More than 700 convicts were included in the Fleet, along with sailors and soldiers – and today, it’s even a little bit cool to trace your family back to a convict settler. There’s no doubt that those who survived those early years were incredibly hardy, determined and resourceful people. But for me in particular, I find the story of the women founders of this country to be quite amazing.
Outnumbered 4 to 1 by the men, the first 225 convict women arrived on the 3rd June, 1790. After so long without women, their arrival heralded what can only be described as an orgy of … well, you get the picture. Once things settled down a little, women were put to work with the men, keeping the colony going, providing food and shelter and other… comforts.
Both these convict women and those of the local indigenous people were often used as unpaid prostitutes, house maids and concubines. Sexually transmitted disease was rife, as were illegitimate babies and deaths in childbirth. But enough of those women survived to pair up with and sometimes marry the men of the colony (if they were white) – mostly convicts and eventually the soldiers guarding them. They had children, created homes, tended their gardens and families and ultimately, helped in a multitude of ways, to create a growing civilization.
Other women made the enormous trip across the seas to Sydney Colony, too. Women who had been brought up to be anything but hardy and resourceful. Ladies who were married to the officers, all of whom came from the English gentry. More accustomed to needlework, socialising and the occasional baby birth, the rough and ready environment they landed in came as a tremendous shock. But many of them actually flourished in this place. Many of them, such as Elizabeth Macquarie, found herself up to the kind of challenge she would never have faced back in England.
Alas, our history doesn’t record too much of the contribution the ordinary women of Australia made in those early days and instead tends to focus on rebellions, escaped convicts, rum and the tragic consequences of the cultural clash with indigenous peoples. That’s not to say that those things aren’t important – because they are. But the women of Australia – both white and otherwise – had to endure and survive all of those same things, as well as bear children, suffer rape, and, for the most part, have little or no say in their own destinies. Their contribution was just as important as that of the men, and yet they are rarely acknowledged for it.
So today, for my Australia Day, I’m lifting a glass in toast to the amazing women who gave birth to the Australia we know today. Well done. We literally couldn’t have done it without you.