Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Convict Bonnet

 January 26 2013 - Australia Day
This is the day that so many Australians celebrate as the date that marks the birth of our nation. Once upon a time I would not have thought twice about marking this is a day for patriotic pride. But it no longer feels like such a "celebration" for me. Instead, I find that it makes me reflective. The date certainly marks the beginning, the first chapter in a historical narrative of the establishment of a penal colony, and the founding of what was later to become a federated nation under Commonwealth dominion. But it is also the day that Britain imposed itself on a country that was already free. That was already occupied by indigenous peoples, who already had designated territories and boundaries between different tribes. Who already had Nations within this nation. I can't help but mourn the terrible happenings, the destructive and unthinkable consequences of the imposition of one set of peoples upon another.

But that first "Australia Day" in 1788 is certainly a part of my history and my family's history. I have descended directly from three convicts transported from England for various petty crimes, and my husband has a similar heritage. I am a sixth generation Australian. My fifth great grandmother was transported in 1801 at sixteen years of age for stealing a handkerchief. She came from a tiny farming hamlet in Somerset, and I cannot quite conceive of the fear and uncertainty and the physical privations that she must have endured. It would be unimaginable to be torn from your family, and transported, friendless and alone, to a land so different to the green and abundant fields of the homeland you had known. 

My grandmother's story is a common one. A young woman who would have been forced to grow up quickly. To learn life's lessons in a rough and embittered environment. She is listed in the Reverend Samuel Marsden's female convict muster of 1805 as a "Concubine". She was living in the household of a trader at Parramatta, the township that had been established as the seat of government by that time. She was in fact, probably working as a housemaid or servant, but the views held by the powers of the day was that all of these women were "fallen". They were most often considered to be whores. Even women who had come from reasonable backgrounds, who could read and write, and had many other desirable skills were treated in this way.

Some years ago, Christina Henri, a conceptual artist from Hobart in Tasmania, began a project that would commemorate the hardships and deprivations endured by convict women.  She provided a simple bonnet pattern and invited anyone with a convict woman in their family line, or anyone who empathised with these women to sew a bonnet as a tribute and to send it to her. She has now received over 25,000 bonnets from all over the place. She has done much to raise awareness of what these women went through. Some of these bonnets were taken all the way from Australia and back to England for a special "Blessing of the Bonnets" ceremony in 2010. Her work is ongoing and forms an incredible tribute to these women of great fortitude.
I did make a little white bonnet for my convict grandmother. I embroidered it with a stalk of wheat to symbolise the life that she made with her convict husband. She married in 1810 and by 1818 her husband received a grant of land at Prospect Hill, only about 30 minutes drive from where I now live. For so many years I have passed by the very place where my roots began. I still marvel at it.

So much has been written about the early years of the colony, the development of Australia as a nation. There is much in our history to be proud of. We come from tough stock. Our environment can be harsh at times. Dorothea Mackellar's famous poem, "My Country" describes it all so well:
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!

So while we celebrate Australia Day, colloquially known as "the lucky country", I find it is also a day tinged with sadness and regret. I need to acknowledge the countless atrocities experienced by our indigenous peoples since Captain Arthur Phillip first dropped anchor in Botany Bay. Not only the bloodshed, the importation of disease, the imposition of one race upon another, but also the ongoing indignities, the loss of nationhood and of liberty suffered at the hands of white man. I am sorry for all of these things.

But still I love my country. I love living in Australia and knowing that I am an Australian - born and bred.


No comments:

Post a Comment

If you would like to leave me a comment, (just a line or two will do), then I will get back to you, and that would be like having a bit of a chat (and that's always nice). :)