University Of Tasmania
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The Unfortunates': prostitutes transported to Van Diemen's Land 1822‚Äö-1843

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posted on 2023-05-27, 07:49 authored by Leppard-Quinn, CJ
Since historians first began to mine the records of the 160,000 men, women and children who were transported to the Australian colonies, the mention of prostitution has titillated researchers and the general public. The prostitute was a highly visible and public figure. Unlike the pickpocket, smuggler, extortionist or forger, each of whom strove to be invisible, the prostitute relied on her visibility to earn a living. However unlike her secretive companions the prostitute's activity was not illegal, yet her visibility made her a convenient scapegoat for many of the fears and failings of contemporary society. In Australia's convict history she is equally visible by virtue of a clear annotation on her convict record. During the nineteenth century it was commonplace to describe all female convicts as prostitutes, and this usage was adopted by some historians in the mid twentieth century. While the misconception was the legacy of nineteenth-century class, cultural and gendered misunderstandings, twentieth-century historians internalised those nineteenth-century stereotypes. In the 1970s the female convict was reinvented as a hardworking family maker and the label of 'prostitute' was reserved for a few marginalized, debauched incorrigibles. That attempt to exonerate the reputation of the majority, firmly positioned the prostitute as an outcast. The label of 'prostitute' on the convict records has been accepted as a sign of immorality or 'badness'. We accept that women were questioned about prostitution, as their replies were recorded by the thousands. Yet prostitution was not a criminal offence and women were not transported for being prostitutes. Indeed to be a prostitute was no more indictable than being a laundress or a housemaid. It was the criminal acts which were performed by the prostitute, laundress or housemaid which brought them to Van Diemen's Land. The glaring question which historians have failed to ask is, 'Why was the question posed, and why was their affirmation recorded?' From their arrest in Britain until their freedom in Van Diemen's Land the label remained fixed on some women's records. To what use was that information put, and how significant was it in determining outcomes for the women? How differently were they treated? The annotation is present on a sufficient number of records to provide answers to some of the questions which have hitherto been overlooked.


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