Hamish Maxwell – Stewart reviews Kay Daniels, Convict Women

Kay Daniels, Convict Women (Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1998), pp. 276. ISBN 1 86448 677 5.

Reviewed by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart.

Convict Women is the latest of a number of works on female transportees to have appeared in the last three years. Other contributions include Deborah Oxley’s, Convict Maids: The Forced Migration of Women to Australia (CUP, Cambridge, 1996); Joy Damousi’s, Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia (CUP, Cambridge, 1997) and Kirsty Reid’s ‘”Contumacious, ungovernable and incorrigible’, Convict women and Workplace Resistance in Van Diemen’s Land” in I. Duffield and J. Bradley (eds), Representing Convicts (Leicester University Press, London, 1997). One of the many pleasing things about this recent spate of writing is that it has shifted the historical spot light away from convict men. If anything, it is now male, rather than female convicts, that are a neglected area of study. Despite the recent flood of interest in convict women, however, it is apparent that this is far from an over-worked field. Indeed this is a point which is amply illustrated by Convict Women. Daniels manages to break much new ground but in doing so she often poses more questions than she answers. This is a mark of the book’s contribution to convict studies. Rather than a final word, Convict Women resets the agenda, probing forward into a number of shadowy realms.

The opening chapter on Maria Lord is a case in point. This is Daniels at her best. She starts by describing the four stereotypes which have dominated writing on convict women for so long: the female entrepreneur; the convict whore; the happy family women and the abandoned wife. Daniels then deploys a wonderful reconstruction of Maria Lord’s life to rip through these artificial cardboard boundaries. For Maria could have been used, at one time or other in her life, to symbolise any single one of these categories. Instead, what emerges from Daniels telling of Maria’s story is an overwhelming sense of agency. But Daniels does not fall to the temptation to use a rediscovered three dimensional Maria to flatten her husband Edward. As she writes on page 26: ‘The omission of Maria from early narratives deprived us of an important part of the picture. But it is not useful, in restoring her, to call Edward “cunning” and “rapacious” and Maria a “successful female entrepreneur”; that it to replace one double standard with another.’ But to do so would also be to place Maria’s story within an artificially confined straight-jacket. Thus in order to shed further light on Maria’s life we need to understand those around her, especially her husband. This kind of study lies way beyond the bounds of Convict Women but we owe a debt to Daniels for opening up such future research possibilities.

Conversely Convict Women is at its weakest where Daniels text is hedged by untested assumptions. Nowhere is this more apparent than her repeated insistence that female convict labour was not in demand pp.77-78, 95, 209. This is a contestable assertion. Oxley, for example, argues that female convict skills were effectively employed and this was particularly the case for domestic servants (p.237). This is not a recent proposition, as Oxley points out Dallas was arguing as early as 1949 that the demand for female convict labour frequently outstripped supply. (K. M. Dallas, ‘Transportation and colonial income’, Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand 3 (1949), p.299. Reid’s careful analysis of appropriation registers underscores the point. During the assignment era it was usual for more applications for female servants to be submitted to the board of assignment in Van Diemen’s Land than there were women available to appropriate to settlers. As much recent work on male convict labour have demonstrated, the demand for convict skills played a critical role in shaping the political economy of convict Australia. At its simplest, male convicts who possessed skills which were in demand were able to use their bargaining power to shape their working environment far more effectively than those who had little to contribute other than muscle power. Reid’s recent analysis of female convict offences reached similar conclusions. Indeed Daniels’ own text provides much evidence that female convict labour was valued. For example she reveals that the appropriation register for Marry Wright ‘plain cook’ records that she could also ‘wash, iron, milk and make butter,’ p.195. It seems strange that is a system where female labour was undervalued according to Daniels, that the system should go to such lengths to record the tasks that female convicts could perform. On page 209 Daniels writes: “Something is lost in seeing convict women merely as representative of the labouring classes if that serves to over emphasise their skills and underplay the nature of the economic arena in which those skills were employed.” Yet there is a real danger that this is a trap that Convict Women has fallen into. The contrast between Reid’s and Daniels’ work could not be more striking. Whereas Reid’s assignees are invested with agency, Daniels’ appear as economically disempowered victims. The dichotomy between these two recent accounts is, to say the least, intriguing. Clearly, this is another example of an area where more research needs to be undertaken.

When it comes to discussing the political economy of the female factories Daniels is on much surer footing. By extending her discussion to the operation of black economies, female sexuality and rebellion she is able to piece together the inner workings of these institutions. In contrast to the sections on assignment, Daniels is able to provide convincing evidence that factory women were able to shape their environment. Indeed, perhaps the most important contribution of the book is its attack on the notion of a ‘system’ imposed in totalising fashion from above. There is much more of a sense in Convict Women that individual factory regimes were the product of local accommodations. As Daniels argues on p.143: ‘Clearly many women were not passive victims of institutional authority and responded in a variety of ways to attempts to control and pacify them.’ The sections on collective female resistance are extremely powerful. Daniels’ analysis of the riots at the female factories at Cascade and Launceston is a particular case in point. The reasons why these sections work so well, is that they spring out of Daniels explorations of factory culture. As Bruce Hindmarsh is fond of saying, if you want to understand convict resistance you must first understand everyday convict preoccupations (Bruce Hindmarsh is a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh. His thesis is on master servant relations in the Tasmanian Midlands ). It is through her exploration of the relationship between individual factory inmates, such as Catherine Owen and Ellen Scott, that Daniels is able to shed so much light on factory life.

Convict Women blazes several new trails and for this reason alone no one with a serious interest in convict history can afford to over look this work. Yet, while many passages in the book glisten, there is still much left out of this account. The most serious omission is the failure to provide an in depth exploration of the operation of assignment. There is now much evidence that road gangs, chain gangs and penal stations were intricately bound up with the operation of a wider unfree labour system. One suspects that the same is true for the female factories. While this is subject on which Convict Women is largely silent, future investigations in this direction will owe Daniels a large debt.

Dr Hamish Maxwell-Stewart is the Port Arthur Research Fellow in the School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania.