I’d added Grantlee Kieza’s biography of the woman on the Australian $20 note to my ‘Must Read’ list from the moment I heard about it.
Apart from the obvious (my abiding interest in Australian history and especially women’s history), I have three points of connection with the subject, Mary Reibey:
1. She hailed originally from near Manchester in England, where my ancestor Elizabeth Lee was also born and raised,
2. Like another of my ancestors, Mary’s crime which had her transported to Australia was the theft of a horse, and
3. She was a contemporary of yet another ancestor, Jane Longhurst. Like Mary, Jane was an emancipated convict in early colonial Sydney who ‘made good’, managing business affairs and a large family within the male-dominated world of nineteenth century Sydney.
Mary showed her redoubtable spirit from an early age, running away from a position as maid in a boarding school and in a flight of youthful fantasy, stealing a horse which she thought would be her ticket to a financially independent life.
Of course she was discovered, arrested and tried for the crime; at first receiving the death sentence, later commuted to transportation to the penal colony of NSW. The startling thing about her time in gaol was that she’d been dressed as a boy – and she managed to keep her sex hidden from her male cellmates in a crowded prison! In my view that would take some chutzpah, not to mention ingenuity.
She arrived in the colony full of trepidation as to what life in this frightening place might have in store for a youngster just fifteen years old.
The author paints a fascinating and vivid picture of convict life in Sydney and Parramatta : housing, clothing, rations, and living and working conditions, along with the many larger-than-life characters that peopled the early days of the colonial period.
The class system of Britain was transported here along with their unwanted criminals, and this is seen in attitudes by free settlers towards the convicts.
Also, people in authority struggled to understand many behaviours of the convicts; why did they make such poor choices (such as getting drunk and fighting) which they must know would result in punishment? To middle class eyes this was inexplicable. Why would people jeopardise their futures in this way? To convicts, most of whom came from dire circumstances, having a good time while one could grab it was entirely sensible. Who knew when the next catastrophe could strike? You could die of a disease, accident or violence tomorrow. May as well enjoy tonight while you could.
Mary, however, kept her head down and out of trouble. She married Tom Reibey, a free settler with an entrepreneurial bent, who was involved in trade and real estate. They had a large family together, but Tom nominated his wife to manage the business dealings during his long absences from the colony on trading voyages. She was wife, mother, and trusted co-manager of the family’s business affairs.
After her husband’s death, Mary continued with the various business interests, shipping and trading, buying, selling and leasing real estate, amassing an even greater fortune.
She is the ‘remarkable’ Mrs Reibey because all this activity was at a time when work options for women were severely curtailed and no women were expected to see the inside of a board room or business negotiation. Much to the surprise of her fellow settlers, ‘Mrs Reibey’ proved to be a shrewd negotiator, driving a hard bargain, with a nose for the next opportunity. This was how one survived – even thrived – in the cut throat world of the colony.
I got a thrill from seeing my ancestor, Jane Roberts (nee Longhurst) mentioned along with Mary in the section describing the formation of the Bank Of New South Wales – the first bank in the colony. Jane and Mary were among a handful of women investors in that early bank, much to the surprise and confusion of their male counterparts, as the concept of women investors was a foreign one.
There are moments that made me smile, such as Mary answering a charge by a debtor that she was ‘no lady’ by hitting him over the head with her parasol!
There are also tender, heartwarming moments in the book, as when Mary fulfills a long-nursed ambition to make a return visit to her homeland, with emotional reunions with family members in the ‘old country.’ I found myself wondering how reunions between my convict and immigrant ancestors may have played out, should any of them had the wish and the resources to return to England.
The Remarkable Mrs Reibey is a comprehensive and engrossing portrayal of a colonial women who surely deserves her spot on the $20 note. Her portrait, depicting a grandmotherly round-faced woman with spectacles and a lace cap, belies the adventurous and headstrong spirit of the younger Mary, with the endurance and smarts to not only survive, but thrive, in a colonial environment that was well and truly stacked against women.
The Remarkable Mrs Reibey was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2023.
Immediately this book opens, we know we are in for a startlingly different view of the British ships, sailing into Sydney harbour in 1788.
The First Nations people of the lands surrounding Sydney are portrayed in a rich cultural context (informative and easy to absorb within the story), however they have European names and wear modern European dress. What does this mean? What is happening here? We are left to wonder.
It is an effective device to ensure that readers approach this story with a different mindset than they might otherwise do. Especially if the readers have been raised in Australia, and grown up with the story of Captain Phillip planting the British flag in the sand of Sydney cove in the name of His Majesty King George.
Instead, we see the ships from a vantage point above the cove, where seven respected Elders, representatives of their various nations, have come together for a day to collectively decide what their response to these ‘visitors’ should be.
The cover blurb of the book reads:
1788, Gadigal country.
They’ve got a big decision to make…The Visitors
It’s a brilliant premise and the reader is plunged into the many considerations and issues that the seven men need to take into account as they ponder their response to this unprecedented situation.
Some of the older men remember the time, eighteen years earlier, when similar ships had appeared and strange looking men disembarked. In their short time on land, those men had cut down trees, trampled precious clean water to mud, and took ridiculous amounts of seafood from the waters. But that time, those visitors left and did not return. Perhaps the same thing would happen again?
Each of the seven men representing their mob have their own backstory: a set of family, cultural and tribal circumstances that affect their behaviour and how they approach the discussion and voting. This allows the reader to see them first of all as people – with their own preoccupations and motivations.
I enjoyed the portrayal of the tensions, petty squabbles, and individual behaviours of the seven. It meant I could approach their story as I could that of any other people dealing with a sudden and unexpected arrival of uninvited visitors of their country.
Within the narrative of a long day of arguments, counter arguments and vote-taking, the author has woven in a great deal of beautifully described customary lore and traditions. It includes one of the best and easiest-to-understand explanations of songlines:
Songs, Joseph knows, are a living map of country – where the fresh water is, the good fishing spots, the whereabouts of steep crevices or marshy swamps and all of the other signposts, so you don’t get lost or travel the hard way. And all songs are three-dimensional, referring to the stars above and the earth and even below the seas. And the songs are always evolving and being shared. They are maps for all who need them to travel for food, for shelter or, like him, for business. And they are sung, because singing is the most effective way to memorise great swathes of data.The Visitors, p33
The use of modern expressions by the men also helps to bring us into our own time, with an understanding that these men represent a spectrum of life experiences and attitudes – much like today’s representatives in our modern parliaments.
There is a telling moment when the men are faced with the idea that perhaps, this time, the strangers won’t leave, and a great deal of irony as well-worn European-centrist ideas about ‘barbarism’, ‘a dying race’, ‘thieves’ ‘superior weapons’ and ‘capable of learning’ are turned on their head.
This book invites us to ask those ‘what if?’ questions: what if the First Nations peoples of Sydney had attacked in a concerted effort to rid their lands of these foreigners? What if the British had been able to listen and learn from the original inhabitants of the continent? What if the diseases brought by those ships had not wreaked such a terrible toll? So many things we can never know, but in the asking of the questions, there is learning to be had.
In a profound way, one of the men, Gary, sums up what was important for those Elders and still remains important today:
Just because they break lore, doesn’t mean we should. Then they’ve won, in a way, before even one spear has been thrown. I think we need to be good ancestors.What are the stories a good ancestor needs to create, to leave behind? Do we want our descendants to look behind them and see that we have failed in our duty, that we succumbed to the lowest denominator? Or do we want them to be proud of us and the stance we took?…I’m voting to let them land and that we do what we always do: we follow protocol to the letter. That means when they step on country, we welcome them and wish them safe passage.The Visitors p222-223
If only those ‘visitors’ could have been so generous and gracious in their response.
The Visitors is published by Fourth Estate in August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
A debut novel by Sri Lankan-Australian Ayesha Inoon, Untethered offers a vivid insight into the culture of a Muslim family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the experiences of two people who try life as immigrants to Australia.
The title evokes the dual meaning of ‘untethered’, conjuring both the sense of isolation from being apart from one’s homeland, and the possibility and freedom that can come from breaking with old behaviours and expectations.
Zia, a young adult woman at the outset of the story, has her marriage to Rashid arranged by their families with the help of a matchmaker. It is fascinating to learn about the customary ways in which engagement and marriage are celebrated by some Muslim members of the Sri Lankan community. I enjoyed how the author effortlessly wove Sri Lankan words, foods, clothing, and cultural references throughout the narrative.
As she waits for the ceremony to begin on her wedding day, Zia ponders the contrast between her childhood dreams and the reality of a wedding:
She had imagined that was how she would feel when it was her turn.Untethered p50
She hadn’t known that there would be hope but also fear, that there would be love but also doubt. She hadn’t known that the tools with which she had to build their dreams would be so fragile.
The story is told from both Zia’s and Rashid’s points of view, allowing the reader to experience their life together as a couple, and the process of emigration, with each character.
Especially, once they arrive in Australia, their differing expectations and experiences are stark. Rashid feels deeply the ignominy of being unable to find work commensurate with his Sri Lankan work experience as an IT manager; Zia feels lonely and isolated, missing her close family and friends left behind.
The couple must traverse rocky ground and tragedy before the slow tendrils of hope appear.
Immigration, it seemed, was the great equaliser – no matter where you came from or who you were before, you had to let it all go and reinvent yourself.Untethered p129
Zia is young and somewhat naive at the novel’s start, but her self confidence grows over time. She is a sympathetic character whose awareness of the world around her also develops, allowing her to see and empathise with others who are in more difficult circumstances than her own. Both Zia and Rashid learn about other Sri Lankans held in offshore detention for years, after trying to reach Australia as refugees from the terrible civil war in Sri Lanka.
On a personal note, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, is where the couple settle when they get to Australia. Having spent ten years there myself, I very much enjoyed reading about familiar locations and landmarks there; a story set in Canberra is long overdue!
Untethered is a highly recommended read; I think it is a wonderful debut from an author with a promising future.
Untethered is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of HarperCollins Australia, in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.