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Sex on Convict Ships

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I have been working on the series English Historical Documents for a forthcoming digital project. These 14 volumes collect key primary sources for the history of England, Scotland and Wales between 500 and 1957. There are lots of interesting documents to be found here, and over the next few months I’ll be blogging about a few that have caught my eye.

For example, in 1812 Lord Auckland wrote to Viscount Sidmouth (the former Prime Minister, better known as Henry Addington):

Having this year been Chairman of the Committee of Transportation, and having in consequence my attention much called to the subject, I yesterday visited a brig now lying in the river and prepared for the conveyance of female convicts to Botany Bay. In answer to a question put by me as to the means of preventing improper intercourse between the sailors and the women, I was told by the master that every sailor was allowed to have one women to cohabit with during the voyage, but that having once made his choice he was not allowed afterwards to change.

[Volume XI, document 320]

It hadn’t occurred to me that there might have been separate ships for male and female convicts, as was clearly the case here, and so I thought I’d investigate a bit.

I turned to the Bibliography of British and Irish History and searched for the index terms “sexual mores” AND “transportation”. This gives nine results, of which the most directly relevant seemed to be Joy Damousi’s article, ‘Chaos and order: Gender, space and sexuality on female convict ships’, in Australian Historical Studies in April 1995 (Vol. 26 Issue 104). Some readers may have institutional access to the article.

Damousi tells us that “it was only after 1811 that the segregation of male and female convicts became the norm”, so Auckland was writing at a time of change. Indeed a big change occurred in 1817, when women “were more rigidly supervised and endured a more structured daily routine than during the pre-1816 phase of transportation”, although “liaisons between crew and female convicts reamined an ongoing source of anxiety”. Does anyone know if Lord Auckland was involved in these reforms?

Joy Damousi’s article is full of detail of the lives of women on convict ships, but it doesn’t address a topic I’d like to know more about: what happened to the relationships between the women, some of them pregnant, and the sailors, when a convict ship reached its destination?

Comments

  1. Tim Hitchcock

    The best original source for this stuff is Tim Flannery, ed., _The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner_. This is a great read, and a fun contemporary memoir that includes the journey of the Lady Juliana; which then formed the basis of Sean Rees’s _The floating brothel : the extraordinary true story of an eighteenth-century ship and its cargo of female convicts_. This has some good material and is engagely written for a wider audience. I have yet to see a really powerful gendered analysis of the whole phenomenon, but it deserves one.

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