by Babette Smith

Recently, Professor Anne Twomey took a swipe at family historians, telling ABC broadcaster James Valentine,”Yeah, they’ll give you the file of great uncle Bert and His war record and all that sort of stuff, so they do the genealogy or whatever, where there’s no controversy.”

Obviously, she has not shared my expereince of seeing hundreds of family historians digest the most startling, even upsetting information about their ancestors.

My forthcoming book, Defiant Voices, on Australia’s women convicts, has led me to pull together the research of hundreds of historians who have investigated female convicts over the last 30 years. It’s made me reflect deeply on the work we have done since A Cargo of Women was published in 1988.

That book started as family history, but transcended the genre when I decided to research all 100 women who were on board the ship Princess Royal with my ancestor.

The received wisdom then was that you couldn’t reconstruct convict lives. So no one tried. Tasmanian records were thought to be more complete, but any attempt to personalise them had been strongly resisted. Demands from family historians forced change. For Cargo I was opening files that hadn’t been touched since the 19th century, particularly in the Colonial Secretary correspondence. I had to think like the 19th century bureaucrats to find what I was looking for. That’s why the primary sources bibliography in Cargo is so extensive. It was designed as a trail for others to follow. And they did.

Situating my ancestor Susannah Watson among 99of her peers, I aimed to be scholarly but readable.

Susannah’s story by itself could not sustain a book. Too many gaps in what I could find out about her, even with the discovery of her letters. These came to light because a descendant from her daughter in England wrote to to an Australian newspaper, The Shoalhaven News, which she mentioned in a letter was founded by her Australian son (my great-grandfather). Like me, the English descendant had no idea that Susannah was a convict. To him, at that stage, she was just someone who ‘dropped off’ his family tree. He nearly fell over when I rang him at home in Nottingham. Subsequently he told me he remembered photos of his mother with diggers in slouch hats which were taken during WWI.

As soon as I broadened my search to all 100 women, it became plain that I had something fresh and significant to say about them. I approached Doug Howie, Managing Director of UNSW Press in late 1986 and he confirmed that it would make a book that would interest him. I threw up my job as National Marketing Manager for the Hoyts Corporation and spent all of 1987 writing it.

Essentially the structure of Cargo is cross-hatched – a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, which was Susannah’s story, intersected by the issues important to female convicts which were revealed by my research.

The search for individuals caused a significant methodological shift from statistical sampling that once dominated convict research. Cargo of Women proved a methodolgical pivot in terms of sampling the convict archive by the boatload, as did combining archives with family history. This sampling method has been replicated over and over by family historians and academics alike, here and overseas.

I approached the material with the feminist historians of the Seventies ringing in my ears – and as a committed feminist myself. I expected to find case studies that confirmed feminist arguments. Instead, I found that tracking individuals usually contradicted them. Discovering letters writtien by my previoulsy unknown convict ancestor impost a valuable discipline on my interpretation. In feminist theory, she was a classic female victim. However, her letters revealed that she didn’t see it that way: she told her daughter that transportation to New South Wales was the best thing that happened to her. Ever since, I’ve asked myself over and over as I write, what would the convict think of this, how would they have experienced it?

Focus on the personal and the ordinary has changed interpretaiton and perspective, probably more so in Australia than any other country.

Family interpretation is based on knowledge, often imperfect, of the generations of a family their locations. As many family historians have discovered, the errors and omissions can be as significant as what is recalled.

Family interpretation is influenced by family documents, pictures, artefacts, and family anecdotes. Sometimes actual memory plays a part. Family history has “illustrated” Australian history in a way those people who scorned family history in the 1970s and 1980s never anticipated. It has provided the “colour” that for many decades Australians claimed their history lacked.

Family historians discovered new sources – and brought mass pressure for their digitisation. Not just new archives but new persoanl sources with wider signiicance. The letters from my convict ancestor are one example – convict opinion, particularly women’s opinion, is rare. Thanks to family historians, photos of convict women have emerged, as well as photos of adminstrators who ran the female factories, and magistrates who judged the prisoners.

Family histories can contribute to wider issues too. To me, there is a great public role awaiting family historians of all kinds. We all know there can be no true Reconciliation without a vast shift in historical consciousness. My research indicate that will only succeed if it is fair to both sides. As historians, we need to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart while advocating a balanced view that respects European and multicultural history too.

Some of you may know that I earn my living as a mediator. No doubt this shapes my conviction that historians should not ‘navigate’ conflicting versions but mediate between the two sides in this issue. Use public talks in halls and via the media, as well as written papers and books. Grace Karskens has made a great start with her book The Colony. Paul Irish’s work, In Plain View, is a significant further step. Family hisotrian Lyn Stewart’s book Blood Revenge is an outstanding contribution. Further publications by Aboriginal family hisotrians wil also be very significant to this important public issue.

copyright 2020 BABETTE SMITH

The full version of this paper can be found at

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