Book Review: Floating Brothel

Floating Brothel:  The Extraordinary True Story Of An Eighteenth-Century Ship And Its Cargo Of Female Convicts, by Siân Rees

Despite the somewhat tawdry aspect of the book’s title, this is a book that seeks to and generally succeeds at presenting a detailed view of the penology of the late 18th century as it relates to the women who served as Australia’s first female colonists.  The author’s interest in writing with a certain feminist approach turns up being somewhat undercut by the nature of the sources available–as there were very few women who were able to speak with their own voice and the source material included here, especially the memoir of one unfortunate John Nichol, about whom the author has much to say, much of it deeply tragic, were written by men.  To be sure, the author is not alone in having this difficulty–anyone who wanted to write a history of the late 18th century that focused on women would have a struggle with the source material, but at least the author makes the best of it by titling her work in such a way that she is likely to sell some copies of the book simply because people want to read about sex, even if most of this book is about more subtle questions of power and how it operates even in less than ideal circumstances.

This particular book is about 200 pages long and is divided into fifteen chapters that are organized in a chronological fashion.  The author begins by talking about the state of disorderly women and the economic problems that they faced that drove quite a few to theft and prostitution (1, 2).  After that the author talks about the difficulties faced by these women in jail (3) and the way that many of them were transferred to ships to be transported out of the country (4), spending some time on the river before leaving England (5).  The author talks about the mercy shown to some of the criminals who had been guilty of capital offenses (6) and the way that the ship Lady Julian finally left London (7) with more than 200 women bound for Australia.  The author discusses the couplings that soon developed and the way that this affected morale on the ship (8) and also the ship’s stops in ports of call like Tenerife (9) and the crossing of the equator and the hijinks that happened there (10).  The author spends some time talking about the birth of John Nicol Junior and other children when the ship stopped in Rio de Janiero (11) and then discusses the wreck of the Guardian (12) as well as the ship’s travels from Cape Town to Sydney (13).  Finally, the author ends with a discussion about the way that women sought to settle (or not) in Australia (14) and the journeys related to love and marriage that followed the settlement of the convict women in Australia (15), after which there is a discussion of the book’s principal characters, a select bibliography, index, and map of the voyage of the Lady Julian from 1789 to 1790.

Although many of the crimes that led the women to imprisonment and transportation were related either to sex crimes or theft (or both), the author is far more interested in examining the fate of these women convicts, to the extent that they can be known from the records available, as it relates to the questions of power.  After all, the question of power was a very subtle and complicated one for these women in these situations.  The fact that these people were women gave them some mercy in a criminal system that killed men far more readily for the same level of criminal offense, but also made them vulnerable in prison to rape by trusties and induced them into relationships with crew and officers en route to Australia as a way of providing safety and a better life even with the chances of pregnancy.  A great many women were also in a position of some power because they were very desirable to the mostly single male population of Australia that had been originally settled there, and men and women tended to marry those who reminded them in some sense of home or who were previously acquaintances.  And even with the shortage of women in Australia, some women remained single and a few managed to escape back to England.  The author demonstrates therefore that even though these women were in vulnerable positions, that at least a few were able to make the best of it and create good lives for themselves in very trying circumstances, which may be inspirational to some readers.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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