Floating Brothel : The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship
and Its Cargo of Female Convicts
by Sian Rees
Sea and Strumpets
By Jonathan Yardley,
On July 29, 1789, a British ship called the Lady Julian set sail from Plymouth Sound on what turned out to be a journey of nearly a year. Her destination was New South Wales -- Australia as we now know it -- and her cargo was, to put it mildly, unusual: "somewhere between 225 and 240 women," criminals of one sort or another, who were being sent to the little-known colony on the other side of the world both as punishment for their sins and because the male inhabitants of that colony were in desperate need of female companionship.
The women were shipped to New South Wales under the policy of "transportation," which Britain had adopted under the Elizabethan Transportation Act. The jails of England were crowded past overflowing, even though the executioners were kept busy hanging or otherwise dispatching people for crimes that we would now find trivial in the extreme, among them (according to an Old Bailey report) "Forgery . . . House-Breaking, Horse-Stealing . . . Robbery in a Dwelling-House . . . [and] Shop-Lifting." Transportation deftly served two purposes: It got undesirables (in this case "disorderly women") off the streets and it populated the British Empire. The American colonies had received thousands of these criminals, but the Revolution ended that; by 1789, New South Wales, halfway across the world in what to most Englishmen was terra incognita, had replaced the American colonies as a major beneficiary of transportation.
The story of the Lady Julian's voyage will be familiar to people who have read the journals of the ship's steward. A new edition of "The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner," was published three years ago and covers that voyage in some detail, though for some reason, in Nicol's version, the ship is called the Lady Juliana. But though Sian Rees relies heavily on Nicol's journal, she goes far beyond it. "The Floating Brothel" provides vivid portraits of a number of interesting things: London in the 1780s, where "grandeur overlapped squalor"; the underworld of the city's women, who robbed and stole with gusto; life aboard a British ship of the period, which Rees portrays in such detail that the stink
of the below decks practically rises from the page; and the primitive settlements at Sydney Cove and Norfolk Island, where the transported women were dumped at the end of the Lady Julian's voyage.
Rees takes her title from an unidentified "historian in 1990" who said of the Lady Julian that the women -- mainly London prostitutes -- turned the ship into "a floating brothel," thus, she adds, "bringing to a resounding conclusion the tradition of blaming prostitution on the prostitutes." Wherever the blame lay in this instance, there can be no doubt that the Lady Julian was a whorehouse under full sail. Not merely were the women being taken to New South Wales for the explicit purpose of having sex with the men there and bearing their children, but while en route they were expected to provide sexual favors to the crew as well as the detachment of marines on board.
One of those who enjoyed such favors was John Nicol, but in his case there was far more to it than that. The instant he saw a convict named Sarah Whitelam, he fell bonkers in love with her. As he wrote in his journal, "I first fixed my fancy on her the moment I knocked the rivet from her irons upon my anvil." Whether she returned his affection along with her amatory favors we do not know, but they were inseparable aboard ship and apparently were faithful to each other. Before the journey's end she gave birth to their son, but Nicol was refused permission to stay with her at New South Wales; he spent much of the rest of his life searching for her, without success.
There are perhaps morals to be drawn from the story of the Lady Julian and its cargo, but for the most part Sian Rees resists the temptation. Rather than a tract -- which must have been tempting to one of evident feminist credentials -- she has given us a deft, penetrating miniature that has more to tell us than first impressions might suggest.
March 17, 2002
More than two centuries ago, when America was a colony, it provided a convenient dumping ground for British convicts. But by 1783 a cowed and defeated Britain had to find somewhere else to send its undesirables. After several unsuccessful attempts in Africa, the government in London decided on New South Wales (the continent was not yet named Australia), and an advance party of just over a thousand people was duly dispatched in 1787.
This first fleet named its landing place Sydney Cove. Disease was soon endemic, and the relief the settlers expected from Britain did not arrive -- they desperately needed tools, seeds and people. At last, in June 1790, a second fleet of four ships sailed in from England. One was freighted with fertile female convicts who were to populate the fledgling settlement: it was the Lady Julian. In ''The Floating Brothel,'' Sian Rees tells the story of the women who traveled on this vessel: the quirks of fate that decided their exile, their 13,000-mile voyage and their reception in the stuttering colony.
The book opens with vivid scenes of London lowlife. Rees conjures the squalor of three-in-a-bed boardinghouses, a world ''where people moved from job to job with their possessions in a box on their back, looking constantly for an extra sixpence a week, a warmer bed or better food.'' The supply of prostitutes swelled when Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a tax on maidservants over the age of 15.
Many women were sentenced to transportation for petty theft, for as Rees writes, ''the penal code of the late 18th century was an inadequate and crude instrument.'' Not all belonged to the underclass. Some were girls ''of good family'' seduced and betrayed by cads. Often the parents of these tragic girls turned up at the dockside pleading fruitlessly for clemency.
The Lady Julian, three-masted, two-decked and excessively leaky, sailed down the Thames in July 1789, the week the first refugees from the French Revolution landed in England. More than 220 female convicts were on board, their ages ranging from 11 to 68. Some had infants with them, though children over the age of 6 were left on the quayside.
The only known firsthand account of the voyage is that of 34-year-old John Nicol, an unlettered Scottish steward and cooper. He dictated his memoirs to a journalist more than 30 years after the events (they were reissued in 1999 as ''The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner''). Rees is obliged to rely heavily on Nicol's account, even though it is known to be inaccurate, and as a result the reader is left wanting to hear the women speak for themselves. The paucity of source material inevitably weakens the story. Speculative sentences of the ''It is likely'' variety slow down the narrative drive, as does a plethora of words and phrases like ''perhaps,'' ''probably,'' ''unguessable,'' ''we cannot know'' and ''we enter the realm of pure hypothesis.'' Rees fleshes out the skeletal story line with plenty of imaginative re-creation, and over all she makes the book work, largely because even the bones of this exotic tale are gripping.
Among the convicts, Sarah Whitelam was a 19-year-old Lincolnshire lass convicted of stealing a haul of clothes ''with force and arms,'' a charge she strenuously denied. When she was rowed out to the ship, at anchor in the Thames, she was manacled.
(In March she had traveled for 36 hours strapped to the outside seat of a coach, exposed to an English winter.) John Nicol was ordered to set up his anvil on deck and remove the chains from the prisoners. It was love at first sight. ''I first fixed my fancy on her,'' he said, ''the moment I knocked the rivet from her irons upon my anvil.'' Within a week, Whitelam was installed in his bunk on the 'tween deck. It was not an unusual arrangement: almost every man on the ship took an unofficial ''wife'' for the duration of the voyage. Rees expounds on the ingenious forms of marine contraception, but still, 12 babies were conceived on board.
Rees does her best to evoke the flap of the sail, the feel of timbers beneath bare feet and the smell of the ballast, a noxious mix of sand and gravel impregnated with years of human waste. In the tropics, melting tar dripped from the seams above the women's sleeping shelves and burned their faces and forearms. At port, men from other vessels were rowed out for sexual commerce (usually it was the local prostitutes who were rowed out to the men), and it was this that led to the sobriquet, adopted much later, ''the floating brothel.''
On June 2, 1790, the lookout on the South Head of Sydney Cove sighted the mast of the Lady Julian. The colonists were so hungry that the first officers on board looked past the women and asked after the cows. The harvest had failed, rats had overrun the stores, civil unrest lurked. Ninety percent of the inhabitants' diet consisted of rice wriggling with weevil, and six marines had been hanged for stealing food. Governor Arthur Phillip had begun shipping his hungry people to Norfolk Island.
John Nicol Jr. had been delivered in a makeshift maternity tent on deck while the ship was docked in Rio. His father now begged to be allowed to stay in New South Wales, to work as a freeman until Whitelam's sentence expired and he could take her home. But the Lady Julian was under contract to the East India Company and had to hurry up to Canton. The cooper could not be spared. ''The days flew on eagles' wings,'' he wrote of the brief period the pair enjoyed together at Sydney Cove. ''We dreaded the hour of separation.''
On July 25, 1790, Nicol sailed away, and the next day his betrothed married another. Such is love. Nicol spent the rest of his life trying to find his way back to Sarah Whitelam, but he never did. ''Old as I am,'' he said at the end of his life, ''my heart is still unchanged.''
It was bold of Rees to attempt this venture, her first book, considering the raw materials. She is a more than able writer, and her robust, clear prose carries the story. Despite the difficulties, she paints a vivid portrait of a corner of the 18th century in which women who had stolen a pair of breeches to pay for their children's food were sent to the ends of the unknown earth. Few saw home again.
Sara Wheeler's books include ''Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica'' and ''Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard,'' which will be published next month
Benedictus and Clover Hughes
Sunday December 30, 2001
The Floating Brothel
Review £7.99, pp248
This history of a 1789 convict ship, bound for New South Wales with a cargo of fallen women and drunken sea dogs, is surprisingly slow. Having begun well with some revealing tales of London lowlife, Rees runs into difficulty when the ship finally gets under way and source material becomes as scarce as fresh water. The voyage was relatively uneventful, barring two brief prostitution stops and one mass childbirth, and she has almost no specific evidence for any of it, apart from the foggy memoirs of one passenger written 30 years later. So we're left to survive on a diet of fanciful 'presumablies' taken from reports of other voyages. With her flair for description and love of lurid detail, Rees might have written a great novel 'based on a true story', but The Floating Brothel is a rather aimless history.
Errant women on a convict ship to Australia in the 1780s were sexual playthings, potential mothers and sometimes romantic partners -- if they didn't succumb to scurvy first.
By Janelle Brown
March 20, 2002 | The 1780s were not a pretty time to be a working-class lass in Mad King George's England. If you were lucky enough to have a job, say, as a milkmaid or a shopgirl or a laborer, you were likely to lose it to one of the 130,000 military men just returning home after a rousing defeat in America. Or perhaps you'd get booted from your job because of a new tax on maidservants over the age of 15.
Utterly abandoned by your government, you would likely end up living in a boarding house, sharing a mattress with a few other "disorderly girls" and paying for your gin and your fatty meat by shoplifting or prostitution or other petty crimes. If you were picked up by the police you'd be thrown into a crowded, typhoid-riddled jail to await one of several dismal fates including death by burning at the stake or "Transportation to Parts Beyond the Sea" -- namely, Sydney, Australia, a starving, muddy colony surrounded by tribes of Aborigines.
Sian Rees' "The Floating Brothel" chronicles the voyage of the Lady Julian, a ship that transported 237 female British convicts to Sydney, Australia, in 1789, part of the so-called "Second Fleet" (the First Fleet sailed in 1788). The women were sent off to colonize Australia for two convenient reasons. The first was to empty the jails, which, thanks to an epidemic of disorderly girls who had hit hard times, were seething pits of filth and disease. The second was so the girls could serve as brides, wombs and sexual playthings for the lonely men of Australia -- a motley collection of convicts, researchers, colonialists and marines -- who at the time outnumbered female colonists by roughly 5 to 1. It wasn't a lovely fate.
Make no mistake: "The Floating Brothel" is not a titillating tale of 18th century high-seas hanky-panky. Despite its evocative title and bawdy cover, which features a bare-breasted lass lecherously grasping a portly gentleman, "The Floating Brothel" discloses very few details about lustier aspects of sex-for-hire in the late 1700s. Rather, it is a meticulously researched historical treatise that chronicles the sexual, physical and emotional exploitation of the Lady Julian women from a lively feminist perspective.
Readers will, however, learn plenty of other fascinating facts from this period, such as the menus served to sailors of the era (salted cabbage); the symptoms of scurvy (black pustules all over the body); the nature of waste removal on ships (think "floating piles of excrement"); and the percentage of monstrously deformed babies born in the 1780s (one in every 241). Not exactly sexy stuff, but interesting just the same.
Unfortunately, there are few first-person historical accounts, such as diaries or memoirs, of the 237 women aboard the Lady Julian (hardly surprising, considering that most weren't even literate enough to sign their own names); as a result most of Rees' material was cobbled together from court and legal documents. Rees' research gold mine was the memoir of John Nicol, the Lady Julian's steward and the hapless lover of 19-year-old convict Sarah Whitelam, who was shipped off to Australia for stealing a closetful of clothes (including a "Raven Grey Conventry Gown" and "One Chocoloate [sic] Ground Silk Handkerchief").
The tale of Whitelam and Nicol is hardly a stirring love story. As it turns out, all the sailors on board the Lady Julian were promised a female mate for the trip, a common practice among ships that carried female convicts. The women who were on board, ranging in age from 11 to 68, were parceled out as temporary "wives" to the sailors for the duration of the voyage (more than 11 months). Although a few of these pairings actually bloomed into real relationships (Nicol, according to his memoirs, actually did feel real love for his bedmate), most seemed simply relationships of convenience. For the sailors, a "wife" was a convenient sexual plaything; for the convict women, the relationship was a way to escape the crowded convict holds below deck for a more comfortable bed and a bit of special treatment during the voyage.
"One can only speculate on the attitude of the women towards the men on board and whether they believed it possible to have a relationship with any man which was not principally characterized by coercion," writes Rees. She guesses that the main reason to compete for a position of sailor's mistress was protection. "Most on board had come from extreme hardship and were, necessarily, selfish and cunning ... Some must have regarded the sailors coldly as a source of extra food, extra drink, extra privileges and some safety from the stealing, cheating and bullying going on at the bottom of the ship." These women weren't, in her eyes, merely victims, but in fact were quite savvy ladder-climbers even if they were starting at the bottom rung.
Besides bedding the sailors and officers, there were ample opportunities for the women on the Lady Julian to use their bodies to their advantage along the way. The Lady Julian made several stops during the trip, in Spain, Portugal and, due to some unfortunate sailing mishaps and a shipboard bout of scurvy and pregnancy, Rio, at which point the prostitutes on board would avidly service the locals and sailors from the other ships at port. In most ports, hookers would row out to the sailors; with the Lady Julian, it was the locals that arrived at the side of the ship. Apparently, seeing the Lady Julian sail into port was an 18th century version of Heidi Fleiss showing up on the Queen Elizabeth with a boatful of hookers in Manolo Blahniks.
When the ship finally sailed into port in Australia, the women were parceled out yet again and married within days. Their grooms were famished, sex-starved and barely-alive colonists who, lacking farming and hunting skills, had been barely clinging to existence while they awaited reinforcements. Many of the women had husbands back in England, had kids in tow, or had given birth to children during the trip. No matter -- a willing female was a willing female for the colonists.
The sailors returned to the ship and the female convicts started yet another series of advantageous sexual relationships as a way to jump-start their lives in Australia. Sarah Whitelam, despite her supposed true romance with Nicol -- who had promised to return for her as soon as he could -- was married the day after he sailed off for Canton.
It's unclear who played the primary role in all these sexual shenanigans, and Rees implies that rather than "blaming prostitution on the prostitutes," perhaps the men of the ship should be fingered. Were the women sexually exploited by the sailors, or was everyone involved simply making rational choices? Were the hookers who sold themselves in the ports savvily earning some petty cash en route to their new homes in Australia -- or was the captain of the Lady Julian serving as a pimp and skimming a profit off the top of these illicit trades? And once the convicts arrived on shore, were the women smart enough to coordinate their own marriages, or was the decision-making all on the part of the men? Who was zooming who?
Unfortunately, we never really find out -- in part because Rees simply has no idea. Because there are no first-hand accounts from the women of the ship, the book is filled with speculation of what they might have thought or done. That is where the "The Floating Brothel" breaks down. Although the book is filled with delightfully colorful details about life in England and on board ships in the late 1780s, it is free of actual narrative specifics about the Lady Julian. Even Nicol's memoirs are vague and inaccurate; for example, although his "wife" gave birth to their son during the voyage, he neglects to offer any details about her pregnancy or childbirth, so Rees is forced to speculate about the pain, the birthing stool, the presence of a midwife.
Though Rees seems to want to turn her book into a kind of feminist discussion of the exploitation of these women, and often returns to the subject of the moral implications of this sex trade, this is the most tenuous part of her research. "The Floating Brothel" is more solid when she provides specific historical details: explaining, for example, that prostitutes used to insert molded bits of wax into their vaginas as a barrier to prevent pregnancy, or providing gory details about the epidemic of smallpox in Sydney, which killed scores of aborigines and left piles of bodies on the beach for the dingos to eat.
Considering how little primary material Rees had, however, she does an admirable job of piecing together the value of sex as a commodity for these impoverished, cutthroat and disadvantaged women. Sex was all they had to offer, and they used it wisely; and for those who survived the trip and matched themselves advantageously once they landed on the Sydney shores, it actually served them well. Of the 237 women shipped off to Australia, only a handful ever returned to England. The rest of the hookers and thieves became the colonial founding mothers of Australia, peopling the country with their legitimate and illegitimate spawn, and destined for a far more glorious history than they might have experienced had they stayed behind.
About the writer
Janelle Brown is a senior writer for Salon Technology
The lust boat
By STEPHANIE BUNBURY
Saturday 17 February 2001
Sian Rees is small, neat and well-spoken, with the sort of unconscious refinement that suggests schooldays spent in gloves. You know immediately that she is steel underneath, but it makes no difference: recast her in 18th-century dress and you would imagine her conscientiously replying to correspondence at a bureau, hair piled, fichu spotless.
But for a long time, however - five years - Rees spent much of her time down in the 18th century among slatterns, tricksters and jobbing whores. During an 18-month stay in Australia, she became interested in the history of transportation; back in England, her interest having mounted into something like obsession, she spent long hours in public records and court records offices, gleaning what she could of the circumstances of the people who found themselves shipped off to the other side of the world.
Rees had studied history at university, but these documents opened up old worlds - and the New World - in a completely different way. "One of the things about reading history at university is that you never get your hands on primary sources," she says.
"Going to the Public Records Office in Kew and to the library where the Old Bailey court records are kept was the first time I'd read original documents.
"I was interested in anything in the file, and some of the petitions coming in describing jail conditions, conditions in lunatic asylums and even in regiments - because a lot of men were able to leave prison in order to go to a regiment, as a condition of being released - is just fascinating."
After a few years of reading, she realised there was a book in it.
The result is The Floating Brothel, a rollicking account of the voyage of the Lady Julian in 1789. The good ship Lady Julian carried only women: 237 of them, almost all of them convicted of such everyday crimes as shoplifting muslin or picking the pocket of a trick, the sorts of things huge numbers of women did to scrape together a living. The authorities had to clear the prisons somehow. They also needed to provide sexual fodder for a colony full of men.
Each of these Marys and Elizabeths has her own story, too, some of which Rees recounts. They are intriguing little vignettes of underclass life. Some of the women on the Lady Julian were career robbers, but others were simply parlormaids down on their luck. Domestic work was both unstable and poorly paid; anyone out of work for a while had to find something else to tide them over.
"They could lose their jobs like that," Rees says, clicking two slender fingers. "They could generally find a job like that too, but if they were out of work even for a few weeks, they would probably during those weeks have to turn a few tricks, steal a pair of shoes, whatever. That didn't preclude them from going back and being a respectable maidservant in a mobcap and a pinny at the end of four weeks."
Goodness knows what they thought life in Sydney Cove would be like. They left no diaries of correspondence to tell us. The likelihood is that for these women born and bred in a few streets near the Thames or the middle of Leicester or Bristol, Australia might as well have been over the edge of a flat earth, but Sian Rees joins the dots with a historian's caution.
"I think for me to try to get into the mind of an 18th-century prostitute would be like trying to get into the mind of an Aborigine," she says. "There's always a danger you're going to impose things you don't even recognise in yourself as being learned. You can't say well, a woman or an Englishwoman or a 35-year-old would react in this way, because I know I would." Did they dream of romance? Did they resent the men they were sent to service? Did they love the children of those unions? We can't make assumptions about any of those things.
Their physical condition is also strange to us. "It just isn't possible to imagine what it's like to be permanently hungry, and I can't imagine what it's like to be dirty, either," says Rees. "The feeling of having lice, or of wearing the one set of clothes impregnated with blood and dirt and vermin - these are unquantifiable things." She does not let us forget them, though. The image of 237 women bleeding, sweating, scratching and excreting below decks almost sends a smell off the page.
But we will never comprehend the moral universe of the permanently hungry. We think of 18th-century London as a liberal centre of coffee-house debate, salons and social reforms, but the Enlightenment of Diderot and Rousseau was gloriously irrelevant to the 85 per cent of the population who owned nothing.
"There was a huge divide," says Rees, "between the magistrates and the judges and the people they were trying, who owned nothing apart from what they had on their backs or the coins in their pockets. I think they had very, very few scruples about nicking something from someone better off, or from someone worse off for that matter. They lived on their wits and did what they could to survive."
Sex, too, was a practical matter. It was a recognised right of sailors to choose a "wife" for the duration of the voyage, some 11 months at sea. The ship was run benevolently; nobody was forced. The women were keen to sleep in the cabins rather than below decks with the stink of 200 unwashed bodies in bloodstained clothes.
And perhaps they grew fond of their chosen companions. The ship's steward, John Nicol, whose record of the voyage is one of Rees' chief sources, was clearly besotted with 17-year-old thief Sarah Whitelam. He begged to be allowed to stay in the colony with her and her new-born son, swearing to return when he was directed back to the ship. Sarah's situation, however, allowed no latitude for sentiment. The day he left, she married someone else.
Nicol's was one of many seafaring memoirs; the slender chattering class thrilled to accounts of voyages and of scientific discovery. Merchant seamen were among the very few people who could expect to see foreign places and, if they lived long enough to dictate a few yarns, they had an assured pension.
"Someone who goes off whaling and sealing and fights the Americans and then goes to the South Seas is bound to have a few good tales to tell," says Rees. "Nicol said he came to London as a boy and saw a dead monkey floating down the Thames; that was what sparked his interest in exotic parts, the prospect of seeing these exotic beasts."
Rees grew up around boats, in Plymouth, and writes with salty feeling about shipboard life. Her account of the Lady Julian's arrival in the Canary Islands gives a sense of the possibility of adventure, even if it was not of their choosing; here in this island outpost of Europe the women were allowed to roam freely, drinking wine and hearing the babble of a foreign language for the first time. It is certainly a world away from the endless timeshare apartments on Tenerife now.
These women were, she thinks, relatively fortunate. "They were not brutalised on board ship, contrary to the idea one usually gets," she says, "and when they arrived in Sydney Cove they had a degree of choice in their future, in their choice of husband and where they were going to settle and what they were going to do." Some of them fared far better in Australia than they would have at home, building up large businesses on their own initiative. "Obviously it was a lot harder in London to go from being a common prostitute in 1789 to a successful businesswoman in 1820 than it was in Sydney Cove."
Rees' own business has come as a surprise to her, come to that. "The fact I have a career at all," she says, "is a complete shock to me. I never expected to have one. I don't think I thought I'd write a book, no more than I thought that one day I would be a pop star."
She had spent years travelling, ran a language school in Italy for seven years and then used her savings from that time to travel again, this time to Australia. For a while she lived opposite the racetrack in Caulfield - "everything trembled in my kitchen when the horses went round" - and liked Melbourne so much that she made plans to emigrate. Much of her research for The Floating Brothel was done when she was waiting for the interminable paperwork to go through.
In the end, she decided she quite liked England and stayed. But, as it turned out, so did the convicts. And when she found herself in a conventional job that was desperately dreadful (it involved a school and, almost certainly, wearing gloves; to say more would be to sneak) she put together a book proposal.
The truth is that Sian Rees would probably detest any job that stopped her from travelling, and now, fortunately, she has found one that doesn't. Her next book is about an Irish adventuress who travelled around Paraguay in the 19th century. Of course, she has to follow her footsteps. "It's a fantastic country. I was there for a month last year and didn't meet a single backpacker. And because of that it's very inconvenient; there are no ways to get from this historic site to that cultural monument, because nobody knows about the cultural monuments." She smiles brightly. "I really recommend it!"
There we are: I thought she was a woman of steel. One cannot make these assumptions, but I think if she had had the misfortune to find herself on the Lady Julian she would, somehow, have thrived.
Book review: The Floating Brothel
Published Apr 10, 2002
Sian Rees' wonderfully told history of an 18th-century sea voyage begins far from the water, in London's dingy lodging houses and crowded courtrooms. Pity any young woman of the late 1780s desperate enough in her poverty to shoplift a yard of cloth. Shoplifting, like a long list of other offenses born of poverty, was a capital crime, and the jails were packed.
Authorities looked to England's colonies to relieve the crowding. Colonies were dumping grounds and relief valves for the problem of unemployment and other social ills. If a colonist happened not to starve, be killed by natives or felled by disease, he might make a fortune. Better, though, to invest as a resident of the mother country and let the less fortunate risk the dangers of settling across an ocean.
Rees' heroines are the female pickpockets, shoplifters and prostitutes sentenced by the courts to "Transportation to Parts Beyond the Sea." Their destination was the new, terrifyingly distant convict labor camp called Sydney Cove. It was in the land to become known as Australia.
The garrison town was barely a year old when jailers began carting female convicts from Newgate prison to the Lady Julian, moored in the Thames. Word had not yet reached England about the fate of the first fleet of convict colonists. It hardly mattered to the courts. What mattered was that the women were fertile. They were being sent to England's most distant colony to breed.
"The Floating Brothel" is a surprisingly poignant account of their lives in three distinct worlds: Georgian England, aboard the crowded ship and in dismal Sidney Cove. About 225 women -- the exact number is unknown -- boarded the Lady Julian in 1789. John Nicol, the steward, used a hammer and anvil to free them of their manacles. And quickly took one of the convicts, young Sarah Whitelam, convicted of petty theft, as his mistress. Every other officer and seaman aboard had the same "right" of companionship.
The only known eyewitness account of the voyage, says Rees, is the memoir Nicol dictated more than 30 years after the events he described.
On the voyage to Australia, the Lady Julian docked at the Canary Islands, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. At every port, the ship served as a brothel for sailors from other ships.
An act of pity
Nicol might have functioned as a pimp for visiting officers. Judging everyone aboard by the morality of the time, Rees condemns no one. The commerce of sex gave the women their one chance to earn money they would need if they reached Sydney Cove. Allowing prostitution, she says of the officers, "was an act of pity as much as of negligence."
Elizabeth Barnsely had shoplifted cloth from the best Bond Street shops and maintained her superior airs aboard ship, as a sort of captain among her fellow convicts. Whitelam, one of at least six prisoners to give birth during the voyage, gave Nicol a son. But for lack of records, few of the women emerge as distinct figures.
The best rendered character is the sea, whether the Lady Julian is becalmed in the equatorial doldrums surrounded by a stinking lake of its own effluent or suffering through a Southern Ocean gale.
Rees is at her best exploring the unsettled relations between women and men. The women seemed to have few prospects. Ahead, somewhere in the ocean, lay Sydney Cove, she writes, "a collection of dirty huts around a ragged waterline where people were dying from hunger and disease." The colonists there wanted barrels of food rather than a cargo of women and infants needing to be fed. The convicts aboard the floating brothel were about to enter and help create a new world.
Sex and speculation on
the high seas
History of women bound for the Australian penal colony founders on questionable assertions
Sunday, March 3, 2002
The Floating Brothel
The Extraordinary True Story
of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts
By Sian Rees
THEIA/HYPERION; 288 PAGES; $23.95
Alternately fascinating and frustrating, "The Floating Brothel" is a book that struggles mightily to do justice to its story. Undaunted by spotty historical records and unreliable after-the-fact memoirs, author Rees goes to great lengths to recount the 1789 voyage of the prison ship Lady Julian, which delivered more than 200 female convicts to the barely begun colony at Sydney harbor, thus providing a vital influx of women now honored as some of Australia's founding matriarchs.
Unfortunately, the patchwork approach has its price: Many well-meaning attempts to fill in the gaps leave the reader unsatisfied, if not misinformed.
The lives and misfortunes of the female prisoners are vividly drawn, thanks to meticulous attention to prosecution records and real insight into down-and- out Londoners of the day.
Rees is particularly good at depicting the gray area between the lower class and the criminal class, where a competent maid might be summarily dismissed whenever her employers opted to travel, leading her to prostitution or shoplifting in the interim. Many of the crimes described clearly ring of desperation: Elizabeth Gosling was convicted of pawning the bedding from her rented bed. A one-way "Transportation to Parts Beyond the Seas" might have been seen as a lucky break, given that even such a seemingly minor infraction could carry the death penalty.
It's when the women are ushered on board the Lady Julian that the book's problems begin. Where the historical record starts to wear thin Rees speculates freely, sometimes laying a groundwork for her conclusions but often simply venturing into the realm of imagination. Sexual favors quickly become a currency among the prisoners and the crewmen, and when these escalate into outright prostitution Rees makes the unsupported assertion that it "was by agreement and negotiation, not by male coercion, that some women sold sex."
Since only a few of the women became pregnant during the voyage, she concludes that "it seems some method of prevention was being used." Reasonable enough. But this is paired with the suggestion that they "may even have known of the custom of the Marquesas Islands, where group sex was common." One gets a sense of Rees shoehorning in this little nugget of sexual anthropology, relevance be damned.
Another awkward passage comes when she ascribes a musing on nomenclature to no one in particular, or perhaps to fetuses: "Would they be English? British? New South Welsh? New Hollanders? Antipodeans? Fundamental questions hovered over the extended bellies on board the Lady Julian from which six lost little ship-born creoles would shortly emerge."
Yet the strain of overreaching prose takes a backseat to concerns about the facts presented: Some contradict, some seem grounded in arguable logic and others seem flat-out wrong. On one page the crime of 18-year-old Sarah Whitelam is given as the theft of "an enormous haul" of cloth goods, inventoried in painstaking detail; on another we're told an entirely different tory, involving a single item of clothing borrowed from a friend without permission. Rees neither notes the contradiction nor presents one tale more authoritatively than the other.
And then there's the dubious technique of fact substitution. The physical specifications of the Lady Julian are lost, so Rees makes do with the dimensions of the Scarborough, a ship in the same weight class. She describes a Hobbit-like height between decks of only 4 feet 5 inches, which seems ignorant of other, authoritative data that gives a headroom measurement of at least 5 feet 11. This isn't a bit of trivia; it speaks directly to the quality of life experienced by the prisoners. But it's pointless to argue numbers when it's the logic that's faulty -- no matter how high the decks of the Scarborough, it's simply not valid to transfer that ship's interior layout to the Lady Julian simply because their weights were similar.
Even more inexplicable is Rees' insistence on referring to the ship in question as the Lady Julian when it is almost universally documented as the Lady Juliana. Leaving off the final "a" would seem to call for at least a sentence or two of explanation, given that this vessel plays a prominent role in Australian history and in the genealogies of countless families.
Rees warrants some credit for trying so hard to cobble together a narrative,
and some slack for being a first-time author with no formal historical background. But ultimately the credibility of "The Floating Brothel" is capsized by the preponderance of idiosyncrasies and unfettered speculation. The ladies of the Lady Julian(a), fascinating as they are, await a deeper, more disciplined chronicle.
Jason Roberts has written for the Village Voice, Salon and other publications.
Aug. 2, 2002, 3:37PM
By DAVID MAZELLA
THE FLOATING BROTHEL: The
Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female
By Siān Rees.
Hyperion, $23.95; 236 pp.
To TRANSPORT: To convey by carriage from place to place. To carry into banishment, as a felon. To sentence as a felon to banishment. To hurry by violence of passion. To put into extasy; to ravish with pleasure.
Dr. Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
YOU will not be shocked to learn that Siān Rees' Floating Brothel is about sex in the late 18th century. As with other books about sex, however, the most salacious, sensationalistic topics have the power to lead us to other interesting questions.
In this instance Rees' book is equally concerned with the poverty and economic insecurity that drove poor, working-class and even middle-class English women into the sex trade. The book is also about the empire that literally reproduced itself by transporting England's "disorderly girls" to a failing penal colony then called Sydney Cove, now modern Sydney, Australia, in the 1780s.
Rees points out that in 1788 the Sydney Cove colony was in real danger of economic collapse because of its overwhelmingly male, mostly convict population, which would not stay and settle without the mitigating presence of women. The colony's only hope of becoming more profitable was a shipment of women of the appropriate age.
Thus, the sex on view here is not the bawdiness of a bygone age but a hard-nosed regulation of female sexuality, a regulation designed to manage unruly populations at home and abroad.
By 1788, and at the opposite end of the empire, the sheer number of criminals prosecuted for petty offenses in London had caused a crisis of overpopulation in the city's prisons and lockups. Within such a ramshackle arrangement of fetid jails and rotting prison barges, and with far more criminals and capital offenses than there were facilities for processing them, transporting criminals overseas was the only way authorities could reduce their surplus numbers.
Rees also reminds us that this period's judges and juries were reluctant to hang female offenders for capital offenses like "shop-lifting, sheep-stealing, or stealing on board a ship or barge," a reluctance that made transportation the only available penalty for felonies less serious than murder.
Rees' witty and accessible book follows the history of a single transport ship, the Lady Julian, from the sentencing of its passengers to their yearlong progress across the ocean to Sydney Cove.
Accordingly, she begins with a description of London crime and uses the Lady Julian's passenger list to show how women of vastly different backgrounds and characters could get caught in the nets of the law and sent indiscriminately to "Parts beyond the Sea."
Rees gives us some superb anecdotes of plebeian life via court records: We find female lodgers stripping their apartments of linen and plate, only to be caught and prosecuted by their enraged landladies; we also hear of maidservants accused of pilfering their masters' belongings, and their protests in turn about being prosecuted for refusing unwanted sexual attentions; we repeatedly learn of seduced and fallen women of every class whose situation left them with the options of stealing, prostituting themselves or starving.
In Rees' telling, the women taken on the Lady Julian seem a random lot, ranging from roguish to naive, and seem to have nothing in common besides the bad luck that puts them into the hands of the law.
All these "disorderly girls" (ranging in age from 14 to 63) were led in chains to the Lady Julian and treated as human cargo, and Rees is particularly good on the ways the ship's architecture and living arrangements mirrored the social and sexual hierarchies of that era.
Officers and men lived on the quarterdeck and forecastle, respectively, while the female convicts were housed on the lowermost deck, called the orlop, in partitioned areas along with the ship's stores. The women slept on wooden shelves, four to six on a shelf, with a wooden rail at one end for a pillow.
For some women, however, these arrangements changed the moment the ship set sail. As the ship's steward, John Nicol, later recalled, "As soon as they were at sea, every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they [the `wives') nothing loath."
This statement points up one of the most interesting historical problems about events on board the Lady Julian: Just how coercive were the relations between the sexes on this prison ship? Answering such a question is difficult because Rees' sources are written almost exclusively from the point of view of the men involved with the voyage, the only firsthand account being Nicol's memoir written 30 years after the fact.
Rees tries hard to supply the missing perspectives of the female convicts, but she can only speculate on the basis of indirect evidence. On the question of the forced concubinage of the passengers, Rees takes the position that for women who had just faced hanging or starvation on the streets of London, the relative security and protection of being a sailor's "mate" would make such a state desirable, at least for the duration of the trip.
Whether the atmosphere was more like a prison camp or the Love Boat, we do know that sailors and convicts cohabited, as was customary for such ships, and that about 12 of the 200 or so women became pregnant during the voyage, though these alliances were neither more nor less permanent than other relations contracted by these women during their lifetimes.
Many of the ambiguities of the ship's voyage and the relations of convicts to sailors can be found in the sentimental history offered by Nicol of his shipboard "wife," Sara Whitelam. Their courtship began, at least in his mind, when she was first delivered to the ship. She held out her hands to have her manacles removed, and Nicol found himself irrevocably in love: "I first fixed my fancy upon her the moment I knocked the rivet from her irons upon my anvil."
She was 18 years old and, even after a 36-hour coach ride chained to her fellow convicts, was a pretty and innocent-looking girl, though Rees is less certain of her innocence than Nicol had been. Once aboard the ship, she quickly became pregnant by Nicol, gave birth to his son, John Nicol Jr., and planned to stay with him after their arrival at Sydney Cove.
Things did not work out, however. Nicol was not allowed to stay and live with his "bride" but was forced to re-embark with the Lady Julian on its return trip to England. The day after Nicol set sail, Sara Whitelam married another colonist, John Coen Walsh.
While Nicol struggled for years to return to New South Wales, Sara was becoming an increasingly prosperous member of the colony with Walsh. Eventually Nicol learned that she had sailed away with her husband and three sons (perhaps including John Nicol Jr.) to Calcutta, where she disappeared from the historical record altogether.
Nicol spent the dreary remainder of his life as a merchant seaman, always thinking of Sara and never able to find her. He eventually wrote the memoir of his time with her, though he knew he was no longer in a condition to find her and she might be dead or indifferent to him.
Nonetheless, their time apart had not altered his feelings: "Old as I am, my heart is still unchanged," he wrote. There is no corresponding record of her feelings toward Nicol. For one thing, she apparently never learned to write: Her marriage documents with Walsh were signed with a cross.
Rees' work of popular history encompasses both meanings of "transport" given in Johnson's dictionary definition: the forced migration, or "banishment" of felons like Sara Whitelam, as well as the "extasies" and agonies of men like John Nicol. She has given us a bracing, unsentimental view of the relations between the sexes in this period, as well as a fascinating chapter in the expansion of the British Empire.
David Mazella teaches 18th-century British literature at the University of Houston and has just completed a history of the concept of cynicism.
Charms ahoy aboard 'Brothel'
By John C. Ensslin, News
March 29, 2002
Stories often reside more in the journey than the destination. Think of Apollo 13, Shackleton's Endurance, the Lewis & Clark expedition. The struggle it took to complete those missions lingers in the memory far longer than the landing.
The same can be said of the voyage of the Lady Julian, a British sailing ship that, in 1789, carried a group of female convicts -- mostly prostitutes and petty thieves -- to help populate the fledgling colony at New South Wales.
In The Floating Brothel, author Sian Rees does a good job of describing that journey, although she does drift a bit once the voyage gets under way.
The book is as much a work of sociology as it is a nautical tale. Rees demonstrates how a British tax on maidservants helped push women on the fringe of the working class into a life of petty crime.
This is the strongest section of the book as Rees weaves old court records together to tell how the women -- estimated at between 174 to 245 -- were culled from overcrowded prisons.
She also provides an entertaining account of how crew members were able to choose their "mates" for the voyage.
The sailors assumed this bit of sexual piracy was their full right as Her Majesty's seamen. Their officers condoned the practice.
The historical record provides no clues as to whether these relationships involved an exchange of money or whether coercion was involved. But as Rees notes, some of the women not only accepted the role of mistress, but competed for it.
"Some sailors may have remained faithful to the first mates they chose from among the women, others not," she wrote. "Probably there was a short period of chopping and changing before 30 or so women settled into coupledom and the rest remained cloistered on the orlop."
Some of these women bore children long before the ship reached the South Pacific. One gets the feeling monogamous sex held the ship together as much as wooden planks and canvas sails.
Rees writes with a strong sense of what life aboard the Lady Julian must have been like. Listen to this passage about the ship pulling into a port early in the journey.
"An 11-gun salute from the Castillo de San Juan woke the babies. There was a terrific flap and slither of canvas and a scream of hemp as the mainsails came down to reduce the ship's speed through the water. Water breaking against the hull gentled as she slid into the more sheltered waters, then a sharp turn through 90 degrees as the ship brought her bow up into the wind threw them into a heap."
Clearly, Rees knows her ships. If only she knew the women as well.
By the time the Lady Julian crosses the equator, the ship experiences a dead calm called "the doldrums." The book experiences a similar narrative lull.
Once the ship is at sea (and away from record-keeping institutions such as the jails and courts), there is not much for Rees to go on, except her keen sense of what ship life was like. Thus the journey becomes less interesting and the women, less vivid as individuals. In the end, we know more about their destination than their experiences getting there.
Rees does have one last card to play; a bittersweet love story between ship steward John Nichol and Sarah Whitelaw, his convict wife. But this tale is limited to a memoir that Nichol dictated 33 years after the voyage. As such, it hardly serves as the central narrative.
Still, as a work of history, The Floating Brothel has its charms. As a tale of adventure and romance, it comes up a few planks short.
John C. Ensslin is a staff writer at the Rocky Mountain News.
Sydney, Australia: the gleam of the Opera House, the line of the Harbour Bridge, the glitter of sun on sea on glass, the blue of the water, the brown of surfers' skin. It is a city built in one of the world's most beautiful locations - sophisticated, wealthy, and confident. But just over two hundred years ago, Sydney was a collection of dirty huts around a ragged waterline where people were dying from hunger and disease. They had been sent from Britain, 13,000 miles away, to establish the first European settlement on the continent which would become known as Australia.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many European states used transportation to overseas colonies as a means of ridding the home country of ciminals and, at the same time, consolidating their hold on foreign land, cultivating it, defending it and settling it. For decades, the British off-loaded undesirables in America but when the American colonies defeated British soldiers and tax collectors, they also stopped accepting british criminals. By 1783, therefore, Britain had to find somewhere else in the world to transport its criminals. After a few unsuccessful attempts in Africa, the British government decided on New South Wales, Australia, and an advance party of just over a thousand people was sent out in 1787. Eight months after leaving Britain, they landed in a small bay on the other side of the world and named it Sydney Cover. The vast majority of the men and women on this First Fleet were British convicts, sentenced to transportation for seven years, fourteen years and, in some cases, the term of their natural lives.
Two years later, the colonists were in a dire situation. They had been expecting relief from Britain - ships bringing more people, more food, more tools, and more materials - but none arrived. Crops would not grow. Disease swept the camp. The colonial experiment named Sydney Cove seemed destined to fail and its people to die, forgotten. Then, in June 1790, a Second Fleet of four ships from England arrived and saved the colony. One of them was the Lady Julian, which brought a cargo of fertile female convicts to populate Sydney Cove.
The convicts aboard the Lady Julian were ordinary women who, by a caprice of fate, found themselves in extraordinary circumstances: rounded up on the streets of Britain, shipped across the world and landed at a dirt camp in an alien continent. They had been sent into exile to a New World which some regarded as a terrifying unknown but others saw as an escape from a wretchedness inescapable in their own country. Some of the women who arrived as frightened teenage criminals would become the founding mothers of Australia, settling in respectability and prosperity. Others would be lost along the way, recreating in the New World the misery they had left in the Old.
This is the story of their journey from the Old World to the New: the quirks of fate in Britain which decided their exile, their long voyage across the world aboard the Lady Julian and their reception in the struggling settlement on the other side.
Chapter 1: Disorderly Girls
Winter 1788, London. At the bottom of the Mall, outside the royal stables, a 26-year-old Scots prostitute staked out her space and began the night's work.
Matilda Johnson already knew William McPherson by sight as a fellow Scot. As he passed through the mews on his way from Westminster to Oxford Street, he said she stopped him, "pressed me close against the wall and asked me what I would give her." Wise to the ways of prostitutes, McPherson felt for his watch to move it into his waistcoat pocket but it was already up her sleeve. He remonstrated; Matilda flirted and would not give it back. First, she wanted a gin in Orange Street. Next, she wanted a plate of salmon around the corner. He refused, refused again, told her nicely he was not interested that night and wanted his watch. Matilda was confident or drunk enough to assume he would bargain it back and disappeared into a pawnshop in St. Martin's Lane where she announced her countryman would pawn his watch to buy her a petticoat. McPherson was now late and exasperated and asked Pawnbroker Crouch to search her. Realizing he meant it, Matilda finally produced the watch from beneath her petticoats.
It was the pawnbroker who insisted on calling in the constable, hoping for part of the reward. McPherson said afterward that Matilda, now crying, "begged me to take the watch, and I wished to have taken it." By now defender rather than prosecutor, he even accompanied Matilda and the constable to the watchhouse and there "begged the clerk and the constable to discharge her." They refused. Still pleading with McPherson to rescue her, Matilda was shackled, hoisted onto a cart and within hours was in Newgate Gaol as "prisoner for law," awaiting trial at the Old Bailey.
A few days later, Charlotte Marsh and her mother Ann Clapton were out shoplifting among the linendrapers of Holborn. They entered Edward Bowerbank's drapery on Newgate Street as the afternoon light was fading and went through to the back shop. They asked the assistant to show them some aprons and launched into the four-step sequence of eighteenth-century shoplifting. Step one was to "rumble the muslins" on the counter. Step two was to divert the shopman by sending him off for scissors or change. Step three was to stuff a piece of cloth up your skirt and step four, to leave the premises unhurriedly and without ungainly lumps. Every shoplifter did it and every linendraper was watching out for it. Skillfully packaged, up to 60 yards of material could disappear beneath a woman's petticoats...