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.