The Floating Brothel, by Sian Rees. Hyperion. 236 pages. $23.95.
Sian Rees' wonderfully told history of an 18th century sea voyage begins far from the water, in London's dingy lodging houses and crowded courtrooms. Pity any young woman of the late 1780s desperate enough in her poverty to shoplift a yard of cloth. Shoplifting, like a long list of other offenses borne of poverty, was a capital crime, and the jails were packed.
Authorities looked to England's colonies to relieve the crowding. Colonies were dumping grounds and relief valves for solving the problem of unemployment and other social ills. If a colonist happened not to starve, be killed by natives or felled by disease, he might make a fortune. Better, though, to invest from the comfort of the mother country and let the less fortunate risk the dangers of settling across an ocean.
Rees' heroines are the female pickpockets, shoplifters and prostitutes sentenced by the courts to "Transportation to Parts Beyond the Sea." Their destination was the new, terrifyingly distant convict labor camp called Sydney Cove. It was in the land to become known as Australia.
The garrison town was barely a year old when jailers began carting female convicts from Newgate prison to the Lady Julian, moored in the Thames. Word had not yet reached England about the fate of the first fleet of convict-colonists. It hardly mattered to the courts. What mattered was that the women were fertile. They were being sent to England's most distant colony to breed.
The Floating Brothel is a surprisingly poignant account of their lives in three distinct worlds: Georgian England, aboard the crowded ship and in dismal Sidney Cove. About 225 women -- the exact number is unknown -- boarded the Lady Julian in 1789. John Nicol, the steward, used a hammer and anvil to free them of their manacles. And quickly took one of the convicts, young Sarah Whitelam, convicted of petty theft, as his mistress. Every other officer and seaman aboard had the same "right" of companionship.
The only known eyewitness account of the voyage, says Rees, is the memoir Nicol dictated more than 30 years after the events he described.
On the voyage to Australia, the Lady Julian docked at the Canary Islands, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. At every port, the ship served as a brothel for sailors from other ships.
Nicol may have functioned as a pimp for visiting officers. Judging everyone aboard by the morality of the time, Rees condemns no one. The commerce of sex gave the women their one chance to earn money they would need if they reached Sydney Cove. "[A]llowing prostitution," she says of the officers, "was an act of pity as much as of negligence."
Elizabeth Barnsely had shoplifted cloth from the best Bond Street shops and maintained her superior airs aboard ship, as a sort of captain among her fellow convicts. Whitelam, one of at least a half-dozen prisoners to give birth during the voyage, gave John Nicol a son. But for lack of records, few of the women emerge as distinct figures.
The best-rendered character is the sea, whether the Lady Julian is becalmed in the Doldrums surrounded by a stinking lake of its own effluent or suffering through a Southern Ocean gale.
Rees is at her best exploring the unsettled relations between women and men. The women seemed to have few prospects. Ahead, somewhere in the ocean, lay Sydney Cove, "a collection of dirty huts around a ragged waterline where people were dying from hunger and disease." The colonists there wanted barrels of food rather than a cargo of women and infants needing to be fed. The convicts aboard the floating brothel were about to enter and help create a New World.
Robert Ruby is The Sun's foreign editor. A paperback edition of his second book, Unknown Shore: The Lost History of England's Arctic Colony will be published in June.