In the March issue of Your Family History magazine, which is out now, I wrote a brief review of Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden’s book Van Diemen’s Women: A History of Transportation to Tasmania (The History Press, 2015). I didn’t have the space to write as fully as I’d have liked, so am taking the opportunity to write a slightly longer review here…
This is not a comprehensive history of transportation, but, as the title and subtitle suggest, a selective – and compassionate – history. Although Catherine Fleming wrote about the transportation of Kildare women to Van Diemen’s Land back in 2012, this book looks at a wider geographical area, looking at both urban and rural women in Ireland in the 19th century, what they were convicted of, and what happened to them.
The book is full of interesting case studies, and is amply illustrated. Its focus on the Irish women who found themselves transported to Tasmania, sometimes with their children, or giving birth en route, is fascinating, and thought provoking.
The period the authors cover, of course, means that the Ireland they write about was, under the Act of Union, a part of the United Kingdom When many histories of crime in the United Kingdom actually mean predominantly English, this Irish angle helps us to reconsider who was subject to transportation and why. It is not designed for those with a good knowledge of criminal history – it has a glossary, for starters, that includes terms such as ‘Assizes’, ‘hard labour’ and ‘House of Correction’ – all basic terms in the history of crime and punishment – but for the general reader. Likewise, its focus on a ‘compassionate’ retelling of history (as acknowledged in former Irish president Mary McAleese’s foreword) is problematic – is it the historian’s job to offer a ‘compassionate’ rather than an objective portrayal of events?
In addition, the description of one woman’s trial for infanticide describes the offence as ‘an extremely serious crime’ – well, obviously, you can’t get much more serious than murder. It’s the kind of explanation that feels unnecessary to readers who should be assumed to have some kind of common sense. However, the authors then appear to view potato theft during the Irish potato famine as a trivial offence. This is despite the theft of any items worth over 12d being a capital offence, and the fact that if there was a potato shortage, an individual stealing these items would be treated very seriously, and a sentence might also be served that would act as a deterrent to others seeking to copy.
Perhaps the problem there lies in the attempt to create a compassionate history that sees the female offender as both perpetrator and victim. Emphasis is put on women being desperate and stealing to feed their families, rather than on the impact of such thefts on the rest of the local community, and on law and order. This isn’t to say that the women focused on do not deserve any sympathy, but that their experiences were individual, and complex.
However, this book is a welcome addition to works both on gender and crime, and on the history of transportation and the experience of being transported. The focus both on female convicts and on the Irish experience is needed and useful, and the authors’ involvement in, and commitment to, the subject is commendable. For the general reader wanting to know more about the experience of Irish women sent to Tasmania in Victorian times, it is recommended.