, yet often rehabilitated themselves from the depths of penury. They helped to found a new society through the sweat of their collective brow and their determination to build a new future. They too are Jewish heroes.
Esther stole lace, but became the First Lady
Colin Shindler, emeritus professor of Israel studies at SOAS, University of London,was recently the Mandelbaum scholar in residence at the University of Sydney,
A travel poster for Australia, showing Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay in 1770