The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey Of Australia’s Convict Women, by Deborah J. Swiss
As someone who has read at least a little bit about Australia’s convict women, it is pretty clear that there was both something deeply problematic about a British society that viewed petty theft as a more serious problem than murder or rape. That said, any book that seeks, as this one does, to celebrate the resourcefulness and pluck of the convict women whose presence allowed Australia to be a viable British colony, is going to have to deal with several issues. One, it is important to celebrate resourcefulness without celebrating the crimes which led to transportation in the first place. Even if Britain’s laws and society were unjust, the people transported generally did commit crimes that were worthy of some punishment, and their departure from Great Britain did reduce the social pressures in the country by getting rid of surplus populations that the existing social system could not support. Likewise, the sources for writing about Australia’s convict colonists is limited, especially where women are concerned, and while this fact must be lamented, drawing big conclusions out of limited evidence can be a dangerous task that one must handle well.
This particular book is almost 300 pages if you include the appendices (and they are worth reading as they provide some primary documentation that the author draws upon throughout the book). After acknowledgments and an introduction that puts the Australian convict women population in some context the book begins with a discussion of the background of Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston, two friends who stole together and ended up being transported together to Tasmania, where they both managed to settle into the society there, eventually. The author discusses the legal system that convicted the girls for theft after they were caught and then the prison system in Scotland and London that kept them until it was decided to transport them. The author talks about one widow Ludlow whose thefts as a cook also led her to be transported, and how it was that she was able to become a trusted nurse on the boat ride to the antipodes. Finally, the author examines the system by which convicts became indentured servants, dealing with the corrupt society there, and seeking to marry and settle down and escape the stigma of their status, which happened for a great many of the people that the author writes about whose presence within the historical record can be recognized.
There are pluses and minuses about the author’s approach. Clearly, on the one hand, there is a strong degree of power that the descendants of Australia’s convicts have when it comes to making life pleasant or unpleasant for a historian, and someone who disapproves of the rebelliousness and resourcefulness of Australia’s founding jailbirds and soiled doves is unlikely to write a history about it, anyway. The author approves far more of the lack of order and decorum of the women involved, especially a particular gang of recidivist convicts, than I do. That said, even if my own feelings about Australia’s founders were mixed, I have enough of my own ancestors who were transported to the United States for one reason or another to see at least some kindred aspect between the people in the book and my own ancestors. At the very least, even if the legal system of Great Britain was highly unjust, it at least allowed the people who were transported an escape from an intolerable situation of poverty and the chance to rise above the criminal and poor underclass through developing land stolen from someone else. If you are going to steal, at least steal in such a way that one’s ill-gotten gains have the approval of the social system one happens to belong to.