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The Floating Brothel

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The Floating Brothel
The extraordinary story of an eighteenth-century ship and its cargo of female convicts. By Siān Rees. (Hyperion: Reprint Edition, 2001. Pg. 256.) ISBN: 0-7868-8674-9

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - January 15, 2003

On the 29th day of July, in the year 1789 the Lady Julian sailed from its last port of call in England, Cawsand Bay, and headed out into the Atlantic - its final destination was to be Botany Bay in New South Wales. The ship's cargo included, among other items, between 225 and 240 female convicts and five babies. The women, who ranged in ages from 11 to 68, had been sentenced to 'transportation" by the British legal system for crimes as diverse as petty theft to murder. For some, this sentence was for the term of their natural life, for others the sentence was fixed to a specific number of years. But no matter how long or short their sentence, they were all expected to serve out their sentence by bearing children to populate the new English territories in the Pacific.

The female convicts aboard the Lady Julian were being sent west to provide sexual services to the men in Botany Bay, both to free men as well as to convicts and to bear as many children as possible. Whether they were married to the men in question was immaterial. They were also expected to service the men that they sailed with. Consequently, women convicted of the crime of prostitution found that they were being forced to continue in their old profession by the very same people that convicted them of the 'crime.' This is but one of the many dichotomies that faced the female criminals once consigned to the British legal system in the 18th century. For example, at the time that the Lady Julian sailed, the sentence for treason in England was hanging for a man, but for a woman, the sentence was to be burned alive - a sentence that was carried out with some regularity!

In The Floating Brothel, Siān Rees provides a riveting retelling of the events surrounding the sailing of the Lady Julian, and the story of the men and women, who sailed on her. This well researched and well-written narrative includes information garnered from legal and court documents, letters, and an account of the voyage written by John Nicol who served as the ship's steward.

In recounting this unforgettable story, Rees provides the reader with details about the early lives of several women who sailed on the Lady Julian, the crimes they were charged with, how they came to be sentenced to transportation, and what happened to them during and after the voyage. Rees also provides intriguing details about the sailors onboard the Lady Julian and their relationships with the female convicts, including the practice of taking temporary 'wives'. Many of these temporary wives become pregnant on the voyage out to New South Wales.

While conditions on the ship were harsh, the women on the Lady Julian had, when compared to later transports, an easy voyage. They were relieved of their chains and treated with relative kindness during the voyages. The convicts who followed in their footsteps where not so lucky. Many of the ships that followed the Lady Julian turned into floating coffins rather than brothels, with the convicts making the year-long voyage in chains, confined almost entirely to the ship's hold, with little food. It is little wonder that the death toll on these later transports was so high. In this book, Rees graphically describes the conditions that the convicts endured on some of these later transports.

The story of this transport is as fascinating as it is horrific. In recounting the story of the Lady Julian, Rees offers a clear and unbiased retelling of this remarkable voyage. Rees brings London to life, in all its splendor and all its filth, and does the same for the men and women who people this fascinating narrative. Rees also offers an in-depth overview of what it was like on the sailing ships of the 18th century, and the hazards inherent with shipboard life.

The Floating Brothel is written in a flowing narrative style, and the text will mesmerize you with its vibrant imagery and the almost unbelievable nature of the story that Rees is telling. In addition to chronicling the plight of the convicts, this book also includes insights into how other countries viewed the British legal system as well as why the women involved consented to be used as they were. This book concludes with a bibliography that will direct you to other works about this influential period. I highly recommend this book, both for its readability, for its historic content, and for the unbelievable insights that it provides on an often overlooked aspect of English, and by extension, Australian history.

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