Convict Babies – Remembered.

After Louisa leaves the grim clutches of “The Shadow of Death Valley”, she walks her audience back up to the top of the Cascades. We intentionally make this a time with plenty of room for reflection and silence. There is so much to absorb. So much to digest. As one slightly dazed person said “It’s like coming out of a very powerful film and having to face the daylight”. However, as Louisa promises, we do stop at a few places of interest along the way. One of these is at the top of Degraves Street where, it is thought, that some of the twelve hundred convict babies who died at the Cascades Female Factory lie buried. Here, we pause and have a few “respectful moments” in memory of these poor little souls. It’s always a very poignant time and again, Louisa and William are sensitive to the need for silence afterwards. Remembering that the majority of these infants died of marasmus (malnutrition) or diarrohoea (almost certainly due to a total lack of hygiene) it may not be too strong to use words like “infanticide”?

We were both very keen to visit the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) recently to see Anne Ferran’s mixed- media exhibition The Ground, the Air showcasing the women and children who were transported to the Colonies. Having such a strong background in the topic we were, of course, fascinated by Anne’s work; the stark paddocks at the Ross Female Factory could only be there, I recognised them immediately. It is hard to say what most resonated with us. For me, perhaps, it was the “soft caps” mounted on tall images which so spoke of faceless ones, or the actual artifacts; small mounds of soiled clothing and rags. The death register strewn with slips of copperplate writing on which the names of the deceased were written. The woven hangings, depicting the diseases which carried off so many; tuberculosis, marasmus, whooping cough, dysentery, the list goes on. For Chris, it was to see a photograph of those dividing walls which we paint with our words on Louisa’s Walk. Anne Ferran has succeeded in mounting a very powerful and moving exhibition which leaves you thinking about what you have seen for a very long time – just like Louisa’s Walk.

The Ground, the Air uses photography, installation and video to explore how the past haunts the present. Louisa’s Walk uses, words, drama and interpretation to bring history to life. So long as artists like Anne Ferran and Christina Henri ( whose ongoing project to obtain 25,566 convict bonnets from anyone who wants to sew and contribute one – this number represents the number of women who were sent to the Colonies during the years of transportation- see my post on “Convict Bonnets”) are committed to showcasing this shameful period of our history, the profile of our Female Factories will be lifted. Let us not forget either, the ongoing work of the many volunteers who work for the Female Factory Historic Site Inc.

Incidentally, when I first arrived in Tasmania over thirty years ago, no-one owned their convict heritage. That has all changed now and those who have convict ancestry are proud to own it. I used to think it was because they were ashamed of what their ancestors did. Now I think it is because we should all be collectively ashamed of what the British Colonial system inflicted on poor, helpless human beings whose only crime, often, was poverty. This is not to sanitise or romanticise the convicts, of course many were thugs and murderers but so many others were just victims of circumstance. Let us hope that bringing to light the horrors of the past, by whatever medium, we can help to build a more humane world.

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