Esther by Jessica North

EstherTitle: Esther

Author: Jessica North

Genre: Historical Biography

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 1st April 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 277

Price: $29.99

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

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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.

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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.

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The Ship That Never Was: The Greatest Escape of Australian Colonial History by Adam Courtenay

ship that never was.jpgTitle: The Ship That Never Was: The Greatest Escape of Australian Colonial History

Author: Adam Courtenay

Genre: History, Non-fiction

Publisher: ABC Books/HarperCollins

Published: 21st May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $29.99

Synopsis:
The greatest escape story of Australian colonial history by the son of Australia’s best-loved storyteller

In 1823, cockney sailor and chancer James Porter was convicted of stealing a stack of beaver furs and transported halfway around the world to Van Diemen’s Land. After several escape attempts from the notorious penal colony, Porter, who told authorities he was a ‘beer-machine maker’, was sent to Macquarie Harbour, known in Van Diemen’s Land as hell on earth.

Many had tried to escape Macquarie Harbour; few had succeeded. But when Governor George Arthur announced that the place would be closed and its prisoners moved to the new penal station of Port Arthur, Porter, along with a motley crew of other prisoners, pulled off an audacious escape. Wresting control of the ship they’d been building to transport them to their fresh hell, the escapees instead sailed all the way to Chile. What happened next is stranger than fiction, a fitting outcome for this true-life picaresque tale.

The Ship That Never Was is the entertaining and rollicking story of what is surely the greatest escape in Australian colonial history. James Porter, whose memoirs were the inspiration for Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life, is an original Australian larrikin whose ingenuity, gift of the gab and refusal to buckle under authority make him an irresistible anti-hero who deserves a place in our history.

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There are many stories within the realms of national and international history that are not known, or where there might not be as much known about them as some, usually for a variety of reasons. One of these is the escape of ten convicts from the worst convict prison in Australia in the 1830s. James Porter was transported in 1823, for stealing a sack of beaver furs. He was sent to what was then known as Van Diemen’s Land – renamed Tasmania in 1856. He made several attempts to escape from the penal colony, and as a result, was sent to the notorious Sarah Island.

It was not long until Governor George Arthur declared Sarah Island would be closing, and the inmates moved to the infamous Port Arthur prison. Porter and a band of inmates took this chance to take control of the ship they were on – the Frederick, and escaped across the seas to South America, where they lived in Chile for many years as free men, before being sent back under the authority of the British colonial government at the time.

Told in a style that is engaging, whilst dealing with the historical facts and vents of a little-known convict and mutiny, I found this interesting to read, as it expanded upon what I have previously been taught and have read about Australian history. Whilst much is known about colonial era history, there are still stories that haven’t been told about various aspects – and having access to these stories allows us to wholly understand where Australia came from in the years of penal colonies and convict arrivals from 1788 until the transports ended in 1868, though different colonies stopped their transportations at different times.

It reads as both non-fiction and fiction – not overly embellished, but still capturing the spirit of the times and adventure that Porter wrote about in his journal. The author, Adam Courtenay, writes about Porter with fascination, yet allows himself to see the flaws and exaggerations that Porter wrote of, explaining in the text that the facts found in historical records about floggings and the details of how far punishments could be taken or were taken alongside Porter’s experience. What this does is show that even first person accounts that historians rely on are not always reliable, and I felt, even though I have only read the uncorrected proof, that Courtenay took what he had from Porter with a grain of salt and compared it to other accounts, and historical records to create his book.

In doing so, Courtenay has created a work that sparks an interest in this person and era, but also shows that good research is crucial – I would be interested to see if the final copy includes a bibliography, for further reading, and to show what sources he was able to find, as I imagine a little-known story such as this might not have as many sources as stories and legends that are well-known within the national consciousness.

As someone who has studied history, I know to examine various sources and accounts, just as it appears Courtenay has done. I will be looking for more information on Porter where I can, to supplement this book and build a larger picture of this man who managed to escape from Tasmania to Chile and live for several months to at least a year or two without being sent back. An intriguing book that shows that Australian history is more complex than we are originally taught.

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