Book Review: A Cargo of Women: The Novel by Babette Smith


From the back cover:

England, 1828. Susannah Watson is forced to steal to feed her starving children. Ann Kinsman steals because her man tells her to. Sarah Bryant steals to bring a little colour into her drab and miserable existence. Sentenced to transportation, they become part of the cargo of women convicts aboard the "Princess Royal", bound for Botany Bay.

In New South Wales they find a community which offers them opportunities beyond their dreams - or degradation to match the worst they left behind. As they struggle to come to terms with their lives as prisoners and learn to endure their servitude, they draw comfort and support from each other. Working as assigned servants, incarcerated in the notorious Female Factory, fighting to protect their children, caught up in the passion and heartache of love, the women's lives continue to overlap and interweave.

Babette Smith's original non-fiction work A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal,  was inspired by her discovery of a convict ancestor. This history of convict women and their lives as prisoners received great reviews, but Babette Smith's decision to turn Susannah Watson's story into a novel received mixed reactions. I, for one, am glad she did.

Susannah Watson, mother of four children, the youngest still a baby, is  sentenced to "fourteen years transportation beyond the seas". She is one of a hundred women transported on the Princess Royal, some of whom have been transported for life. However, regardless of the length of their sentences, all know they will never return to England. Many of the women are philosophical about their plight and others rail against the cruel injustice of it all. Some see it as a chance for a better life, others carry on their lives of crime where they left off.

Babette Smith's research on the lives of the women convicts show that they were mostly from the lower classes of society, the young and not so young, repeat and first time offenders. Unlikely friendships were formed in gaol and on board ship.

Conditions en route to Australia were not ideal, though the surgeon did his best to prevent sickness by ensuring the convicts were allowed on deck regularly and urged them to keep themselves and their living quarters clean.  Not only did the women have to survive the poor food and cramped conditions, they also had to be wary of the different factions below decks. Prostitution was still a bartering tool for some to gain extra rations, privileges or their all important supply of alcohol.

The novel is an insight into the social conditions of the time. England, still recovering from  the Napoleonic Wars, is in the grip of the industrial revolution where traditional cottage industries are being replaced by machines in factories. The population is growing, poverty and sickness, prostitution, alcoholism and crime still rife. In Australia, conditions are much the same for the lower classes.

The Female Factory at Parramatta offered a slight improvement in the women's living conditions, as that it provided food and shelter, but life was still harsh, and convicts once assigned were reluctant to return here. It is interesting how the system worked and how it could be manipulated by the convicts themselves.

Once started I couldn't put this novel down. Susannah Watson's  story is one of many, but she had the strength of character and determination to make the most of her situation, despite being separated from her husband and other children, and suffering more tragedy and loss in Australia.

This was an engrossing story of a subject largely ignored until recent times. Babette Smith dispels many of the myths regarding women convicts with this excellent work. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it for those interested in Australian history.

 A Cargo of Women: The Novel  is Book #3 of my commitment to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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