Weird History

The Wild Story Of The Lady Juliana, The 18th-Century Prison Ship Filled With Women  

Setareh Janda
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A tale as wild as the Seven Seas, the story of the Lady Juliana, a special convict ship full of prisoners sent to Australia, is one of the strangest in the continent's history. The Lady Juliana had a specific mission: carrying a cargo of female prisoners the British government hoped would help reform the struggling convict colony in New South Wales. This motley crew of British women ultimately had a lasting impact on the history of Australia.

Great Britain began colonizing Australia in 1787 with the departure of the so-called First Fleet of ships. Aboard these ships were male and female prisoners, as well as officials whose goal was to establish a penal colony around modern-day Sydney. The Lady Juliana was part of the Second Fleet of ships meant to bring another round of convicts along with food and supplies for the young colony.

The British government specifically commissioned the Lady Juliana to transport a group of no fewer than 200 female convicts to Australia. Pulled from British prisons, these convicts were torn from their families and communities to undertake a lengthy sea voyage to the other side of the world. Though conditions aboard the Lady Juliana were better than they were on most convict ships, it was still a long, hard journey - the ship left England in July 1789 and didn't reach its final destination until June 1790.

Though they were prisoners being transported against their will, many of the women of the Lady Juliana ultimately made the most of their circumstances both during and after the voyage. Between their side hustles in ports of call and their romantic bartering aboard the ship, their journey has gone down in history books as one of the most legendary.

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Photo:  Thomas Rowlandson/Royal Museums Greenwich/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Some Of The Passengers Sold Themselves At Ports En Route To Australia

The voyage to Australia lasted about 10 months, as the Lady Juliana voyaged from port to port in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The ship's stays in places like Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town could last several weeks. The convicts made the most of their global tour by selling their services in these ports.

As John Nicol, the ship's steward, euphemistically remembered, "We did not restrain the people on shore from coming on board through the day. The captains and seamen, who were in port at the time, paid us many visits."

The ladies kept at least part of their earnings. Some of the ship's officers and sailors allegedly even got in on the business, and their involvement raises serious questions about the degree to which these captive women were coerced into their activities.

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Photo:  Juan Ravenet/State Library of New South Wales/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 AU
Many Of The Ship's Sailors Took The Convict Women As 'Wives'

Whether out of love, lust, coercion, or necessity, many of the women on board the ship became the "wives" of the ship's officers and crew members. As the ship's steward John Nicol recalled in his memoir of the voyage: "When we were fairly out at sea, every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they nothing loath."

While these marriages were not legal, they nonetheless served a practical purpose: taking a lover onboard the ship often meant better sleeping arrangements for the women. But at least one partnership was rooted in genuine feeling: Nicol seemed to have fallen in love with prisoner Sarah Whitlam. Though he intended to marry her once her term ended, the two never wed. Nicol had to go back to Britain, leaving Whitlam and their child behind in Australia. He attempted to reunite with her, but they never saw each other again.

Not all partnerships were as affectionate as Nicol and Whitlam's appears to have been. The lack of privacy for prisoners on convict ships meant that crew members had access to them, and their relations and interactions could be coercive. The age of consent in 18th-century Britain was 10 years old, so some crew members took teenage wives during the voyage. Historian Pamela Horn identified 14-year-old Jane Forbes as one such young wife - she had a baby before reaching Australia.

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Photo: Watkin Tench/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Colonial Officials Wanted The Women To Prevent Men From Sleeping With Each Other

There was not an even distribution of men and women among the convict-colonists in early British Australia. Of the 759 convicts sent to Australia aboard the First Fleet, 568 were men while only 191 were women. As a result, officials worried about how all those men would find partners - some were concerned that they would turn to one another.

To correct what 18th-century Britain perceived to be "gross irregularities" in romantic partnerships in Australia, officials begged for more women. In other words, the women of the Lady Juliana were meant to be sex objects and wives for male officers and convicts.

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Photo: Algernon Talmage/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Female Prisoners Were Expected To Civilize The Colony

The women of the Lady Juliana had a particular purpose: Colonial officials hoped that a shipload of women would help civilize the budding convict colony. According to one British official, the increased presence of women would "promote a matrimonial connection to improve morals and secure settlement."

They were to marry male colonists, which would supposedly create and maintain respectable family life in the new colony. The women's prison sentences aimed to transform them into moral vessels that would enable the re-creation of the British family unit abroad.