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Jack is planted in a perfect garden of temptation, when among probably a hundred of such fair seducers, and is more an object of pity than wrath”

Royal Naval surgeon Peter Cunningham, on the sighting of a fellow crewmember caught in a predicament of virtue with female prostitutes (Cunningham, 1827).


Women throughout world history have been exploited and overlooked in male dominant societies. The social, economic and political circumstances in the course of the first fifty years of British colonization facilitated the status quo of women particularly convict women. One of the most vivid illustrations can be drawn from the pre-colonial penal colony of Australia. Faced by the twin problems of rising crime rates and overcrowding in prison, the British government devised an alternative form of punishment through transportation. Consequently, petty offenders were loaded into convict ships and transported to Australia to serve out the remainder of their sentences. Not only was this policy meant to decongest the prison system but it also served to populate the colony with women provide labour and most importantly to meet the sexual demands of an increasing male population.

In the transportation years, the female convicts abroad the voyage ships were faced by harsh and cruel circumstances in addition to acquiring the undesirable reputation of being whores or prostitutes. This damned whore stereotype was cultivated and propagated by the captains and surgeons of the convict in the first and second ship fleet. This essay explores the root of the damned whore stereotype by considering three primary sources that relate to the female convict prostitute stereotype. The sources considered will be “Peter Miller Cunningham’s Two Years in New South Wales”, The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark 1787-1792 and The Report of the Select Committee on Transportation, 1812 from Clark Manning’s Select Documents in Australian History. The essay will trace the roots of the prostitute stereotype abroad the ships on the voyage out from these firsthand accounts and evaluate the methodological issues raised by these sources.

Peter Miller Cunningham’s Two Years in New South Wales

In the eleventh chapter of hismemoirs Two Years in New South Wales, Scottish Royal Naval Surgeon Peter Miller Cunningham reports on the general conduct of female convicts on the voyage out as promiscuous and “amorous” (Cunningham, 1827). Published in 1827, Cunningham’s novel was an informative account of the convict’s lives in New South Wales intended to provide prospective British travellers to the colony first hand information about the situation on the ground. As surgeon superintendent in the convict ships, Cunningham was in a position to observe the behaviour or conduct of the female convicts and he picked out the general pattern of the vice of prostitution on the voyages. He makes particular reference to the promiscuity of the female convicts who had been forced to live in “concubinage” with the sailors on the voyage out and paints a picture of the prostitution that transpired abroad the ships (Cunningham, 1827). He describes the female convicts’ character as unruly, quarrelsome, of easily excitable tempers and “difficult to control” (Cunningham, 1827). Cunningham reinforces the female convict prostitute stereotype by depicting the seamen or crew as victims of the temptation or seduction posed by the amorous and flirtatious women who were vastly outnumbered by the men on the ships (Cunningham, 1827).

According to Cunningham, the numerical imbalance on the ships, between the sailors or male convicts and the female convicts only served to enhance the vice of prostitution on board. He reveals the extent of the vice of prostitution by describing it as a “long indulged inclination” which must be reformed gradually. Cunningham describes how Jack, the representation of the archetypal crew member/seaman/sailor, was planted in a garden of temptation vulnerable to the seduction of the female convicts (Cunningham, 1827). He also describes how the crew members were innovative in devising crafty ways to indulge in prostitution right under the noses of the ship’s authority such as bypassing the attention of the matrons in charge of the convicts to access the female prisons. They would then indulge in their “amorous flirtations” in the cover of the night (Cunningham, 1827). Cunningham reveals that the crew themselves found the nature of the vice appalling and would openly deny when confronted by their superiors or captains on allegation of their involvement. “Me, sir!” one of them would react when confronted… «If I was going about a thing of that kind, I would go about it with economy, sir!” (Cunningham, p 264)

However, Cunningham’s account of female convict behaviour poses the question of observer bias. Cunningham has represented the archetypal sailor, or Jack, as a victim of the temptations of immoral female convicts. This potentially discounts the role of the seamen or crew in perpetrating prostitution abroad the ships. As a surgeon superintendent, Cunningham’s appropriation of the female convicts’ behaviour may not be entirely objective. Representative of British authority onboard the ships, Cunningham is prone to making predetermined judgements and may have been oblivious to the mistreatment of female convicts and the role the condition

The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark 1787-1792

The stereotype of female convicts as whores is even more bluntly illustrated in The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark 1787-1792. Published in 1981, the book is a collection of Lieutenant Ralph Clark who travelled on the First Fleet. From his journals, Clark has an apparently impassioned opinion on the female convict who he referred to as “damned whores”. This can be vividly illustrated in his reaction to the arrival of the notorious convict ship Lady Juliana of the Second Fleet in 1790:

No, no, surely not! My god not more of those damned whores! Never have I known worse women!”(Lt Ralph Clark as quoted in Summers, 1994 p267)

In his journals, Clark has described the convict women on board the ships of the first fleet as unruly, degenerate, drunk and licentious. However, a few methodological issues arise from Clark’s journals. From his journals, it is apparent that Clark has no time for the convicts and he compares and contrasts the behaviour of the female convicts to that of his adorable wife Betsy. Clarke is particularly spiteful of the female convict’s behaviour and believes that the prostitution on board can only be due to the immoral nature of the female convicts. Even in cases where the sailors are apparently soliciting for sex from the convicts, he blames the female convicts. However, Clark’s perspective of the female convicts seems exaggerated and biased. Writing from a point of authority similar to that of Cunningham, Clark seems to have a predetermined mindset concerning the convicts. During one of his trips, he even admits to be glad to be rid of the “whores” when they are replaced by sheep during a stop at Cape Town. According to historian A.G.L Shaw, such descriptions of female convicts painted a “singularly unattractive picture of female convicts” (Shaw, 1966). Therefore, such sources are more subjective than objective as they are strongly pegged on the idiosyncrasies of the author.

Report from the Select Committee on Transportation, 1812 in C.H.M Clark’s Select Documents in Australian History.

C.H.M Clark’s selection of documents includes the Report of the Select Committee on Transportation, 1812. The Select Committee on Transpiration was formed to evaluate the effectiveness of transportation as a form of punishment. In 1812, they submitted their report to the House of Commons the report consisted of published findings and recommendations. The committee gave a scathing report on transportation based on information they had gathered from Lieutenants and surgeons of the ships of the first and second fleets. In the report, the female convicts were described using terms such as “profligate, excessively ferocious” and in conclusion, ‘‘all of them, with scarcely an exception, drunken and abandoned prostitutes (C.H.M. Clark, 1963).”

Following the report’s recommendations, the transportation policy was deemed as a failure due to its inability to reform the prisoners especially the female convicts. However, as indicated, the report was drawn from accounts given by authors such as Cunningham and Ralph Clark. While the report’s recommendations were positive, it inherits the methodological issues present in sources such as Cunningham and Clark’s journals. It serves to reinforce the damned whore stereotype. The Select Committee intended for the report to be used by the House of Commons to reverse the transportation policy but it was biased in ignoring the role the conditions faced by the convicts had on their behaviour. Like Cunningham and Clark, the report concluded that the typical female convict was a wretched prostitute by nature. .

These three primary sources are all drawn from the personal journals which offer the firsthand accounts of the superintendent surgeons or ship captains. Clark Manning goes a step further in providing statistical evidence to corroborate the damned whore stereotype of the female convicts on the First and Second Fleet or to confirm what amounts to a hypothesis. However, the three sources offer what is a predominantly masculine view of the situation of the female convicts. In her book Damned Whores and God’s Police, Ann Summers criticizes the characterization of women as portrayed by Clark Manning. According to Summers, women have been segregated into two classes, Gods Police-the virtuous and obedient type such as described by John white- and the damned whores (Summers, 1994). Summers offers a feminist critique of the damned whore stereotype by claiming that their situation is primarily due to their rejection of the authority that requires them to be obedient or submissive. This authority, the British Empire, she describes as “Imperial whoremasters” due to the transportation policy which actually encouraged prostitution (Summers, 1994). Furthermore, the convict women were merely doing what they had to do to survive by trading sexual favours for better conditions for themselves and their children (Summers, 1994). Therefore, while these primary sources offer what amounts to credible information surrounding the damned whore or female convict prostitute stereotype, it must be taken into consideration that they were subjectively prepared for biographical and historical purposes (in Cunningham’s case) or for evaluation of colonial policies such as transportation (The Parliamentary Select Committee in Clark Manning’s case) and may offer a lopsided view of female convicts.


Clark, R., Fidlon, P.G. & Ryan, R.J. (1981). The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark, 1787- 1792, Volume 3 of Australian Documents Library Series. Michigan: Australian Documents Library in association with the Library of Australian History.

C. M. H. Clark (1963). Select Documents in Australian History, 1788-1850, London: Oxford University Press.

Cunningham, P.M. (1827). Two years in New South Wales: Volume 2. London: Colburn.

Shaw, A.G.L. (1966). “Convicts and the Colonies A study of Penal Transportation from Great Britain& Ireland to Australia and other parts of the British Empire”. London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

Summers, A. (1994). “Damned Whores and God’s Police: the Colonization of Women in Australia”. Sydney: Penguin.