Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife: The many histories of Charlotte Badger by Jennifer Ashton (Auckland University Press, 2022), 191pp, $35
At first glance, the life of Charlotte Badger does not seem an obvious choice as a subject for a biography. As author Jennifer Ashton describes, Badger was an ‘ephemeral, fleeting player in the story of modern New Zealand’. She left no first-person narratives of her life; previous accounts offer wildly different versions of significant events in her past and large parts of her story are irretrievable to us. Yet, it is Ashton’s keen eye for a good historical mystery and her ability to expertly weave together a multifaceted piece of writing—that also challenges what biography can be—that makes this both an expert piece of historical writing and a truly delightful read.
The value of choosing Badger as a subject is that her life, as the tantalising title hints at, was an extraordinary one of many different parts. It was a life lived on an epic scale across the vast expanses of the British imperial world, at the same time as being an intimate story of a life lived on the margins. Her story contains ‘extreme danger as well as domestic tedium’. The roles of ‘thief’, ‘convict’, ‘pirate’ and ‘wife’ are suggestive of a narrative arc that has captivated writers and historians for over a century.
Badger was born sometime around 1778 in the small market town of Bromsgrove in England to a labourer, Thomas Badger, and his wife, Ann. It must have been unimaginable to this couple that their daughter’s life would unfurl as it did. Her life was richly textured: she was incarcerated and transported to the other side of the world; she was part of an ill-fated sea voyage that would become infamous for mutiny and piracy; she lived for a time at Wairoa Bay in accord with the benevolence of local Māori before finally marrying and settling down on Australia’s colonial frontier. It is, however, the lack of historical certainty around large parts of her story that has given space for storytellers and historians to make assumptions about Badger’s life and remake her anew in each generation.
Ashton uses the fact that little is known directly about the life of Badger to her advantage as she prunes back the historiography to the absolute knowable facts. Then, through comprehensive and skilful use of archival and secondary sources, Ashton reconstructs the communities and world in which Badger lived. This, in turn, enables Ashton to propose more authoritative suggestions around the gaps the sources leave. Ashton argues that while history ‘cannot deliver her to us whole’, we are ‘not without ways of making sense of her’.
The book is structured around the life stages listed in the title. This approach draws in the reader and helps the analysis move through space and time. Simultaneously, Ashton deftly challenges the reader to interrogate these identities and, in doing so, illustrates that Badger did not easily fit the assumptions these titles engender.
Ashton starts her examination of Badger’s life with a description of Worcester Castle, used as a county gaol since the 17th century. This imposing structure is where, from 1796 to 1800, Badger was imprisoned for housebreaking and theft. This period of imprisonment symbolises a turning point in Badger’s life, a before and after that radically changed the trajectory of her life. Badger’s early life and the circumstances around the crime for which she is first imprisoned and then transported as a convict to New South Wales provide Ashton with her first opportunity to display her detailed historical detective work. Past accounts have allocated a variety of origin stories to Badger, including posing her as a London pickpocket. Ashton’s use of church records undermines these fictitious accounts. Digging deep into the contextual evidence of the working lives of those in Bromsgrove, Ashton brings to life the impacts of the industrial revolution and 18th-century attitudes towards child labour, poverty, property and criminality. We cannot know the exact circumstances around the incident that saw Badger arrested for stealing four guineas and a Queen Anne’s half-crown from the house of her employer Benjamin Wright. The picture Ashton presents, however, allows us to more fully appreciate the realities and constraints on the lives of young working-class women in late 18th century England and how the whims of the criminal justice system would see her confined to the fetid claustrophobia of Worcester castle for four years before being ‘cast out into a world of unimaginable vastness’.
The twists and turns of Badger’s life are known to us because of her interactions with the record-keeping authorities of the British state. She is most visible at the moments when she transgressed the boundaries of her society. For other portions of her life, she remains invisible to us. Thanks to imperial bureaucracy, we know that Badger boarded the Earl Cornwallis on 18 November 1800 as one of ninety-five women amongst the total 295 convicts. Ashton skillfully uses these imperial sources to paint an evocative but historically nuanced picture of the lives of British female convicts. Using sources such as ship records and letters from sailors, she adds to the historiography on the ‘trial of endurance’ that was the passage from Portsmouth to Sydney Cove.
The chapter that looks at Badger’s life as a convict highlights the intersections of gender and class that were transposed into the new colony and examines the ways these ideas were adapted within this new setting. At the time of her arrival in Sydney, women were outnumbered by men four to one. Despite the demands for their domestic labour, the position of convict women and their futures were ambiguous. Ashton clearly lays out the contradiction for colonial administrators that these women were both a ‘moral hazard and a necessary pillar of the new society’. Most female convicts in the first decades of the colony found themselves serving out their sentences while living in relationships, either married or de facto, where the line between servant and wife was blurred. These relationships were not necessarily ‘oppressive or temporary’, but were precarious, leading to poverty or reliance on government stores if the men in their lives died or walked out on them, especially if they had children. Those who found themselves in this position or who committed further crimes were often faced with the unappealing option of the Female Factory, where those who did not meet the expectations of respectable and industrious womanhood would be put to work weaving cloth. Which circumstance Badger found herself in during her time as a convict in New South Wales is unknown. What is known for certain is that, at some point, she became a mother and various events opened up a new path for her. Ashton draws a nuanced picture of the possible lives for female convicts and the ways in which class, gender and morality shaped and defined their experiences without losing sight of the agency and humanity of the women themselves. She also highlights the paradox of Badger’s life, that while the British authorities judged her removal from England necessary, they were now prepared to use her ‘services as a wife to support the outward expansion of imperial control’. Her unpaid domestic labour as a convict and wife positioned her as part of the ‘support crew’ of the imperial project.
The book is not only the history of Badger but also how her story has been interpreted and retold. Ashton tracks how the myth of Badger has developed and been built upon in subsequent generations. Each retelling is shaped by contemporary concerns and preoccupations and is as instructive about the era in which it originates as it is about Badger’s own experiences. The portrayal of Badger as a cutlass-wielding pirate provides a case study in how histories morph over time and the necessity for historians to interrogate their assumptions and sources. Louis Becke, writing in 1899, incorporated Badger into a fictitious world of outrageous scoundrels at the frontier as a representation of the drunken, sexually lascivious, morally dangerous female convict. By the 1930s, with the rise of the modern girl and real-life adventurers such as Amelia Earhart and Jean Batten, Badger had been reimagined as a glamorous pirate dressed in men’s clothes and with a fashionable bob cut. Both Becke’s and the modern girl version of her life in turn influenced more contemporary iterations of her story that were framed by newer conceptions of nationhood and gender. Ashton charts how the narrative of Badger’s life has moved through the historiography and wider popular culture, from plays and songs to paintings and exhibitions. Ashton’s careful work tracing back these threads and laying out what the archival sources reveal has put paid to the image of Badger as a pirate, instead arguing for a ‘woman caught up in events beyond her control’ during her time aboard the Venus on its intended journey from Sydney to Tasmania. While this story is less fun than others and does not spark the imagination in the same way, it does honour the life Badger lived. In fact, this recalibration of Badger’s history now provides an opportunity to teach a new generation about the process of doing history while also telling the story of her life. I can see this book being imaginatively used in school and university classes to illustrate both content and craft.
Just as Badger cannot simply be slotted neatly in one category, neither can Ashton’s account of her life. This book is styled as a biography, but as Ashton herself points out, the lack of direct source material about her life means that this is a different kind of biography. It builds on feminist and post-colonial revisions of biography to access the lives of those previously overlooked by history. Ashton argues that rather than attempting to understand Badger’s internal motivations and feelings, this is an exercise in understanding the ‘wider meaning of her life’. Revealing the complexities and doubt associated with Badger’s history is not an attempt to remove her from the history of New Zealand, but to place her more securely in it, both as an individual and as a means of accessing wider stories about gender, class and mobility in 18th century British imperial world. This account, therefore, is a strong addition to the histories of early 19th century Australia and New Zealand, especially women’s history and the growing literature centred on mobility and oceanic connections of empire. This book also contributes to the histories of working-class life, criminality, and punishment in late 18th and early 19th century Britain.
Ashton’s experience as a writer comes through her prose, which is easy to read while also conveying the complexities of her topic. She draws the reader in and vividly portrays the places and circumstances in which Badger found herself. This book also highlights what people have got wrong about Badger’s life in the past. It outlines the ‘historical currents that ran through her life’ but also argues that she was not without the ability to make decisions in how she navigated these. This is not a tearing down of Badger’s history. Instead, by offering a more nuanced account of her life, it demythologises her and thus places her more securely in the histories of imperialism, New Zealand and women’s history.
SARAH CHRISTIE is a Christchurch-based historian interested in women and gender, particularly in relation to the workforce. She is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow on the project Te Hau Kāinga: Histories and legacies of the Māori home front at the University of Otago.