Many stories of convict life present romanticised tales of poor innocents wrongly accused of trivial crimes and sent on ships with billowing sails to ultimately lead a wonderful new life in the bountiful southern land.
In The Floating Brothel, Sian Rees presents a vividly different view. This is the previously untold story of life aboard the Lady Julian which sailed from England in 1789 bearing a cargo of convicts destined for Botany Bay.
This is an historical account, not a piece of fiction, so do not expect a light romance or tales of happily ever after, though this does not mean that The Floating Brothel is overly pessimistic or negative. Rees has carefully researched this history and provides a detailed exploration of life on board the Lady Julian, and of the history of those who came to sail on her. Details of life in and beyond the new colony for the key figures round off the book.
For those who enjoy historical fiction, the opening chapters of The Floating Brothel may prove to be a little hard-going. Rees details the social circumstances which led to the use of deportation as a means of relieving pressure on English prisons and, more broadly, English society, as well as the crimes and circumstances of the women who sailed on the Lady Julian. Perseverance with this opening will find the reader drawn in to the tale and to the individual stories of some of those on board, especially that of the ship’s steward, John Nicol, and 19 year old Sarah Whitelam.
Despite its title, The Floating Brothel is not a tale of moral depravity – Rees delves deep into the realities of the relationships and activities on board the ship. This is an absorbing read for anyone with an interest in this era of Australia’s history.
The Floating Brothel, by Sian Reees
Published by Hodder, 2001.