What did it mean to be a woman and a convict on board a transport ship sailing to Australia? I’m going to look at how it was for my 3x great grandmother, Sarah Marshall, farm servant, thief, wife and mother, reputed ghost.
In my previous post about Sarah’s arrival in New South Wales in 1818, I mentioned that she had a terrible voyage. In fact, the ship she was transported on, the Friendship II, was notorious because of the behaviour of its convicts, its crew and both senior officials – the Master, Andrew Armett, and Peter Cosgreave, the Surgeon-Superintendent.
The Surgeon-Superintendant was a naval officer whose job was to oversee the welfare of convicts on board ship. It was a recently-created post and partly existed to try to cut down the loss of a ship’s ‘cargo‘ – in other words, to stop convicts dying during the long sea journey to New South Wales. On the Friendship, the human cargo was female.
Peter Cosgreave, unfortunately, cared more about the women’s morals than their physical health. During the voyage, he compiled a list of ‘Names of Convicts with their Characters during the voyage from London’ for the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie. Every woman was decribed in a terse line or two. Here’s his entry about Sarah.
I’ll just enlarge Cosgreave’s description of her so you can see it properly.
It reads: Sarah Marshall Prostitute (not Insolent or bad disposed) Industrious
Well, I’m very glad that great-great-great-granny wasn’t insolent or bad disposed, but a prostitute? She was a thief, certainly, and that’s why she was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. But prostitution wasn’t a transportable offence. So what’s going on?
The story I uncovered is one of cruelty, exploitation and hypocrisy.
The Friendship carried a few passengers who were heading to Australia – or beyond – but by far the largest group on board was the 101 convict women. The officers and crew, of course, were men, and with the six months or so they’d spend cooped up with the women it was inevitable that they’d try their luck, whether they looked for a sweetheart or a quickie in a dark corner.
Some of the crew would have seen this as a perk of the job. And it’s possible that some of the women would have spent time as sex workers before they were imprisoned, since their bodies were the only commodities they’d have had to trade with.
The office of the Colonial Secretary (the government minister responsible for administering Britain’s colonies) knew that this was likely to happen on ships transporting women convicts. The captain and surgeon-superintendent were expecteded to discourage it.
But the Friendship became infamous because Cosgreave and Armett’s efforts at discouragement were half-hearted. Official records suggest that they were the only ship’s employees who didn’t enjoy ‘a Very Indecent and licentious Intercourse’ with convict women, and when, early in the voyage, they tried to stop the other officers and crew from meeting the women, the reaction made them fear a mutiny.
In Cosgreave’s words, ‘Ocular demonstration being Considered indespensably necessary for Conviction’ (of ‘prostitution’), he and Captain Armett decided to just… not notice it. Armett even told the officers: ‘Do not let me see it.’
Unfortunately for Cosgreave and Armett, a passenger complained about the – apparently authorised – sexual activity, and an enquiry was called. The Friendship and its senior officers, with their despairing attitude of ‘if I don’t see it it’s not happening’, became notorious.
It could have been worse for Sarah. Cosgreave gave other women even less flattering reports, like ‘A Thief, Prostitute & blasphemous wretch’, ‘Prostitute, Filthy & Lazy’ and one, Jane Brown, ‘A Most Insolent & mutinous Prostitute’.
I’ll come back to Jane later, when I look at how Armett and Cosgreave – unable to stop their officers and crew from disobeying orders – took revenge on the convict women.
Book extracts: Historical Records of Australia: Governors’ Despatches (Public domain)
Cosgreave’s list: from Colonial Secretary’s papers, via Ancestry
Earl Bathurst: via Wikimedia
Ostriches: by Fwaaldijk via Wikimedia