Updated: Apr 8
by Kristina Baker Cline
Until this last year, I’d heard about the penal colony in Australia where convicted male felons were shipped from Britain to Tasmania. References to the dregs of humanity and crime begetting crime on an isolated island floated at the edge of my memory, but the references were vague hearsay on the edges of my memory.
Then I found out that Britain shipped convicted women to Tasmania, too, only back then, Tasmania was called “Van Dieman’s Land,” and many of the women weren’t hardened criminals. They were often impoverished, uneducated women who did what they had to do to survive.
The convict women shipped from Great Britain to Van Dieman’s Land in the 1840s is the subject of Christina Baker Kline’s, 2020 historical novel, The Exiles.
Kudos to Kline. She doesn’t focus solely on the white European women sent from Ireland and England to work off their crimes in Van Dieman’s Land. She goes deeper into the cultural “conquest,” illustrating how European infiltration of Tasmania affected the aboriginal people. Kline skillfully intertwines the story of Mathinna, a young aboriginal girl, with the stories of three convict women sentenced to transport for their crimes.
Historical background of convicts in America
In 1717, Great Britain passed “The Transportation Act.” This law legitimized transporting convicted criminals and requiring them to work as laborers as penance for their crimes. Capital offenses received a transportation sentence to the United States where the convicted person would be required to do manual labor for fourteen years. Lesser crimes were sentenced to transportation and seven years of work.
By 1775, more than 50,000 prisoners had been involuntarily transported to the American colonies “across the pond.” After winning independence in 1776, however, the United States refused to accept any convicts.
Great Britain stopped shipping their convicts to other places for a while. Instead, they put their prisoners on old ships anchored along the coast. That was a terrible solution. The ships, crowded with too many people in a close space without sanitation soon became hot spots of contagion. Disease flourished, and more than one-third of the prisoners died on board.
Convicts come to Australia
Originally, the British government had planned to make Van Dieman’s Land a refuge for the colonists still loyal to Britain after America gained its independence. Finding a place for the growing number of convicted criminals was more important, though. In 1785, after ruling out the Caribbean and South Africa as appropriate locales for the establishment of convict colonies, Van Dieman’s Land was selected to be the new penal colony.
Over a period of eighty years, from 1788–1868, more than 162,000 convicts were sent to Van Dieman’s Land. Twenty percent of those were female. To this date, with a population of almost five million people, more than 20% of Australians are direct descendants of British convicts.
The fate of the Aboriginal people
What happens when a powerful nation sends thousands upon thousands of its people to a sparsely populated island of native aboriginal people?
The lives and history of the aborigines are forever altered by the influx of Europeans.
That’s why Kristina Baker Kline weaves in the factual story of Mathinna, an orphaned aboriginal girl taken in by Governor Franklin and his wife and then abandoned when she didn’t completely assimilate into white culture. It’s a heartbreakingly sad story of one culture coming in, disdainful, uninformed, and ethnocentric, completely incapable of accepting another culture as it exists.
The main characters
The Exiles focuses on three convict women, all with varying degrees of minor crimes. Evangeline is a country vicar’s educated daughter, orphaned without wealth or prospects when her father dies. Forced into taking a job as a governess. Young and naive, she falls victim to the rich son’s intentions. Pregnant and abandoned, her fate only worsens when an unexpected accident occurs and she is accused of murder.
Hazel is a poor girl who learned midwifery from her promiscuous, unprincipled mother who left her alone and forced her to steal to eat. Olive is a boisterous, loud, experienced prostitute with a realistic approach to life and a devil-may-care attitude. In the close confines of the transport ship, the three women are bonded by horrific experiences and their common desire to survive.
The perfect pairing
It seems a strange occurrence in the publishing world, that books on a certain topic often come out close together. (Another article for another day.)
The Exiles was released in 2020. Dangerous Women by Hope Adams was released in 2021. Both books deal with the transportation of female convicts to Van Dieman’s Land but have different approaches. The Exiles focuses more on the cultural implications and the lives of the women after they arrive in Van Dieman’s Land. Dangerous Women is also based on real-life events, but it centers on a murder that occurred on board the transport ship. Both books are well researched, well written, and well worth the read.
These two novels are perfect companion pieces providing a glimpse into an episode of history that is painful, but true.
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