Author: Jessica North
Genre: Historical Biography
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 1st April 2019
Synopsis: The little-known rags to riches love story of a convict girl who arrived in Australia on the First Fleet. Much like another, better-known colonial woman, Elizabeth Macarthur, Esther successfully managed her husband’s property and became a significant figure in the new colony.
Esther only just escaped the hangman in London. Aged 16, she stood trial at the Old Bailey for stealing 24 yards of black silk lace. Her sentence was transportation to the other side of the world.
She embarked on the perilous journey on the First Fleet as a convict, with no idea of what lay ahead. Once on shore, she became the servant and, in time, the lover of the dashing young first lieutenant George Johnston. But life in the fledgling colony could be gruelling, with starvation looming and lashings for convicts who stepped out of line.
Esther was one of the first Jewish women to arrive in the new land. Through her we meet some of the key people who helped shape the nation. Her life is an extraordinary rags-to-riches story. As leader of the Rum Rebellion against Governor Bligh, George Johnston became Lieutenant-Governor of NSW, making Esther First Lady of the colony, a remarkable rise in society for a former convict.
‘North skilfully weaves together one woman’s fascinating saga with an equally fascinating history of the early colonial period of Australia. The resulting true story is sometimes as strange and thrilling as a fairytale.’ – Lee Kofman, author of The Dangerous Bride
Even though I have studied Australian history at various levels of my education, there are still many stories about the start of the invasion and colonisation that are not widely told or known. This is usually because they have not been recorded, the records have been hidden or they simply have not been included in our history books and the stories forgotten or neglected by those who held the power over what could be told.
Many people know about Bligh, MacArthur, Philips, and all the various white explorers who crossed mountain ranges and laid out trails. Some stories are known about free settlers, but even less is known about convicts and the Indigenous people – two areas where I am noticing more stories being told, and I think these stories are going to make the record of Australian history richer.
In this instance, the story I read focuses on the first Jewish woman to be transported to Australia on The First Fleet, Esther Abrahams. Transported for stealing twenty-four yards of black lace, Esther and her daughter, Rosanna, who was born in Newgate Prison, would be sent into service upon arrival for the duration of Esther’s sentence. Once she had arrived in the colony of NSW, and the free settlers and officers had established things, Esther was assigned to serve First Lieutenant George Johnston. She would soon become his lover, his wife, and after her sentence ended and they were married, circumstances would thrust her into the life of First Lady of the colony of New South Wales, and the mother of eight children.
Jessica North has used archives, diaries and letters to build her story, and show how the new arrivals from England and the Indigenous people tried to make connections, or butted heads when it came to misunderstandings of each other’s cultures and legal systems. It also, through the diaries of the white settlers and convicts, early attempts to communicate and in some ways, bring the cultures together, but also, the fear of each other and desires to be separate as much as possible. It felt like in these early days, at least in this story and based on the sources used, efforts may have been made to work together, in some respects. Showing these nuances that were previously hidden from my school and university education shows how hard it was on both sides – but that it was much harder for convicts and Indigenous people, because when it came to the colonial powers, these were two groups that had very little power and were beholden to the colonial laws brought with the English.
It was a book that opened my eyes and mind up to what female convicts did to survive, and how brutal those early days were for all, but especially for some. It is easy to judge actions from afar, to boil things down to simplistic us versus them and ignore that not everything was like that. No doubt fear was something that affected everyone in the new colony and the way they operated and built their lives. I don’t think we will ever know the full story of some things, especially where we only have partial facts, or not many, or things missing from records. But in starting to find books that tell the stories of those who weren’t in power at time for a change, maybe we can build a fuller, and richer historical record of Australia, and get the opportunity to hear more voices, and hopefully stories that show all sides, the good, the bad and the in between. Knowing these stories will hopefully unite all Australians and show the depth of our multicultural society that has been going for much longer than the history books some of us have had access to tell us.