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The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True…
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The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an… (2001)

by Sian Rees

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Australia: the final frontier. This is the voyage of the female convict ship Lady Julian. Its two-year mission – to take a boatload of teenage prostitutes, shoplifters, and assorted other miscreants to Sydney Cove. And certainly most of them couldn’t claim no man had gone before.


That’s the basics behind The Floating Brothel, from the Ladies of Negotiable Virtue reading program. With the end of the American Revolutionary War, it was no longer possible to ship convicts to America, so they were sent to various other places instead. A convict colony was established in Gambia, but the climate proved so lethal that it was abandoned; a proposal to send white convicts to the free black colony in Sierra Leone was also abandoned, since people who were perfectly willing to hang a twelve-year-old pickpocket couldn’t stomach making her a slave to a black master instead. Russia was suggested but Catherine the Great proved uncooperative. Thus, Australia.


There was already a convict colony at Sydney Cove, but it was almost all male. The governor, Arthur Phillip, was fairly straight-laced about sodomy; he decreed that any convict literally caught with his pants down with another man would be handed over to the natives to be eaten. Thus, he petitioned for a supply of women. Initial proposals were to “recruit” women from New Caledonia or the perhaps appropriately named Friendly Islands (now Tonga) but these were rejected in favor of using female convicts from England.


There was an abundant supply of the same. Author Siân Rees blames America; the end of the Revolutionary War not only eliminated a convict destination (apparently Canada was considered unsuitable) but also released large numbers of soldiers and sailors who needed employment. Laws were passed requiring jobs for veterans – or at least men – in many occupations previously the domain of women – millinery store clerks, for example. The formerly employed women were turned loose to become loose women. It wasn’t illegal to be a prostitute in England (it still isn’t, in fact) but the girls tended to supplement their income by extracting various valuables from their clients or other thievery, English laws specified the death penalty for a variety of offenses, including “private theft of £1” (“private theft” meant picking pockets; you had to shoplift or burgle somewhat more to get capital punishment for that); thus making off with a client’s watch or purse while he was distracted could end with a ride on the three-legged horse at Tyburn. “Coining” was a hanging offence for men but a burning one for women, and Catherine Murphy became the last woman burned at the stake in England in 1788 after being caught making counterfeit shillings (Mrs. Murphy was tied to the stake by the neck, the prop beneath her feet was removed, and she was left hanging there for half an hour before the faggots were ignited, so she probably strangled slowly instead of being burned alive). Perhaps in response to this, and in celebration of the apparent recovery of George III from one of his bouts of madness, a general amnesty commuted the capital sentences of many to “Transportation Across The Seas”. Interestingly, a number of women unsuccessfully petitioned to have their death sentences reinstated rather than being shipped to Australia; I understand Down Under is a more popular tourist destination now.


The original intent was to have a whole convoy of vessels set out together but organization was lacking; eventually the Guardian set out loaded with supplies and cattle, followed shortly thereafter by the Lady Julian, loaded with girls. I use “girls” deliberately; very few of the convicts Rees can trace were out of their teens – and some weren’t even into them. Unfortunately Rees’ account of the voyage is highly speculative. The log of the Lady Julian has been lost, and only one of the passengers and crew left any sort of record – the ship’s steward and cooper John Nichol – and Nichol’s narrative was not a diary but his recollections from thirty-three years after the event, when he was an elderly man living off charity. Thus Rees has to presume that the convicts with farming experience – some were on board for sheep rustling – helped with the cattle, and the convicts who could sew repaired sailors clothing, and others did laundry. Reasonable but undocumented. What Nichol did document was a passionate shipboard romance (she bore him a son halfway through the voyage) with 17-year-old thief (she claimed she was innocent) Sarah Whitelam. Years later, Nichol was still carrying a torch for Whitelam; before the Lady Julian left Sydney to continue to Canton he signed an oath promising to return and marry her; he visited her family in England, and for the rest of his maritime career he attempted to somehow find passage to Australia and reunite with Sarah. Sarah seems to have felt differently; the day after Lady Julian and Nichol weighed anchor for Canton she married a convict; when her husband’s sentence expired (a convict’s wife automatically acquired the same sentence termination date he had – thus short timers were in high demand as spouses) the couple and their children made their way to Bombay and Rees lost track of them.


There were several other births during the voyage or shortly thereafter, although perhaps fewer than you might expect on a shipload of teenage girls and sailors. Rees comments on the contraceptive methods of the age, which involved a sponge soaked in rum or vinegar and tied to a string or a cervical cap molded from beeswax (sheep-gut condoms existed but were out of the price range for a sailor). The arrival in Sydney was less tumultuous than expected; the Sydney convicts may have been starved for female companionship but they were even more starved for food. English crops grew poorly in the New South Wales climate, and rations had already been reduced to four pounds of flour per man per week. Thus it was disappointing when the Lady Julian arrived laden with ladies instead of bread, cattle and salt meat. The Guardian (which was supposed to precede the Lady Julian with a load of foodstuffs and livestock) had had an unfortunate encounter with an iceberg and lost her rudder and nearly foundered before limping into Capetown with a jury rig (fans of Patrick O’Brian may recognize the adventures of the Guardian as the inspiration for the Aubrey-Maturin novel Desolation Island). Rees notes that later female convict ships arriving after the food situation had stabilized met with more enthusiastic receptions; convicts and guards swarmed aboard even before the anchors had been dropped to literally tackle their choice of ladies before someone else got to them.


A quick read. I found Rees’ writing a little pedestrian given the subject matter, but perhaps she was resisting the temptation to go sensational (I note from the Internet that someone has picked up a movie option on The Floating Brothel). Illustrated with period engravings and pictures; end matter includes a cast of characters and a bibliography. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 22, 2017 |
Siân Rees has done an amazing job combining various historical records and sources into a dramatically convincing story. The first part of the book consists of accounts based on legal records about various women and their crimes, ranging from theft to prostitution, and their subsequent deportation to the penal colony, then Australia. The hardship of the voyage, the landing and finally settlement with new husbands is decribed in equally engaging chapters, which vividly bring the everyday life experience of the Eighteenth Century to life. However, the literary quality of the book falls somewhat behind the scholarly work, and at times descriptions are a bit too long. The research may not be very spectacular, but the conception of the book into a coherent narrative is quite successful. ( )
  edwinbcn | Oct 8, 2016 |
The Floating Brothel is a great non fiction history book mainly focused on the lives of female convicts who came to be aboard the Lady Julian for transportation to the new British settlement of New South Wales.

It starts with their background and crimes, the initial trials & journey to the shores. What was involved in the preparation of departure, the journey, romances, port calls and adaptation once landed. There's also the shocking landing of Neptune, Surprise & Scarborough where bodies are tossed overboard as the slavers care not for their human cargo, kept locked below deck, over 250 were dead, over 500 too weak and sickly to care for themselves and get to shore.

The book rounds out with the tale of John Nicol who pines for his convict wife whom he was forced to leave in New South Wales at gunpoint and can't find passage back, you can't help but feel sorrow for the turn his life takes.

Very much worth a read for a glimpse into this interesting chapter of Australian & British history.
  HenriMoreaux | Jul 3, 2016 |
This book is amazing, it is brilliantly written and enjoyable to read, at the same it is informative and educational with regards to the Colony that was the beginning of Australia ( )
  NikNak1 | Mar 17, 2016 |
Great and informative book, educational and shocking, overall I would recommend you read this in your life time before it is forgotten ( )
  Helen.Hunter | Mar 14, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0747266328, Paperback)

In July 1789, 237 women convicts left England for Botany Bay in Australia on board a ship called The Lady Julian, destined to provide sexual services and a breeding bank for the men already there. This is the enthralling story of the women and their voyage. Based on painstaking research into contemporary sources such as letters, trial records and the first-hand account of the voyage written by the ship's steward, John Nicol, this is a riveting work of recovered history. The Floating Brothel brilliantly conjures up the sights, sounds and particularly the smells of life on board ship at the time and is populated by a cast of larger-than-life characters you will never forget.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:06 -0400)

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In 1789, 237 women convicts left England for Botany Bay in Aust. on board a ship called The Lady Julia, destined to provide sexual services and a breeding bank for the men already there. This is the story of the women aboard that ship.

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