Australia had proved a valuable dumping ground for England’s overflow of convicts. In 1778, the First Fleet had launched under the command of Governor Phillip, transporting 1480 people to the Australian continent. Approximately 759 of these “First Fleeters” were convicts, including 586 males, 192 females, and 13 children. The remainder of the fleet was made up of seamen, marines, officials, and merchants.
Despite being provided with livestock and seed, the new colony struggled from the word go. Disease took its toll and food supplies dwindled. The convicts were poor farmers with little to no experience, so most crops failed and much of the livestock died off. Morale was low, the colonists were distraught, and many vented their anger on the local Aborigines.
The British Home Under-Secretary Even Nepean concluded that a colony could not be built on a population of mostly men. He decided that for the colony to succeed, it would need more than provisions – it would also need the stability of women, children and family living.
This was accomplished by rounding up a shipment of female convicts to be sent off to Australia. At first, the British government had a difficult time finding sufficient women, so they quickly resorted to imposing much harsher punishments on women convicted of crimes. While only the most hardened male offenders were sentenced to the Colonies, women could be sent for even fairly minor crimes, provided they were under 45 years of age and in good health.
Thus, the Second Fleet set out for Sydney, the first ship being the Lady Juliana, carrying 225 female prostitutes, thieves and con artists. The Lady Juliana set sail from England in July 1789, and charted a leisurely course through the Canary Islands, on to Cape Verde, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town before finally arriving at Sydney Cove. Though the Lady Juliana left England months before the rest of the fleet, its voyage lasted ten months, and the ship only arrived a few weeks before the rest of the fleet.
The Lady Juliana became something of a “floating brothel,” with both the crew and the ladies profiting from a bustling sex trade at each port of call. The women sold themselves for money or alcohol to the sailors from their own ship, as well as to men from other ships as they met at the various ports. This resulted in several women giving birth on the ship, and others soon after arriving in Australia. Some women chose instead to become “wives” of the crew members, as attaching themselves to one man would often provide them with better accommodations and rations.
When the women finally arrived, they didn’t receive quite the warm welcome they might have expected. Instead of a ship full of supplies, the colony received over 200 “damned whores” – and the colonists made their disappointment clear to the new arrivals. Fortunately, the supply ships arrived in Sydney Cove just three weeks later.
Unfortunately, the women were largely unable to escape enforced whoredom. For the first twenty years or so, all convict women were considered whores. While some certainly were depraved, others formed attachments with single men, and even marrying in some cases. The stereotype was strong though, as seen in sentiments voiced by magistrate Thomas McQueen who described the women as “the most disgusting objects that ever graced the female form.”
Nonetheless, these women became the founding mothers of Australia. Many rose above their humble beginnings and went on to achieve great things. Ann Marsh, for example, founded the Parramatta River Boat Service which is still in use today. Mary Wade became Australia’s greatest matriarch, leaving a legacy of more than 300 descendants. Though the women of the Second Fleet were initially the dregs of Australian society, many now look on them with pride as the ones who helped lay the foundation for today’s prosperity.