Van Diemen’s Land was the colonial name of the island of Tasmania used by the British during the European exploration of Australia in the 19th century. A British settlement was established in Van Diemen’s Land in 1803 before it became a separate colony in 1825. Its penal colonies became notorious destinations for the transportation of convicts due to the harsh environment, isolation and reputation for being inescapable. Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur are among the most well-known penal settlements on the island.
“Sometimes you don’t realize your own strength until you come face to face with your greatest weakness.” – Susan Gale
Between 1788 and 1868 more than 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia. Transportation as a form of criminal punishment emerged in the British legal system from the early 17th century as an alternative to execution.
Many of the crimes for which they were transported are considered minor offenses by today’s standards. The most common crime by far was stealing—food, clothing, money, household items—mostly items worth no more than £5.
One can only imagine how my great great grandmother, Mary Ann Maule, had been living prior to her sentencing after a series of petty thefts. Clearly Mary was no angel but conditions in Liverpool were particularly harsh. Houses were severely overcrowded and the impact of the Great Famine, known as the Irish Famine was profound.
Friedrich Engels was shocked when he visited Liverpool in the 1840s. “Liverpool, with all its commerce, wealth, and grandeur yet treats its workers with the same barbarity. A full fifth of the population, more than 45,000 human beings, live in narrow, dark, damp, badly ventilated cellar dwellings, of which there are 7,862 in the city.
“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”– Arnold Schwarzenegger
Having survived the long, perilous journey on board the convict ship, there can be no doubt that life would have been no easier when she arrived in the colony. However, the scarcity of women opened up opportunities for convict women as servants and wives. Many, including Mary Ann, successfully merged into colonial society, creating new families, and through good conduct and hard work forged new lives. Convict women, like my great great grandmother, demonstrated a diversity of character, aspirations and behaviour, which contradicted their stereotype as ‘damned whores’.
Her legacy of strength and fortitude has been far reaching.