A Commodity of Women

The full text of this essay is published as Fair Game by Carmel Bird – published by Finlay Lloyd

Part of the lithograph by Alfred Ducote

The lithograph is a satirical (yet strangely poignant and lyrical) record of the arrival in Van Diemen’s Land in 1832 of the Princess Royal, the first ship to bring non-convict women from England to be the ‘wives and servants’ of the men in the colony. There were 200 women on board. There were also nine children who have never been identified by name. Nine children who have disappeared from history. 

The butterflies are welcomed in Van Diemen’s Land, for they are going to be, on the one hand, the wives and mothers of the colony, and on the other hand they will be servants and ladies of the night. In their garish finery as they flutter across the ocean, they might be dancing at a glittering ball, or decorating the lounges of a bordello. They don’t look much like servants, wives or mothers. In fact they are a pretty plain statement of the butterfly as signifier of the labia and vagina. It also means the soul, and resurrection. But in the case of the Fair Game girls, I think the vagina will do. 

Why did Van Diemen’s Land need a boatload of non-convict women in 1832? Well here is a very brief account of how things got to where they got. 

The date that is enshrined in historical narrative as the date of the ‘discovery’ of the island by Europeans is 1642. A Dutchman, Abel Janzoon Tasman, sent by Antony Van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, was exploring southern seas when he found not only Van Diemen’s Land but also New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji. It was in 1803 that the British, extending their prison colony of New South Wales, set up another outpost in Van Diemen’s Land. This place was about as far from England as you could get, and it was an island, which is useful for a prison colony. There were soldiers, there were convicts, their were gaolers – a few doctors and clergymen – and in due course there were ‘free’ people who fled social and economic conditions in England with hope of a new and better life. It took about five months of dangerous sea journey to get there, and, in spite of the generally pleasant climate and the fresh water and the possibility of growing food, it was far from being paradise. By 1855 the convicts ships had stopped arriving, and the island changed its name to ‘Tasmania’ in the hope of making a new start, putting its horrible history behind it. With the disappearance of the convict ships went the loss of government monies on which the people of Tasmania had come to rely. By 1874 when Anthony Trollope visited Tasmania, it was, according to him, like Sleepy Hollow, too lazy to rise out of a lethargy brought about by the disappearance of public subsidy. Truganini, a woman of the Nuenonne group, born on Bruny island off Tasmania in about 1812, died in 1876. She was for a long time considered to be the last ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian to die, although there are untold numbers of living descendants of unions between the original peoples and the invaders. The two dark narratives of Tasmanian history are those of the lives of the convict slaves, and the genocide of First Peoples. 

By 1836 (four years after the voyage of the Princess Royal) the total population of the colony of Van Diemen’s Land was 43,300. The numbers are approximate. Of these 43,000, 19,000 were convicts and 24,000 were not. 17,000 of the convicts were men, and 2,000 of the convicts were women. 14,000 of the free people were men, including 1,000 soldiers, and 10,000 were women. So look, there were in total 31,000 men and 12,000 women. Gosh. A severe shortage of women. The two hundred women on the Princess Royal in 1832 were a mere drop in the ocean. I take the figures from A Short History of Tasmania by Lloyd Robson, published in 1985.  

The native butterflies of Tasmania take their palette from the oranges, browns, umber, ochre, green and black. Their habitat dictates that they won’t come flashing out in the sunlight dressed in shining tropical colour. The patterns too are humble and too subtle. However the girls in the lithograph of Alfred Ducote are flying with jewelled fairyland wings of dazzling delicacy. A soaring wealth of fantasy scarlet, Tuscan red, pink, blue, green, yellow. Sapphire, emerald, ruby, garnet, topaz, silver, gold. And pearl. Cherry pink, apple green, poppy red. They tumble and soar and float in their joyful passage across the skies, above the wash of pale blue ocean. On their fancy Georgian hairdos they wear tiny delicate coronets, these princesses. So much energy, so much joy, so much hope. Fragile endangered creatures freely sailing from one awful place to another, from the shock of the Industrial Revolution to the farthest prison island across the seas. The year after their journey, England stopped sanctioning formal slavery – but this didn’t put an end to effective slavery in Van Diemen’s Land. Only by the inhumane use of convicts as slaves was it possible for the colony to fashion its handsome stone buildings, to put down its beautiful road between the north and south of the island. Coach houses and bridges and elegant churches and pretty stone houses remain today to tell part of the terrible saga of the British entitlement to colonise, to create a nightmare that will never really go away. 

There is a dreadful innocence about the women who boarded the Princess Royal, freely setting off on a long and dangerous sea-journey, into the unknown.  ‘Lambs to the slaughter’ is a phrase that comes to mind. They were simply a commodity. 


‘The Baggage of each Passenger is to be sent to the Steam-packet Warehouse, at FRESH WHARF, between the hours of Nine and Three, (which adjoins the CHURCH in LOWER THAMES STREET, at the Foot of Old London Bridge), on WEDNESDAY the Eleventh Day of April. On the following Day, the Passenger herself ( with no Luggage, except any parcel she may carry in her Hand) is to be at the same Place at Ten o’Clock precisely, and to enter at the Private Door immediately adjoining the Church. A Steamer will convey the Party to Woolwich, where the ship is ready to receive them. None will be admitted, either at the Wharf or the Ship, except the Passengers themselves, who must produce this Card.’

The Princess Royal was a barque of 402 tons, carrying a crew of twenty-five men, and two fixed guns – there was always the possibility of pirates. I didn’t really know what a barque was. It seems it’s a ‘sailing ship with three masts, in which the foremast and mainmast are square-rigged and the mizzenmast is rigged fore and aft’. I do like the word ‘mizzenmast’. The cook on the Princess Royal later married one of the butterflies, also a cook, three months after their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. Another crew member married one of the girls in 1835. So those girls didn’t make any difference to the shortage of women problem in the colony. Also, many of the men from the ship stayed on in Hobart. One hundred and forty of the women are recorded as having married after arriving, a few of them twice. So I suppose the purpose of the exercise was largely fulfilled. One woman died on the journey. One was beaten to death in Van Diemen’s Land by the man she was living with, and her body wasn’t found for three years. The man, by the way, was a convict who arrived in 1826. He was found guilty of Caroline’s manslaughter in 1836 and sent to Norfolk Island. In 1834 one of the women married an ex-convict, and after the woman’s death in 1857, the man married again. One of the sons of the second marriage, William Bishop Propsting, became Premier of Tasmania in 1903. Respectability had come. One of the Premier’s brothers was a wealthy sheep farmer, and another was the Superintendent of Police. The crime, by the way, that got their father sent to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years was stealing geese. I thought geese were very difficult to steal. Like stealing a watchdog. 

This is all a long way from the flight of the butterflies. 

There was a British Ladies’ Committee set up in London in order to select two hundred suitable women to go to Van Dieman’s Land. By suitable they meant young and healthy and respectable. The fare was sixteen pounds, and each woman was to pay half of her own fare, with the other half being paid by the Colonial Government. One famous name on the Ladies’ Committee was that of the Quaker reformer Elizabeth Fry. There were also forty-two Ladies in Hobart making preparations for the arrival of the immigrants. As it turned out, roughly half of the women (ninety-four) were what might be called self-selected casual applicants. Some of these were described in the records as ‘respectable’. The other half (a hundred and six) were from the Refuge for the Destitute, the Chelsea School of Reform, the London Penitentiary, and the National Guardian  Institution. Listen to the terrible ring of those names. There are a few who are simply from ‘the workhouse’. Very few of this half were describe as being respectable. The character of one of the non-institutional women, Jane Clarke, was described thus: ‘Had been in evil’. Harriet Emblem, also non-institutional, was ‘Very respectable, daughter of a Baptist Minister’. The whole cohort was not the type of that the authorities originally had in mind. Some of them did prove to be good and useful wives and servants in the end, but many turned out to be, as described in reports, ‘vicious and depraved’. Some of the women from institutions are described as ‘respectable’. I have now written that word so many times it is getting on my nerves. Able to be respected. A funny word, really. 

In 1902 Edward Vll knighted a prominent Tasmanian, Adye Douglas. I think that must have been the pinnacle of respectability. Sir Adye’s wife, now Lady Ida was the daughter of Jane James who was a Princess Royal butterfly, listed in the records as a very respectable dressmaker. During the voyage Jane befriended Catherine Price and her clergyman husband, the official priest on the ship, and was one of the teachers in the shipboard school the couple set up. Ida was the last of Jane’s thirteen children. When Ida married Adye in 1877, Jane was still alive, and Adye was a powerful and colourful character, member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly. He became Premier of the state in 1884. Jane died in 1891. You could say that she, mother of Ida, had pretty well flown up to the top of the social ladder. Curiously, in 1873 Adye had married Ida’s older sister Charlotte who died in 1876. Adye had emigrated from England to Van Diemen’s land in 1839, establishing a legal practice in Launceston in 1842. There must have been something about Jane’s daughters. 

Harriet Emblem was the other teacher in Mr Price’s school. In 1836 she married Alfred Wheatley who was a librarian in the Royal Navy. He opened the first rural library in Van Diemen’s Land in his house in Bothwell in 1834. Their grandson, Alfred ‘Dad’ Wheatley was an Olympic middle distance runner, the first Australian to run half a mile in under two minutes. 

The Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in 1832 was George Arthur, and he divided the women who arrived on the Princess Royal into three classes: respectable, useful, and the ‘most abandoned creatures that could have disgraced the streets of the Metropolis’. I assume he meant the streets of London. The surgeon from the ship had often been intoxicated on the voyage; the sailors had not been ‘separated’ from the women. There was a Matron and a clergyman, but a ‘total lack of regulations’ had meant that anyone who wanted to run wild was free to do so. There is then some accuracy to the jolly flight of the butterflies, although there is no suggestion in the picture of depravity or viciousness. 

The journey lasted from April the eleventh to August the twenty-third. The sleeping quarters were horribly cramped with two to a bed with the beds also stacked two deep. I know of only one diary that was kept on the voyage. This belonged to Catherine Price, the wife of the clergyman. D.M. Annard who is a descendant of Catherine, kindly send me a photocopy of the original diary. 

Catherine records the singing of hymns on the first Sunday out, and says that on the second Sunday some of the women were taking notes on the sermon. ‘The capstan with the British flag thrown over it makes a very fine pulpit.’ On the third Sunday the text for the sermon is Isaiah, chapter 12, verse 3: ‘Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.’ There are Bible classes, and seasickness and ‘impure air’. Sailors fight over women. ‘We have on board some of the very worst of society and others very respectable. The respectable part of the females are often in tears now they see who they are classed with.’ She sees sharks, porpoises and flying fish, albatrosses and Portuguese men o’war with pink heads. The drunken surgeon chases the women, gets into rages, and waves a pistol but doesn’t discharge it. Catherine complains of the heat, the noise, seasickness, lack of sleep. The women are given wine and vinegar to drink in the heat, and one time the tub of wine rolled over, and the women rolled after it. Man overboard, the ship makes a sudden halt, and there is general chaos. Then fun and games with Neptune as the ship crosses the Equator. Mr Price says prayers for the dead as Fanny Glover is buried at sea. 

Catherine has a black silk dress which she wears for dinner; she notes that her stockings get dirty when she takes her exercise on the poop deck. There are ducks and chickens under the seats on the deck. She and Mr Price have a cabin, and she has brought with her gingerbread to eat. It’s very touching to see the little details of refinement against the general hurly burly and stench. Catherine writes that ‘God is ever present’. Miss James, Miss Emblem and Miss Fincher (a very respectable servant whose mother was a Baptist) spend evenings with the Prices in their cabin where they all read religious texts. Sometimes Catherine comments on the beauty of the sunrise and the sky. 

On August 4th the guns are put in order because there is a fear of pirates, and Mr Price ‘appears delighted in getting ready for the pirates’. In the end there are no pirates.

On August 21st they sight Cape Pillar. This is a tall ragged rock that juts up out of the sea on the treacherous Tasman Peninsula, on the wild south east coast of Tasmania. And the next day a ‘tremendous gale’ blows up, lasting all night. 

The following account is from The True Colonist, a periodical of the time. 

‘On the night of the twenty-third it was still blowing a hurricane, and it was snowing. The sails were in tatters. The last anchor was dropped, lost, and on the twenty-fourth they drifted into great danger towards Seven Mile Beach. Then warning fires were sighted on the rocky headland. A group of men on land, led by Ralph Dodge, lit fires intended to guide the ship to the safety of Pitt Water. Late in the afternoon of the twenty-fourth, Ralph Dodge boarded the ship and guided it to a mud flat where it ran aground. Stranded. The women went ashore and pitched tents. Governor Arthur came by yacht, and the women were given fresh meat and potatoes. Satisfied that all was now well enough, the Governor left.’ 

On August 30th the women were taken in boats to Hobart Town. ‘As the boats were approaching the harbor inquisitive young men in their small craft went out to meet them to get a glimpse of this interesting cargo,’ said The Colonial Times on September 4th. This is a milder description of their reception than Alfred Ducote depicted in his lithograph, but there is a hint there, I think, of the butterfly net. The Ladies’ Committee met the women and took the women to the Orphanage which was their temporary home, in New Town in the north of Hobart. ‘Hosts of people went out to get a sight of the damsels,’ says The Colonial Times, and, ‘ Hobart Town was literally all on a move with the fair sex.’ Men created a disturbance outside the Orphanage, and they were forced to leave the scene. 

The Ladies’ Committee reported to Governor Arthur that many of the women were of the very worst character, coming from ‘institutions for the idle’. Arthur wrote to London to complain that so many of them had originated from institutions, that there had been a lack of regulation on board ship, and that the surgeon had been habitually drunk. 

Of the one hundred and ninety-nine women, by October 1832, one hundred and forty had been placed in service. Thirteen had been ‘expelled’ for ‘improper conduct’. Twenty-six had withdrawn themselves from the protection of the state, some now leading a ‘vicious life’, some running brothels in the town. The other few were accounted for in various benign ways. Over all, thirty of them were described by the Ladies’ Committee as ‘bad’. 

Of course there was a great deal of official and unofficial reporting and discussion on the whole exercise to follow, but I will leave the saga there, with the butterflies on dry land. I leave them to the skill of Alfred Ducote who is about to fix them in their rainbow flight to Van Diemen’s Land.