Van Diemen’s Women: a History of Transportation to Tasmania by Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden

If you are interested in transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and particularly in the transportation of women, then this is a very interesting book.

Van Diemen’s Women by Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden

‘The story of the Tasmania (2) and its human cargo is one of remarkable resilience and survival.’

On 2 September 1845, the Tasmania left Kingstown Harbour on its second voyage as a convict ship.  On board were 138 female convicts and 35 of their children.  The journey to Van Diemen’s Land took just over three months.  During the voyage, one woman (Ellen Sullivan) died, as did one child.  One child was born en route.  Note: In the book, the authors refer to the ship as ‘Tasmania (2)’.  This is because this book is about its second voyage as a convict transport.

‘The ship arrived in the River Derwent near Hobart Town on 3 December 1845 and on 9 December 1845 it unloaded its human cargo of 137 female convicts and their children.’

The average age of the women on the Tasmania (2) was 29 years.  The oldest woman was 64 years old, the youngest just 16 years.  This book is about the women who were transported aboard the Tasmania (2), but it focusses on two women in particular: Eliza Davis and Margaret Butler.

Eliza Davis was transported for life (from Wicklow Gaol) for infanticide after her death sentence was commuted.  She married twice, with her second marriage taking place just a week before her death.  She was aged 68, and had nine children in Tasmania.

Margaret Butler, a widow from Carlow, was transported for seven years, for stealing potatoes.  Only two of her six children went with her on the Tasmania (2).  Sadly, Margaret was murdered by her second husband in 1855.

The authors, Joan Kavanagh based in Ireland and Dianne Snowden in Tasmania, met at a conference in Melbourne in 1998.  Dianne Snowden is Margaret Butler’s great-great-great granddaughter. This book, written using original records, shows that, for at least some of the women, transportation provided the possibility of a better life.  Especially given that the Irish Potato Famine began in 1845 and continued until 1849.

This book is not a comprehensive history of transportation.  It looks at the Irish women transported on the Tasmania (2), the crimes they were convicted of and what happened to them.  The case studies are interesting, as are the illustrations.  Reading this book, it’s easy to feel sorry for many of the women transported.  So many of the crimes – from this distance – seem trivial.  I find it impossible not to see some of these women as both perpetrators and victims.

I found this book very interesting.  While the details of the women and their crimes was informative, I was much more interested in their lives once they arrived in Hobart Town.  If you are interested in the experience of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), especially for women from Ireland, then this is a book you may wish to explore.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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