In January 1835 a three-masted barque sailed from Cork harbour, bound for Australia, with 241 people on board. Most were Irishwomen who had been convicted of various crimes and sentenced to transportation to the colony of New South Wales. Some were the wives of Irishmen who had already been banished. There were also more than 30 children, mostly babies and toddlers.
On May 13th the ship hit a reef north of King Island, off Tasmania, and sank with the loss of 224 lives. A few survivors managed to get to King Island, but most of those died on its beaches from cold, exposure and shock. It was the second-largest maritime disaster in Australian history and the greatest catastrophe in almost a century of convict transportation. Yet the name of the Neva , and the story of its pitiful human cargo, is almost unknown in Ireland.
Now the Cork historian Cal McCarthy has teamed up with the Australian artist and designer Kevin Todd to tell that story in a new book. The Wreck of the Neva does more than just reconstruct the drama of the shipwreck; it also gives a vivid sense of the lives of these women from all over Ireland, filling in many of the human details behind the stark historical facts.
For a modern reader, one of the most startling aspects is the harshness of the sentences that British courts imposed in Ireland for what we would consider to be minor misdemeanours. One woman received seven years for the theft of a handkerchief; another got a life sentence for stealing sheep.
But, as McCarthy says, by the standards of the day this could be seen as getting off lightly. “Forty years earlier a lot of those crimes would have resulted in execution. So I suppose transportation would have been seen as a lighter sentence.”
But not all the convict women cut heroic figures. Some of them committed mean, vicious crimes. Some were simply working as prostitutes. Others were handed into the court system by their parents, who saw transportation as a free pass to a new life on the other side of the globe.
It was quite a task for McCarthy to track them down; when people are neither rich nor powerful they leave few traces in the historical record. "The court records were destroyed in the Four Courts fire in 1922, so I had to go back to the newspapers," he says. "For example, you'd have an assignment list from Australia where there were six women from Co Down. So I'd go back to the Newry Examiner , and look through maybe two years of it, and hopefully find them. Those are the only printed sources on the Irish end."
The drama of the wreck itself was reconstructed from the witness statements to an inquiry set up by the British government in the Tasmanian town of Launceston. Whether the witnesses are entirely reliable is another matter. As the book points out, nine of the Neva 's 26-man crew survived the sinking, yet only six women eventually made it to safety – a survival rate of 35 per cent for the crew but less than 3 per cent for the convicts.
“It does seem that the women and children were considered inferior to the crew, that they weren’t worth saving, and that it was every man for himself,” McCarthy says.
Like all seafaring tales worth their salt, this one has its fair share of grog – or, in this case, rum. McCarthy has come to the conclusion that rum-smuggling played a major role in events after the shipwreck.
There may also have been some rum goings-on aboard the Neva before it hit the reef. "The witness statements would have you believe that the ship struck the reef; the prison crashed down; the women got on deck – or were freed, depending on which statement you read – and that many of them went to the cuddy and started drinking."
“We believe that’s not very likely. We think the women were already on deck, and were already drunk. They may have been associating with the crew, as female convicts on other ships frequently did – but weren’t supposed to do.”
The crew would have wanted to hush up this flouting of the rules, though on a sea voyage lasting more than four months, on a boat packed with resourceful, energetic young women, it would be surprising if a couple of sessions of one kind or another had not taken place.
McCarthy hopes the book will provide the momentum for the establishment of a permanent memorial to the forgotten victims. “I remember going down to Cork harbour on January 8th, 2012, and it did strike me that day that possibly I’m the first person to ever go down there on the anniversary of this ship’s departure – certainly the first in over a century.”
Down under, the publication of the book has delighted descendants of the small band of Neva survivors. "In Australia it's almost trendy again to have a convict ancestor," says McCarthy. "I think they're very happy that the story is being told. They're proud of their heritage."
So what's next? Neva: The M ovie ? "Perhaps," McCarthy says. "Unfortunately, I don't own the story. And for a historian it'll be difficult to find a story as good as this one ever again."
The Wreck of the Neva is published by Mercier Press
NAMING THE DEAD: THE WOMEN WHO SAILED FROM CORK
Perhaps the most poignant section of The Wreck of the Neva is an appendix that lists the women who travelled on the ship, together with their crimes, ages, place of sentencing and term of transportation. As far as the authors are aware, this is the first time the women's names have appeared in print. No list of the dead was sent to Ireland from Australia. What follows is a representative selection.
Jane McIlvenna , 33, Antrim: Seven years for the theft of a hat.
Jane Gordon , 19, Down: Unknown sentence for theft of scissors.
Louise Mellefont , 47, Cork: Life sentence for forgery.
Honora O'Brien , 20, Kerry: Seven years for theft of wearing apparel.
Anne Stenson , 37, Monaghan: Life sentence for highway robbery.
Anne Cullen , 21, Kilkenny: Life sentence for possession of a stolen cow.
Eleanor McMullan , 18, Down: Seven years for the theft of three yards of
Anne Hixon , 22, Waterford: Seven years for the theft of a cloak and a quilt.
Mary Gaffney , 28, Cavan: Fourteen years for larceny.
Mary Cullen , 26, Leitrim: Seven years for vagrancy.
Catherine Connor , 24, Kerry: Seven years for the theft of a sheet.
Ellen Magennis , 23, Down: Seven years for the theft of shoes and other articles.
Mary Cassidy , 19, Dublin: Seven years for the theft of a pocket handkerchief.