Esther, ‘the extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became the First Lady of the colony,’ is about one of those largely unknown figures from Australia’s past. When told well, stories such as this can bring our history to life.
This meticulously researched account, written in narrative non-fiction style, recreates the conditions of London in the late eighteenth century, the journey of the First Fleet ship Lady Penrhyn, the stark reality of the first years of the fledgling English colony perched on the edge of the world – all from the perspective of a young Jewish woman, Esther Abrahams (also known as Esther Julian). She was just sixteen and pregnant when convicted of the theft of some lace and sentenced to transportation to NSW. On arrival she became servant to First Lieutenant George Johnston of the British Marines. Together they spent a short period on Norfolk Island before returning to Sydney. She bore him children and along with her own young daughter Rosanna, they made a life together in Sydney.
Interwoven with her story are characters from the fledgling British colony (Watkin Tench, Major Ross, Captain Arthur Phillip, D’arcy Wentworth, the Macarthurs, and Lachlan Macquarie among others) and Indigenous people such as Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo, Arabanoo and Colbee.
Esther was witness to the dramatic events that played out in the early colony. The near starvation of the first years, the brutality of English punishments, the deaths of so many of the Dharug around Sydney Cove due to disease (very likely smallpox), the incredible escape of Mary Bryant with her husband, small children and a boatload of other convicts, the Rum Rebellion that removed the unlikable Governor Bligh from office. These were formative events that shaped the future nation of Australia. For me, seeing them through Esther’s eyes brought them to vivid life.
But it is Esther’s story that is most remarkable. During the course of her life she moved from the shame and powerlessness of life as a convict, to become the wife of the most powerful man in the colony, after George Johnston led the Rum Rebellion and became for a brief time, Lieutenant-Governor of NSW. In doing so she had to navigate the many perils of convict life, maintaining her dignity in the face of a system that seemed determined to strip it away and later, enduring the entrenched elitist attitudes of those who saw convict beginnings as a stain on the colony. Esther proved her worth by raising her family, managing Johnson’s large agricultural estate at Annandale in Sydney’s west, and earning respect from some of the most influential people in the colony.
I very much enjoyed learning about Esther. Jessica North tells the stories of the early years of Australia in a vivid new way. It’s an absorbing and accessible history read.
What a rip-roaring tale this is! Based on the adventurous and tragic life of Mary Bryant, a convict in the First Fleet, this historical novel tells the story of Jenny Trelawney, a Cornish woman transported for ‘highway robbery’ on the First Fleet ship Charlotte.
Author Meg Keneally says in her author’s note that she chose to fictionalise her protagonist because it felt better to have a fictional character who could fully own her ‘thoughts, emotions and beliefs’. This speaks to how rare it is to find first person accounts by convict women. We have written records (journals, letters and so on) by privileged women, such as Governor Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth amongst others, but very few accounts by the less fortunate women who made the trip from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland in the hold of a convict ship, rather than as free emigrants. I assume this is, in part, because many convict women could not read or write. Perhaps the expense of paper and ink was another barrier to recording their experiences. And I can also guess that the crowded, often damp convict quarters below decks would not have been kind to paper, had they been able to afford it.
Meg Keneally has done a sterling job of working with the historical records as they stand, and imagining the rest. She has changed some historical events and timelines to better fit her narrative.
We meet Jenny in her home town in Cornwall, coping with the death of her father and then of her baby brother, and her mother’s subsequent descent into depression, poverty and self neglect. Jenny begins thieving to support herself and provide food for her mother. And then she is caught, arrested, tried and sentenced. Off to the new colony of New South Wales, the great social and judicial experiment embarked on by England to rid itself of its ‘criminal class.’
Jenny is a not entirely sympathetic character, but we quickly begin to empathise with her and her situation. She falls pregnant to a man on the hulk she is imprisoned on before her transportation and so bears a daughter on the voyage to Australia, a girl named for the ship on which she is born. Jenny survives the horrors of the voyage and on arrival at Sydney Cove, almost immediately marries a convict. This was a choice made by many convict women – marriage offered some protection in an environment in which there was almost no duty of care shown by guards and officials towards the convicts.
Jenny and her husband Dan have a son, but little Emanuel is born into a colony facing starvation. Watching her children become thinner and weaker by the day, Jenny makes a decision – she and her husband must take the two little ones and escape. As they are both from Cornwall, skilled at fishing and boats, the logical escape route seems to be by the sea itself.
And that’s what they do – steal the government cutter and some supplies, and in the dark of night they sail out of Sydney Heads and set their course north. And here their adventures begin…as if they had not already had enough adventures for one lifetime!
I won’t give away any more of the plot, although if you know the original Mary Bryant’s story you can guess at much of the rest, with a few differences. It’s a tale of heroism, determination, tragedy and love, with some stupidity and cruelty thrown in. Another reminder of the dramas of our history – crammed full as it is with ordinary people facing the sorts of dangers and hardships that most of today’s Australians could only try to imagine.
How can someone be raised in a district and know so little about the stories of the people and places in its past?
I was born and raised in the Hawkesbury, arguably one of the most historically rich regions in Australia in terms of European settlement and early contact with our nation’s First Peoples. I learnt the basics in school of course, about Governor Macquarie’s ‘Five Towns’, of which Richmond was one.
Margaret arrived on the Nile in 1801, transported for escaping from gaol, after being imprisoned for stealing a horse (while dressed as a boy). Remarkably, she was one of the relatively rare convicts who could read and write, and exchanged many letters and gifts with her old employer in Sussex – from whom she had stolen the horse! There must have been a warm relationship between these two women, for the ostensibly wronged one to continue to write to an ex-employee who had stolen from her family. Even more remarkably, she kept Margaret’s letters, so historians have had the opportunity to learn about convict life and experiences at this time.
On a recent tour organised by the Hawkesbury Historical Society, I had the opportunity to discover Margaret and walk around the spots where she lived and worked.
You can check out the Historical Society’s website here: https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/
Margaret worked for some of the most prominent English settlers around the Hawkesbury, for whom many roads and other features are named: the Dight, Pitt, Faithful, Skinner and Wood families. She delivered babies, cared for small children, cooked, nursed sick family members, and performed many other tasks for her assigned masters and mistresses. She apparently made several trips into Parramatta or Sydney from the Hawkesbury – on foot. No mean feat considering the distance, the dangers and the isolation at that time.
She also helped save several members of the Dight family, helping them to the roof of their cottage on the Richmond lowlands during the devastating flood of 1806.
She eventually received a pardon in 1814. She was 58 years old by then and sadly only lived another five years as a free woman. She is buried in the first cemetery established in Richmond, across from St Peters church. The mystery surrounding her actual burial site is another aspect of her story, one that continues to intrigue today.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Margaret (or someone very much like her) might become a character in my next fiction project, which will be set in the Hawkesbury district.