True Love on "The Floating Brothel"
The women were supposedly the scum of England – thieves and prostitutes, all destined to a life behind bars... or death. Many had committed “crimes” which, by today’s standards, would have hardly have been classified as such--- a servant girl who borrowed a hair brush without permission, a street urchin who committed bullying pranks. But with the overflowing convict population of England there was no choice but to turn to the penal settlement in New South Wales (Australia). Until 1790, that convict colony was a failed, all-male experiment. Without women, crops withered, disease flourished, and lawlessness prospered.
"In June 1790 . . . four ships from England arrived and saved the colony," author Sian Rees writes in The Floating Brothel. One of them was the Lady Juliana," with "a cargo of fertile female convicts, some of whom would become "founding mothers of Australia," while many others would be lost along the way.
With vivid prose and lush storytelling, Rees makes clear the awful fates of the mostly lower and lower-middle class women aboard the ship---including their use as regular sex partners for the sea-faring crew. Many of the women did not survive the journey, but there were the fortunate souls who lived and established new lives in Sydney---with their assigned convict husbands.
I love this book because Rees develops her historical account of the ship and its passengers from court documents and from the memoirs of John Nicol, the Lady Julian's steward and cooper (there are no surviving accounts of life aboard the ship written by any of the women).
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, was originally published in Edinburgh in 1822, and reprinted in 1936. His story of life on the Lady Juliana "breathes a humanity that is not easily forgotten" and chronicles his affair with an 18-year-old passenger convict named Sarah Whitelam. A son was born to her during their passage. When the shipped landed in Sydney, John Nicol petitioned to marry Sarah but was denied by the British navy. He stayed in Sydney pursuing his request for almost year, and after a painful and forced departure, he left and Sarah was married to another man two days later.
John Nicol makes many references to his failed efforts to rejoin her. He was subsequently impressed into the Royal Navy, and fought at two of the major fleet actions of the Napoleonic Wars, the Battles of Cape St Vincent and Aboukir. He searched for Sarah and his son for years, but was unable to locate them.
There is documentation that Sarah Whitelam prospered in the colony, then left Sydney Cove on August 31st aboard The Surprise, bound for Norfolk Island. Her new husband, John Coen Walsh, remained in Sydney for several months, earning money to set up his family on Norfolk before he joined them shortly afterwards. Sarah and Walsh had two sons together. Their Norfolk farm was prosperous, and six years after their wedding, he was pardoned. They paid passage for themselves and the three boys aboard the Marquis Cornwallis, which left Sydney Cove for Bombay in June 1796.
The rest of Sarah’s story is lost to history….
When John Nicol dictated his memoirs to an Edinburgh bookbinder in1822, he was destitute. As an old man “his memory of dates, names and the sequence of events was growing cloudy”, but his love for Sarah Whitelam was steadfast. “As old as I am,” he said, “my heart is still unchanged.”I wonder if the elusive Sarah ever looked for John Nicol? Or did she do aboard The Lady Juliana what she had to just to survive? Did she fall in love with the man she was forced to marry? We will never know.
But one thing is for sure . . . John Nicol never forgot Sarah Whitelam---his true love found aboard the floating brothel.
If you can find a local TV listing, check it out “SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Voyage of the Courtesans” a PBS documentary about the floating brothel. I caught the re-runs last month.