Most Insolent and Mutinous

Most Insolent and Mutinous

Wed 09 May

Exactly 200 years ago, a ship called the Friendship arrived at Sydney Cove after an unusually long voyage of nearly seven months. Before the convicts, crew and passengers could go ashore, the cargo had to be accounted for and inspected. It included 8,000 shoes; 4,000 pairs of trousers; 3,175 blankets; 1,996 cotton shirts; a box of millinery - and 97 convict women. They were considered as being shipped goods, as Peter Cosgreave, the Surgeon Superintendent, wrote in a letter to Governor Macquarie.

“The Master of the Ship also apprized his Crew of the Consequence that was likely to result from their meddling with the Convicts, being Considered as the Cargo…”

97 convict women stumbled off the transport ship Friendship onto the sand of Sydney Cove to begin their sentences in the penal colony of New South Wales. One of them was Sarah Marshall, a 23-year-old Lancashire “country servant”, a thief, and my great-great-great grandmother.

During the journey she acquired another label, “Prostitute”.

Sarah had certainly committed a crime. She’d stolen a petticoat, a bedgown (short jacket), two caps, a pair of silk stockings and a sheet, with a total value of fivepence. This was a crime – larceny – for which theoretically, under the Bloody Code of 18th-century English law, she could have been hanged. In practice, judges avoided the death penalty when possible, so she was sentenced to seven years’ transportation instead. The cost of her prosecution alone was £18.12.2 and her transportation added another £24 or so to the bill.

What, then, was the point of labelling Sarah as a prostitute? The answer uncovers a story of cruelty, hardship and hypocrisy.

The welfare of convicts on board ship was the concern of a naval officer. The surgeon assigned to the Friendship was Peter Cosgreave, and for him the women’s physical health seems to have been secondary to their moral status. Cosgreave compiled a list of the convicts’ “respective Characters whilst on board” for the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie. In it he calls Sarah a “Prostitute (not Insolent or bad disposed) Industrious”. Other women had worse reports: “A Thief, Prostitute & blasphemous wretch”, “Prostitute, Filthy & Lazy” and one, Jane Brown, “A Most Insolent & mutinous Prostitute”. I’ll come back to her later.

The surgeon was covering his back. On a ship at sea for six or so months, carrying (originally) 101 convict women and a much smaller male crew, it was inevitable that relationships would occur. It was also inevitable that the ship’s officers and crew members would take their chances at a quick screw when the opportunity arose, and not always consensually. Some of the men would probably see this as a perk of the job. And it’s also likely that some women would have been sex workers back on land, since their bodies were the only commodity they had.

This was a known aspect of transporting women convicts, and the captain and surgeon were supposed to do what they could to discourage it. But the Friendship became notorious as a “floating brothel” because surgeon Cosgreave and the captain, Andrew Armett, gave up trying. Official records suggest that they were the only ship’s employees who didn’t enjoy “a Very Indecent and licentious Intercourse” with convict women. When they tried to stop the other officers and crew from mixing with the women, mutiny appeared likely.

So Armett told the men: “Do not let me see it,” and, as Cosgreave said, “Ocular demonstration being Considered indispensably necessary for Conviction”, they were able to say they hadn’t seen any forbidden “intercourse” between the convicts and the men. Unfortunately for Cosgreave and Armett, a passenger complained about the apparently sanctioned sexual activity, and the Friendship and its senior officers, with their laissez-faire attitude became notorious.

Cosgreave’s revenge on the women took several forms. The first was to list the ones he suspected of spending the night with the men. Other women, those who behaved as a decent, chaste woman should, had very different descriptions: “Quiet & Industrious”, “an Inoffensive old Woman”, the grudging “rather Insolent, but a good Mother, humane”, and “Quiet Woman. Dead.”

The surgeon had another trick to play. He was in charge of doling out food and water. Not surprisingly, since the ship carried very few fruit or vegetables, the convicts came down with scurvy – although the use of lemon juice to combat the disease was known to the Navy by then. Far worse was Cosgreave’s unnecessary holding back of supplies of water in the heat of the southern hemisphere’s summer. Yet one of the passengers, the missionary John Gyles (not, perhaps, someone you’d expect to be biased in favour of “prostitutes”) testified that there was enough water on board for them to have the six or so pints a day they needed for drinking, washing and cooking. The children who had come on the voyage with their mothers suffered especially badly from dehydration.

Captain Armett was no kinder. Samuel Marsden, the top-ranking Church of England clergyman in New South Wales, was not known for his progressive views – he compiled a list of all the women in the colony, convict and free, and classified them as either “married” or “concubine”, nothing in between. If a woman married in a Roman Catholic or Jewish ceremony, he classed her as a concubine anyway. But even he said this about Armett: “The master stript several of them [the women] and publicly whipped them... the master beat one of the women that lived with me with a rope with his own hands till she was much bruised in her arms, breast, and other parts of her body.”

Armett was also keen on punishing women using a wooden board or “collar” around their necks as a public humiliation.

I said I would come back to Jane Brown. Her full entry in Cosgreave’s list is “A Most Insolent & mutinous Prostitute. Dead”. The missionary, John Gyles, went into details about her death: “She had a quarrel with anther convict woman, and was selected by the captain for punishment; the other was not punished. She told the captain and surgeon that if she was punished above, that she would throw herself into the sea. A wooden collar was put about her neck, which she wore the whole of that day; in the night, she got her collar off; the captain observed it the next day; after tearing her bonnet and shawl off, with many oaths said he would put another collar on; she repeated, that she would throw herself overboard if he did. He ordered the collar, and advanced towards her, when she threw herself overboard, and was drowned... She was a decent well behaved young woman.” Quite a contrast with Cosgreave’s description of her.

Not surprisingly, Jane’s death added to the notoriety of the Friendship’s voyage.

As for my ancestor, Sarah, apart from the general spite of the senior officers and being put on record as a prostitute, nothing outstanding appears to have happened to her on the journey. I don’t know what happened to her when she finally reached dry land. If she still had scurvy, she would have been sent to the hospital in Sydney town. If not, she would have been assigned to a respectable citizen as a servant. I can be sure that she was relatively healthy, though.

At some stage during the following month she met another convict, John Simpson, whose ship had arrived just before hers. Nine months later, my great-great grandmother, Lucy Simpson, was born. I have not found any written evidence that Sarah and John married, but they lived as husband and wife until her death 20 years later.

You can read more about Sarah Simpson and my other convict ancestors at

 Article by Frances Owen, from North Kensington Library's Creative Writing Group

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