Anne Vines’ The Ship Wife – Q&A

Discover a journey through history and storytelling today as we interviewed author Anne Vines about her gripping tale of endurance, survival, overcoming and more in her book The Ship Wife. Inspired by the true story of Elizabeth Rafferty an Irish convict sent to Australia in 1797. 

Q: What initially drew you to find Elizabeth Rafferty and to discover her life story?

A: Years ago, I read about the notorious convict ship the Britannia, which brought Elizabeth to Australia. Then I met an enthusiastic family historian, who had researched her family and was struck by Elizabeth’s story. So, I heard a snapshot of Elizabeth’s life and a mention of the sea captains she encountered and lived with. 

Initially, I had no intention of writing about Elizabeth, even when the family historian insisted that it would make a great novel and she would love me to write the story. I only write from the imagination, I declared, and not about real historical people. But the story stayed in my mind. I could not help looking more closely into the women on the ship, Britannia. Elizabeth was the captain’s ship wife – the woman he kept in his cabin for the voyage. He was the notoriously cruel Captain Dennett. Yet he set Elizabeth up with money, for life. How had she managed that? 

What was it like for her and the other women convicts on the ship? I had studied the period at university but had never looked closely at the women who were the property of the officers and sailors on the convict ships. I was a little reluctant to imagine it; I had never wanted to get under the skin of a sex slave, but Elizabeth’s case made me more curious. Was she someone not only to pity but to admire? 

Elizabeth and her fellow convicts on the voyage were Irish. With some Irish background myself, I had instant sympathy and curiosity. My university study of the convict era had been mainly from British sources. How much was the sudden transportation of Irish convicts to New South Wales the result of an Irish crime wave and how much was it political – a method of clearing out the poorer classes or the more rebellious folk?  

Captain Dennett killed six convicts on the Britannia by flogging – he ordered 800 lashes for one man. Governor Hunter in Sydney summoned Dennett to a special court hearing upon his arrival. The English government changed the supervision of convict ships from then on. The story had wide relevance. How did Elizabeth keep her relationship with the captain despite that? How did she get on in Sydney, as the de facto of an infamous captain?  

Then I took note of the other two sea captains she was involved with – a whaler and a respectable anti-slaver. Oddly, their lives had parallels with hers. And I found that her daughter married a slave trader – the only one who was transported to New South Wales. He was a singular case, and books had been written about him, but not a novel. Though my focus would stay on Elizabeth, these other three characters gave heft and intrigue to the story. I decided that it would be foolish not to turn this strange tale into a novel.

Q: Were there many aspects of history or of Elizabeth’s story that you were surprised to uncover?

A: Although I knew that most Irish records had been destroyed in 1922, I was still surprised that so much of Elizabeth’s life is undocumented and impossible to verify. Even her crime is unknown. Historians have suggested that it was sedition. I was intrigued by the history of the Defenders and similar rebel and protest movements in Ireland at that time. Most of the convicts on Elizabeth’s ship were part of the Defender protest movement.

I was also surprised to learn how long Irish convicts stayed in gaol before they were transported, and that women and men were in prison together in Ireland at that time. Elizabeth must have struggled with hunger and privation and probably ill-treatment. 

The fear of mutiny on ships was something I had never thought about. Captain Dennett’s paranoia about a mutiny on the Britannia and his manic severity once he suspected it were extreme, but mutinies were a problem. Ship life for sailors, let alone convicts, exemplified the vast inequalities of that time. 

I was stunned to read the will ofCaptain Dennett in which he makes a bequest to Elizabeth. He declared himself the father of her child and then he left Sydney the day after the child was born. It was more so exciting to find documentation of Elizabeth’s property, of her children, and of her travels overseas from New South Wales. There were many details of her later relationships which were extraordinary to me.

Although I was aware of slavery in general, I had not known that a slaver had been transported to New South Wales or that he had been swiftly pardoned in England and then had become a respectable squatter in Tasmania. 

Q: How do you expect contemporary readers will react to the position that women like Elizabeth found themselves in when relating to men on the voyage to Australia and after resettlement? 

A: I can’t expect a particular reaction, but I hope that readers will have sympathy for Elizabeth and her fellow female convicts. Today, we have more understanding of the position of sex slaves and sex workers. The history books of the past were often silent about the mistreatment of convict women by men, whether fellow convicts or authorities, and sometimes condemned the women as immoral and uncivilised. Recent books have shown more understanding of reasons for the women’s behaviour and their lack of resources and opportunities. 

Currently, journalists and survivors of sexual abuse have shone light on the abuse of the powerless by those in power. It is a problem that people are facing and trying to alleviate worldwide. The experiences of Elizabeth and the women she knew are not locked in a distant past but resonate today. 

I hope that readers will appreciate the success that Elizabeth achieved in New South Wales despite the power imbalance between men and women and the prejudice against convict women.

Q: How did you go about negotiating a balance between historical facts and your novel The Ship Wife?

A: The gaps in Elizabeth’s story are huge. There was plenty of room for a novelist’s imagination and craft.

In the creation of Elizabeth’s character, personality, and circumstances, I have remained true to the historical record, but have made decisions about her background and her motivation. I have attempted to recreate the settings in the novel with accurate detail. After 1822, Elizabeth disappears from the records, but I enjoyed imagining a middle age and an old-age version of her. I think such a character deserves a full life story.

My focus was on Elizabeth, so although there might be other interpretations of aspects of the stories of minor characters, I looked at their lives from her perspective.

Q: How does this project represent a development of your creative practice compared to your previous publications, and what aspects are you proudest of?

A: Although I have written and published short stories based on my life experiences, this is the first time that I have written a novel about real characters and used real people as my protagonist – and antagonists. The research I did needed to be more specific and detailed. Instead of a character coming to me, I began searching for Elizabeth: for this novel, unlike my others, I did not begin by hearing a character reveal herself in my mind, I had to find evidence, fill in the gaps, and develop historical knowledge to understand what sort of person she might have been and what her life was like. I had to make her into a character. The creative process was more conscious and deliberate. I blended the research and the imagining to a much greater extent than usual. I waited until she became as real to me as my other imagined characters are. Once that happened, I could write with full force. I am glad that I created a positive and rounded character and one that, although true to the historical period, has many resonances with our times. I am happy that I have made a living woman out of only a few documentary clues. 

I enjoyed the challenge of blending what I imagined of Elizabeth’s story with the actual history of the time. 

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