Romance genre captivity narratives & Australia

Guest Post by Merrian Weymouth


Janet’s series of opinion posts over on Dear Author about historical North American captivity narratives and the antecedents of the romance genre have led me to try and think out what I know about Australian settlement history – a very general laywoman’s view and to wonder what our captivity narratives would be like. These are the three posts with discussion that form the background to this blog post.

“Life During Wartime” on Dear Author .

“Take The Long Way Home” on Dear Author

“Can’t Find My Way Home” on Dear Author

I started writing a comment to Janet’s “Life During Wartime” post but it became very long and Vassiliki kindly volunteered her blog as a place to share my ramblings.

I can describe three forms of captivity for women that arose from the way in which settlement happened here in Australia but I’m not sure we have equivalent Australian captivity narratives unless we count stories such as Henry Lawson’s fiction of the 1890’s “The Drover’s Wife” about a woman who is captive to her husband’s absence, the bush and the snake, and who does not have her own name.

Women Convicts

Male and female convicts arrived on the First Fleet in 1788 and the last convicts to be transported to Australia arrived in Western Australia in 1868. Female convicts made up 20% of the convict population. Nearly all white women who arrived in Australia in the late 18th and early 19th were convicts; that is, they were captives of the government. To grow the colony, women were needed to breed the next generation. This meant that in Britain women received the harsher penalty of transportation for offences. Women, especially those of marrying age were transported mainly for petty theft and property crimes. Their function was to give sexual gratification to the men of the colony and have babies. The government turned female convicts into unpaid sex workers. Crowds of men would meet the arriving ships to pick whom they wanted. Male convicts had the capacity to earn their passage back to Britain after their term had expired. The reality for women, especially once children were born, was that transportation was a life sentence.

Effectively any existing marriages of all female convicts arriving on Australian shores were set aside. Female convicts were initially sent to ‘factories’ and their way out of these harsh holding cells was to be taken as servants (often a euphemism for concubine) or directly into a co-habiting relationship. Men could go and view the women; there are descriptions from the Parramatta Factory of men dropping a handkerchief at the feet of the one they selected. The women had the choice as to whether they picked up the handkerchief but given the limited options they faced, was it really a choice? The female convicts’ agreeing to be one man’s partner obtained some protection for the importunities of the many, although even so they were still considered whores.  This attitude to women in the colony was so prevalent that even free women who settled in Australia before the 1830’s wore the same label. Legal marriage was very difficult to achieve for convicts due to the cost of the licence and the lack of Anglican clergy. If convict women had any bargaining power it was because of the scarcity of women, an issue in Australia throughout the 19th century.

Consequently, settler Australia grew into a very sexist, misogynistic culture with very distinct male and female worlds of opportunity and action. Men had great power over women; this made Australia a land where women waited for the man to claim to them and to change things for them where men despised them for this and even as they were desired as wives and de facto partners, they were seen as corrupting whores. The process of settlement built a greater power imbalance into male/female relationships than already existed in the British culture of the times. Free women migrating as potential wives and mothers were subsumed into this culture.

Women and settlement

This leads to a story I was told by a local man about life on the Atherton Tablelands in the hinterland behind Cairns in Queensland. Roads into much of the interior of Australia are an essentially 20th century invention; movement around Australia until around WW1 was mostly via coastal steamers and latterly railways. The vast distances (today it takes around 19 hours to drive 1704 km from Brisbane to Cairns) meant that regional areas could be incredibly isolated. Men who had taken up land in the Tablelands would go down to Cairns, Brisbane or Townsville to find a wife, woo her and marry her then bring her back to their properties. They would deliberately take a long and convoluted trip from Cairns into the Tablelands so the woman would not be able to find her own way back over the distance of several days journey. The isolation of life in these places was a known cause for women wanting to leave; the problem was solved by making sure she couldn’t leave because she didn’t know the way out.

White men abducted Aboriginal women as sexual and working slaves. This was a common practice of stockmen moving large cattle herds over great distances and particularly of Sealers working in Bass Strait who abducted women from Tasmania.

White women living with Aboriginal tribes was so rare as to be regarded as mythical and only potentially occurring when ships were wrecked on the coast, not because of abduction.

Beginning in the 1830’s, the Government assisted the immigration of single women between the ages of eighteen and thirty to work as domestic servants and to become wives. Migration to Australia boomed with the discovery of gold in the 1850’s. The population tripled in the next 20 years bringing migrants from countries outside the British Empire. It was not uncommon for migrant women from Europe to marry fellow countrymen by proxy who had already settled in Australia. They made long journeys alone to a new future with nothing but their hope that they were married to good men. Often not speaking any English, their point of contact with the wider Australian world was dependent on their husbands.

Women and the land

Female captivity in Australian historical terms cannot be considered without thinking about our relationship with the land and the great, absorbing silence of the bush. The dominant myth of 19th century settlement was that of the lost child who wanders into the bush never to be seen again. There are many sad stories of real events. Children traditionally represent the future in stories and poems. So these are stories about the harsh and alien environment and European uncertainties and fears about being swallowed whole by the realities of making a life here. Aboriginal people were never the abductors in real life or in stories, they were the ‘black trackers’ who searched for and hopefully found the missing; able to do so because of their relationship to the land and under the direction of white men leading the search parties and dominating their environment. Many free settlers were remittance men, disgraced in some way or unable to fit into British society so sent to, or escaping to Australia with the intention they vanish into the Terra Nullius; the empty land. The long sea journey to Australia meant that settlers were unlikely to see family or friends ever again e.g. until late in 19th century letters back to Britain could take two years to receive a reply, so the land and its distances itself was the captor.

What’s in a name…?

Female life in early settler Australia was determined by strong systemic, social and cultural imperatives implemented through government policy of the day and shaped by the geography of our silent landscape. A whole category of women whose sexual consent was neither needed nor required were created by government fiat. The actual process of settlement turned women as a group and as individuals into nameless objects. “The convict stain” is the colloquial term for having a family heritage of descent from convicts (1 in 7 Australians has convict blood). It was not until well into the 20th century that the stain was regarded without shame. It seems to me the shame wasn’t in the transportation for crime but in what happened on these shores. Australian women settlers were made nameless and silent and ashamed. Their self-reliance, loyalty to each other, determination and economic successes were hidden away by the general view taken of female convicts and inherent cultural misogyny. In the North American captivity narratives, women and children are named and have some form of individual agency in contrast to the nameless, silenced women of early Australian settlement.

Further questions

In her post “Take The Long Way Home” Janet says: “Romance, beyond its focus on a romantic relationship, is also very much preoccupied with the relationship between the individual and society, between freely chosen love and social obligation, between personal aspirations and social roles.” In the case of the female convicts – personal aspirations are likely to have been reduced to being raped less and their relationships primarily instrumental – what can you do for me and what must I exchange for it? Where is the romance?  Are any meaningful mutual obligations possible between individuals? If the state is your rapist what do you owe the social contract? Convict women and the Aboriginal women who survived these early years of settlement were seen as recalcitrant and always ready to battle authority, they were always other.

How does our Australian settler cultural history and mythology construct and engage with the romance genre? How do the captivity, marriage of convenience and ‘fated mate’ tropes of the romance genre then speak to our historical experience of convict and immigrant women and proxy brides for strangers?

If we accept the modern romance genre as seeded from the history and myth of the North American captivity narratives does this enforce markedly American approaches to thinking, writing and reading the romance genre even when readers and writers come from other cultures?

Some Background:

“The Proposition” film set in the 1880’s

“Lost” painting by Frederick McCubbin

Books about female convicts

“Bush Studies” by Barbara Baynton

“The Drover’s Wife” by Henry Lawson (scroll down to find story)

“The Babies In The Bush” by Henry Lawson (scroll down to find story)

“WHITE WOMAN WITH BLACK TRIBES Believed To Be A Myth“  in Gippsland Times Thursday 7th February 1935

Merrian Weymouth can be emailed at