Although it took me 24 hours on a plane to get to Sydney, the prisoners of Millbank Prison were shuttled onto a wooden ship from the banks of the Thames and spent months and months, travelling down under the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, to end up in a god foresaken place that was to become their new home. Many of the prisoners were country people from the rural parts of England - Devon, Dorset and Cornwall who had been caught stealing loaves of bread or milk from their local dairy. For many, London was far from home, so to be sent to the other side of the world to a land that had only just been ‘discovered’ was beyond their imagination.
While on board ship for those many lonely and strange months, the prisoners had to occupy their time. Some must have past the time by hand sewing and embroidering, as the group of women prisoners did who created the wonderful Rahja quilt, which was recently on loan from Australia to the V & A for their Quilt show. The women used sewing provisions donated by Elizabeth Fry's social reform initiative to create what is now the only transportation quilt in a national collection, never before shown outside Australia.
Somehow, this group of female prisoners had together created this quilt. Like any refugee or displaced person, the smallest and simplest things can remind you of home and become a symbol of hope.
As their ship sailed into Sydney harbour, they would have observed small wooden canoes around the bays, which were used by the local indigenous people to fish. While the man fished, the woman would tend the fire they had lit on the canoe, to cook the freshly caught fish.
For the newly arriving convicts, this was an introduction to what would become a defining feature of the society that was being formed – the troubled co-existence with the local indigenous population, who had lived on this land for the last 40,000 years and who would become displaced persons in their own land. On first arrival in 1788, there were around 2,000 Aboriginal people living around Sydney Harbour. Within 100 years, they had all been killed or died of introduced diseases and there are no remaining descendants from the Sydney Harbour clans
Stay tuned, for the next installment from Sydney, on what happened to the prisoners once they landed. Posted by TED Research Assistant Clara Vuletich