Babette Smith – Defiant Voices
22 April 2021 starting 6:00 pm for 6:30 pm
In conversation with Penny Nelson
Between 1788 and 1868, approximately 25,000 women were transported to Australia. For nearly 200 years, there has been a chorus of outrage at their vulgarity, their depravity and their promiscuity.
Babette Smith takes the reader beyond this traditional casting of convict women, looking for evidence of their humanity and individuality. Certainly some were desperate, overwhelmed by a relentless chain of criminal convictions, drunkenness and despair. But others were heroic, defiant. Smith offers fresh insights: the women’s use of sound and voice to harass officials, for example; the extent of their deliberate resistance against authority. This resistance, she argues, has contributed significantly to broader Australian culture.
The women’s stories begin when their fates are decided by the British Crown. We are introduced to women who stole, set fires, rioted, committed insurance fraud, murdered; mothers of six and 12-year-old girls; women who refused to show deference to the Court, instead giving mock curtsies, ‘jumping and capering about’.
‘A sailor’, wrote ship’s surgeon Peter Cunningham, was ‘more an object of pity than wrath. To see twenty wicked fingers beckoning to him, and twenty wicked eyes winking at him, at one and the same time, no wonder his virtue should sometimes experience a fall!’.
Among the hysterical accounts of bad behaviour aboard female convict ships written by concerned reverends, surgeons and others are scenes that show female camaraderie, fun and intrepid spirit. Washing clothes became ‘a grand water party’; caught in a storm, women came up on deck to help their fellow convicts haul water; women sang and danced before bed, putting on concerts for each other, ‘dressed out in their gayest plumage’. This camaraderie continued in Australia. In Tasmania’s overcrowded Cascades factory, the superintendent complained about women ‘corrupting each other’ in nightly conversation laced with ‘obscenity’.
Another interpretation is that women sought the comfort of sharing their woes with one another, telling ‘war stories’ of life on assignment and generally enjoying each other’s company in language that was everyday for them. Defiant Voices tells the story of the Crown trying and failing to make its prisoners subservient to a harsh penal system. Convict women challenged the authorities by living in perpetual disobedience, which was often flagrant, sometimes sexual and always loud. They were not all ‘the most abandoned prostitutes’, but their sexual mores were certainly different from the observers who labelled them. From factory rioters to individuals like Ann Wilson, whose response-‘That will not hurt me’-provoked a magistrate to pile punishment after punishment onto her, the women of Defiant Voices fought like tigers and drove men to breaking point with their collective voices, the lewd songs and ‘disorderly shouting’ resounding from the page.