Australia’s Convict-Wives

May 13: On this day in 1787, Captain Arthur Phillip, in command of eleven convict ships, set sail for Botany Bay, Australia. Over the next eighty years, 825 such ships would carry 160,000 prisoners to serve their “transportation” sentence in the colony. Two recent books, Sian Ree’s The Floating Brothel and Deborah Swiss’s The Tin Ticket, tell the story of the women convicts given a sort of double sentence, being not only felons but wives or sexual recreation for other prisoners.

One of the primary source documents for The Floating Brothel is the 1822 memoir, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner. Having circumnavigated the world twice during his decades at sea, Nicol’s book is packed with a variety of adventures, but just one poignant romance:

When we were fairly out to sea, every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they nothing loath. The girl with whom I lived, for I was as bad in this point as the others, was named Sarah Whitelam. She was a native of Lincoln, a girl of modest reserved turn, as kind and true a creature as ever lived. I courted her for a week upwards, and would have married her upon the spot, had there been a clergyman on board. She had been banished for a mantle she had borrowed from an acquaintance. Her friend persecuted her for stealing it, and she was transported for seven years. I had fixed my fancy upon her from the moment I knocked the rivet out of her irons upon my anvil, and as firmly resolved to bring her back to England, when her time was out, my lawful wife, as ever I did intend any thing in my life. She bore me a son in our voyage out. What is become of her, whether she is dead or alive, I know not. That I do not is no fault of mine, as my narrative will show.

Forced back to sea, Nicol made repeated, unsuccessful attempts to return to Sarah. Contemporary records show that Sarah, perhaps not feeling as deeply about Nicol, or just needing to secure her and her son’s future as best she could, married another man the day after Nicol’s boat sailed from Australia.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at