University of Tasmania
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Seeking Eliza : agency, gender and legislative proscriptions on colonial convict women

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posted on 2023-05-28, 08:51 authored by Berry, MA
From the moment that Eliza Callaghan appeared at the Old Bailey, London, in 1821, to her life as mistress Eliza Batman of the property Kingston in Van Diemen's Land and Port Phillip, through to her murder in colonial Geelong where she lived under the pseudonym Sarah Willoughby, her life was characterised by fractured and shifting identities, mobility, privilege as well as poverty, lived within the locus of colony and empire. Yet historians have either excluded her completely or dismissed her as a low class, drunken convict. This thesis critically examines colonial women, the law, and gender in south-eastern settler Australia in the early nineteenth century by examining the life of Eliza, a runaway convict, who became the wife of high-profile settler John Batman, and established the Port Phillip enterprise with him. Moving beyond a simple a retrieval history, this thesis utilises rich, previously unexamined archival records and extensive first-hand accounts to examine Eliza's life, to examine the larger structural disadvantages experienced by married colonial women, under laws of coverture at this time. In major contrast to arguments provided by previous historians, I argue that properly contextualising Eliza's predicament within the structural, legal and social realities of colonial women reveals the ways that women were systemically disadvantaged. The financial and legal implications of coverture and dower, for example, operated on several levels, compounding serious disadvantage with every application. I expose the operations of a colonial and patriarchal hierarchy, which worked to subvert women in south-eastern Australian colonies. Through the close examination of the complex legal framework of colonial women's lives, in particular convictism, coverture and dower, I demonstrate the ways that the structural constraints of the time operated to greatly limit their agency and opportunities.


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