Thieves who be­came heroes

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - MI­GRA­TION COLIN SHINDLER

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,

PHO­TOS: GETTY IM­AGES

A travel poster for Aus­tralia, show­ing Cap­tain Cook land­ing at Botany Bay in 1770

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