I often hear, as you do, about Women’s rights in todays world and despite the great distance we have come in the last century we still have a long way to go before women are truly considered as simply human, aside from skin colour and prejudice with all the privileges and rights equal to the other gender of our species, mind you this is only an opinion constrained to our species. But that is not entirely what I want to bring to you this week.
Instead I would like to bring to you an understanding of how far we have come. Women in history, within different cultures have enjoyed varying standards of equality if any at all but largely they were a possession of men, be that husbands, sons or fathers. They were once equal to a trade or social commodity, particularly in our more common patriarchal social structures which we are mostly exposed to. This is also an opinion constrained to our species. In other species it is the male who courts and competes for the female commonly and it is the male who protects the female and offspring… we went terribly wrong with some of the males in our society didn’t we? Perhaps we shouldn’t mate with those lesser males ladies, but that is another posting. Perhaps this is why there are so many single males around, we might want to play with them but we don’t want to necessarily marry them.
I however want to bring to you a view of the place of woman in the Australian social structure, not only in the last two hundred years or since the time of colonization but with an insight into the life of the Australian tribal woman. Much of my opinion is born of extensive research and data available that offer views and studies that vary a great deal, if they have a view on women at all. It has not been helped by the reality that colonial anthropologist in Australia largely came from a patriarchal background and often didn’t even acknowledge that women had a spiritual or social structure aside from tending to children and men in general. This however is also a common thread in the Anglo-European culture, which formed the basis of the Australian colonial culture allowing it to develop as it did. The two cultures, tribal Aboriginal Australian and Anglo-European culture bear similarities in this aspect, related to anthropological conclusions.
So instead of using the research from these studies on Australian society I will instead use a ‘peoples history’ found in news-sheets and my own personal genealogical studies on my own family as examples. I have a very strong colonial background, one steeped heavily in a convict ancestry and I well understand the implications of this down through my personal history. There are certain social traits I have inherited which run down through my family, the least of which is a certain disrespect and mistrust for authority as well as an ability to question what is taken usually as a common understanding. In other worlds, these traits have given me an enquiring mind and what is often viewed as an arrogant outlook.
From the very first days of settlement in the Sydney Town penal outpost we know as Sydney, based on a continent/island then known as New Holland, was displayed the position of women in society. It was a grim and uncertain place for the convicts even by todays standard throughout the world, when they landed at Sydney Cove and pitched their tents. The birth of the penal settlement was not the invasion that we commonly hear of which is tossed around as a accusation, in fact I find the term invasion quite funny if not ridiculous. Our history is not well taught in our Country as it most certainly was not an invasion of any kind. From the very first the convicts and soldier/gaolers were commanded to treat the natives with respect. That many didn’t in time, within the convict era, is more a reflection on individual arrogance and personalities. It was not until they began to accept emigrants into the growing colony and changed their outlook from a penal outpost to a colony that the term invasion even becomes remotely relative. Major problems arose in the era of the emigrants and the expansion of settlement but that is another story. History tells a very different tale to what we commonly hear represented of those first weeks and years.
In those first days when they finally got around to landing the women convicts, the women being the very last in the design of the disembarkation from the convict hulks after what was a gruelling sea voyage, all hell broke loose and we as a birthing nation had one hell of a party. The authority of the day could do very little about it, they were of a soldering or sailing background and not one familiar with how to handle a group of civilian convicts on a rampage of relief and celebration at finally putting their foot on solid ground, a ground far removed in every way conceivable from any world they understood. In fact many of the soldier/gaolers joined in the party and it was mayhem if any of the accounts of the day are to be even remotely believed.
Australia Day celebrations were born this day on 26th January and by popular public consensus of the young penal colony this did become our national holiday many years later, a day the colony was ready to party to “celebrate their love of the land they lived in” with “drinking and merriment.” It had little to do with proclamations from Mother England or land possession or invasion. What followed in the next months was a long line of couples seeking matrimony mainly because this meant a certain amount of freedom for the male soldiers or felons involved. Marriage to a convict woman meant often comfort, land leases or grants and a degree of autonomy for men more accustomed to imprisonment and/or poverty. Owning land was generally not even contemplated by the majority of men in this social class, in any time within their lives in fact land ownership bought certain rights and entitlements that many would not even dream of. For women it was outright illegal to own property aside from mostly sewing paraphernalia as the male in her life owned any land entitlement, any wage she may earn, in fact he owned her and he owned her children. The place of woman in Australia’s history was also born in these days and it was a common place in many societies.
In regards to my personal family experience I will tell you of one of my own older grandmothers from this time. Augusta was barely 15yrs old when first convicted. An urchin from the streets of London, she was later convicted of ‘theft of furnishings’ in other words she nicked the bed-stead, having rented rooms with her then husband (who was acquitted at the time as it was she who did the bargaining) and it had been she who had sold the furnishings to buy food. Tried and transported she bore a child before her twentieth year when she reached Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania as it is now known. Here she fortunately ended up in the Female Factory in Hobart after being assigned as a servant and absconding within hours when presented with the realities of the young penal settlement. I often imagine that she had something to say to the bloke who took her on and I would love to have heard what it was. Her experiences were rich and testing but needless to say she went on to make much of life regardless of how difficult as it was.
The Female Factories of the time offered certain protections for women even as harsh as they were. Commonly if a woman was assigned as a servant they would end up working in prostitution or as privately owned and controlled paramours as well as house servants. Young girls were particularly valued over boys so much so that they had to create the first boys reformatory in the British Empire at Point Puer in the penal settlement of Port Arthur to accommodate the unwanted lads. Women were viewed as a commodity; one traded and used to the advantage of men in general, particularly convict women.
That is not to say that women were in any way particularly compliant, they did have a voice and a pair of feet if not a shrew attitude commonly expected in convict women and rightfully so to protect themselves with. This reality was largely accepted as the norm of the time and women found their own ways of matching life with their own expectations. Even in the Female Factories of the day prostitution was commonly rife and it was often the gaolers who were found to have organized it. In effect, the colonial government authorities were commonly found to be pimping out convict women often to their own advantage.
As to the life of tribal Aboriginal women, without stepping beyond co-habitation of the Aboriginal and European couples yet, we need to understand what life for a tribal woman was in this era. Women here were also a commodity of trade, a circumstance that had developed over the millennia of tribal lore and custom. They were owned, traded and used amongst the tribes by their men for many reasons. Largely they were viewed as having no spiritual capabilities and were outside of the main lore, aside from their own lore amongst women. The age-old tribal custom of the control men exercised over women is touched on in Book1 of The Dreaming Series, and very much so dealt with in Book 2, Sky Song.
The life of a tribal woman was strongly tied up with her cultural position in her society. Culturally, the tribal Aboriginal had few possessions and it was the men who provided protection, most of the protein and a measure of security. Tribal women accepted this easily; they were the nurturers of their culture and largely did most of the mundane work in ensuring provision for their babies and children.
That women provided comfort, sex and company and were largely viewed as a commodity and were traded openly by the men who might own her, this was what tribal women expected of life and there generally was no ill will in this arrangement. Many of the descendants of our First Nations Aussies view colonization as a bad thing, however when it comes to equalities within the context of what were the experiences of women and improving their lot, it was certainly not that. Their lives improved generally in association with the colonial men despite the many hardships and atrocities all women endured in this era and it was the tribal men who were largely dispossessed with serious consequence. Women, regardless of skin colour were a valued commodity generally.
Attitudes of their society, as with western society, saw no ill and more advantage in trading women and had traditionally done so over eons. The popular image of a colonial woman commonly portrayed today is one where they wore crinolines and had in general very refined mannerisms and ways… these women were as rare as socially and emotionally stable and prosperous women are today who have no serious baggage, if not more so.
There were also genetic advantages in the more liberal mating attitude commonly found in what are small family groups restricted to ‘country’ or territory, which is illustrated more with an understanding of their marriage and social lore’s that were strict and highly moral, though these tribal lore’s broke down over time with colonization. Largely though, tribal women of this era found certain comfort and security in cohabiting with Whitefella’s and this became the norm for many dispossessed tribal women and often not without some advantage to their men and children. It was not uncommon for a tribal man to sell or trade a woman or child he had acquired to a settler in exchange for an advantage. Perhaps not understanding that the Whitefella generally didn’t like sharing.
To illustrate this point I will use a news article of the era in which a young woman has been taken as a wife by a Whitefella to which she has a mixed race son, this in around Bouila in Central Queensland, a very remote and isolated region even today and an area even more further remote from civilization than even a frontier was in 1870’s. Her tribal husband or owner decided after much time that he will move on to anther Station and according to their Lore, demanded and fully expected that his tribal wife should be returned to him and accompany him. All hell broke loose as the two cultures clashed.
The woman, who has little say but is constrained in her actions by tribal lore more than common law, goes with her tribal husband rightfully taking her son with her. The Whitefella goes in pursuit and another fight breaks out in which the Whitefella is killed.
What is interesting here is that the Blackfella is arrested and bought to court in Rockhampton where the judgement is an interesting one. You can read the account here, rather than me recounting it. In essence though, the Blackfella is largely let off after a stint in Bogo Road Gaol in Brisbane some 1,800 klm from Boulia. The point made here is what became of the woman and her son. I have used this true story in structuring my novel, the 3rd book in The Dreaming Series, Spirits of the Rock, as a point of projection in maintaining a certain cultural and historical integrity to my novels. A series spotlight can be found at Lost in Books.
We commonly hear of the rape of women in our history, and this was not confined to mainly tribal women in colonial Australia but was commonly an experience of convict women also, something often overlooked if even recognized. Rape is a social crime and a crime against women and it has little to do with race or colour in my opinion and more to do with the sense of self-empowerment and dominance, aside from the lack in personal wit and basic lack of honour and respect to be found in the men who commit such violent atrocities.
These two examples are an illustration in the value in ‘Owning a Woman’ and the strife it can get you into in an era now hopefully passed for many. Now, in more enlightened times, women should own themselves and belong to no-one. They should have more self-determination in their lives and they hopefully are no longer a subject of trade or a victim of their society as they commonly once were. Though there is most certainly evidence that these aberrations continue on today, particularly in the lower socio-economic and developing countries which lag behind in prosperity and where communities are isolated and morally impoverished within Australia.
Even amongst the refugee and emigrant populations within our larger cities, women are traded today in marriage, for social or economic advantage of others within the binds of their culture and often without their consent. We still have a long way to go before we feel the real strengths of social and cultural freedom and equality.
Happy reading everyone!
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- Australian History 101: Australia to 1850 (studyingthehumanities.wordpress.com)