Sunday 27 January 2019

Neva shipwreck women commemorated in art

This month in Tasmania the loss of over 200 transported women is being commemorated as never before - through textile art, specifically seaweed garments as memorials. 
Hobart-based artist and psychiatrist Catherine Stringer has done some wonderful maritime art. 
And now she is remembering the convict  women, babies and children who died in the 1835 shipwreck of the Neva. Her show, Sea Stories, is  at the King Island Cultural Centre.

Skins and clothes

Catherine has put together here the Neva Reliquary and another sequence of art works: The Seal Woman.
She says: "The Neva Reliquary... is my personal response to this tragedy. The work was initiated during a residency at the King Island Cultural Centre in 2011, when I first started experimenting with making paper from the local kelp and subsequently other seaweeds. 
"I became increasingly drawn to the Neva story, feeling a connection with these women, particularly as many of them were mothers, like me, and moreover 28 of them shared my name, Catherine.
"I have developed and refined my papermaking techniques during the past five years to create these garments for selected Neva passengers. They are all made from seaweeds gathered from the Cape Wickham area.
" I have made a small size garment to represent each of the 28 Catherines, and life size garments for each of the Catherines who were children. 
"I have also made a cloak for the youngest convict, Ester Raw, who was only 14. She had been sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing a cloak.
"The six surviving women each have a Survivor’s Cape, which incorporate some shore plants as well as seaweeds.
"The Seal Woman series developed from {thinking about the story that a "woman could slip easily from seal to human form by removing her sealskin. One day her sealskin was stolen by a fisherman ...  She ended up marrying the fisherman...
"but she always yearned for the sea. After many years the woman found her sealskin and returned to the sea, where she had [a further] seven children. She was thereafter torn between two families, two worlds.
"The Neva story and the Seal Skin story are linked by similar themes - mothers and their
children, separation, loss, grief and transformation, and of course their connection with the

The Neva - and Elizabeth Fry

Of the 241 people on board when the  three-masted barque which left Cork harbour for New South Wales all but 17 died. 
The small ship, owned by Moates, a Shadwell firm, had previously been used for carrying troops, meaning it would not be in a salubrious state. 
It was on its second convict voyage when it hit the submerged Harbinger Reef north of King Island, four months after setting forth. 
On May 13 1835  the ship sank and is now seen as the second-largest maritime disaster in Australian history. It's one of the worst convict ship disasters. 
The survival rate was 3 per cent for the convicts but 35 per cent for the crew  - which has to indicate malpractice and selfishness in evacuation procedures. There was no chivalry as with the famous Birkenhead Drill of 1852, two decades later, when the Women and Children First procedure was used.

It's common to assume that the disaster is barely known because it involved 'just convicts' and 'just women', allegedly many sex industry workers drunk on a broached barrel of rum.
Actually, If you know your history of women's penal reform, another explanation is more likely.  I suspect that the silence was diplomatic; the authorities didn't want any more public outcry at this major moment in policy on imprisonment. 
When the Neva sank prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (pictured left) had been pushing improvements for over two decades.
 She had:

  • urged that transportation should be abolished
  • inspected hundreds of convict ships
  • founded the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners in 1821
  • visited women prisoners in Ireland  in 1827 
  • actually been to the ship before, for its previous convict voyage, and offered the men comforts - probably bibles, blankets and eating utensils

Transportation was to be outlawed as a punishment  only two years later, in 1837. 
The Neva tragedy still reminds us today about the continuing burning issues such as: the morality of exporting unwanted people; under what conditions should people be imprisoned; and should imprisoned women, especially mothers, be treated more humanely?


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