Born into a family of Cornish boatbuilders and designers, Oxford grad Siân Rees' has compiled in The Floating Brothel a recommended read for anyone interested in ships of the eighteenth century. The author's first book, this centers on the convict ship Lady Julian but includes glimpses into other ships, shipwrecks, and a famous mutiny that happened in the same period.
Englishwomen convicted of crimes in the late 1700’s were sent to
overcrowded and understaffed gaols. The courts, in an effort to control the population in the gaols, decided to send particular criminals to lands far away. The Lady Julian filled her hold with female convicts and made a year-long journey from England to Sydney Cove in Australia’s New South Wales.
Many convict ships in this time period were nothing more than corpse transports. It was common for prisoners to be put below deck and ignored. If they died along the journey, their bodies were tossed overboard. Captain and crew valued their food stocks more than the human life they carried to far away destinations. What makes the Lady Julian so unique, is that apparently the captain and crew had respect for human life. Some of the crew took “wives.” A few female convicts caught the interest of a crew member and were allowed to live with in a cabin instead of the hold. These few individuals were given better treatment than the rest of the prisoners, but none were treated too unfairly.
Documentation from this time is scarce. Captain and first mate journals are sparse on personal information, but Rees presents the most plausible details for what happened to the women on this particular ship. Other ships described in The Floating Brothel, usually because they crossed paths with Lady Julian, include Prince of Wales, HMS Guardian, Mercury, Lady Shore, and probably the most recognizable ship, the HMS Bounty. A bit of the history behind Captain Bligh and the mutiny aboard his ship took place within a year of the first sailing of Lady Julian. Lieutenant Thomas Edgar was a government agent and master of Lady Julian. He post previous to this was an officer under Captain James Cook.
Rees details the "crimes" that the woman convicts were accused of. The one of most attention is the story of Sarah Whitelam. Seventeen at the time of her conviction, she was falsely accused of borrowing a friend’s hairbrush without permission, sentenced to seven years’ transportation and sent to Australia. She bore a son to the captain of Lady Julian. Captain John Nicol delivered Sarah and the rest of the convicts to Australia per his duty.
Life on board the Lady Julian was not a picnic, but it was not a complete brothel, either. The women (whose ages ranged from the early teens to late sixties), and the men they encountered on ship and at various ports, took advantage of the possibilities presented to them. Describing women’s life at sea is a rare topic to be covered, especially 18th-century women. Cleanly written and very detailed, The Floating Brothel is quite an accomplishment considering the lack of easily obtainable information. Rees does a great job presenting the facts and making sensible assumptions. Fans of nautical history or women's studies will get a glimpse into what it was like for women of the time - at least "criminal" women - to be on the seas.