For almost one hundred years, Great Britain used transportation as the solution to two problems. One problem was the growing prison population. Britain’s laws were so strict that minor thefts got severe sentences. The other problem was getting enough white people to settle Australia. After boatloads of male prisoners were sent Down Under, female prisoners were also sent. The idea was that, once everyone’s sentences were over, “nature” would take its course and Australia would soon be populated with new British subjects. The Exiles, by Christina Baker Kline, tells the story of two women who wound up on the wrong side of the law—and the story of what happened to a young girl whose entire way of life was displaced and turned into a curiosity.
Mathinna was one of the most interesting characters in The Exiles. Unfortunately, she was also one of my biggest disappointments in the novel because she was so underused in the last half of the book that she essentially vanished. Mathinna is living on Flinders Island, when we meet her. Its 1840 and most of her people—the Palawa, aboriginal Tasmanians—have been moved away from their homeland on Tasmania to Flinders Island. There, they are treated as primitives, uneducated and unsaved, and curiosities. Mathinna is snatched from the remnants of her family and the Palawa when the new governor’s wife takes a fancy to her. The governor’s wife wants to “civilize” Mathinna, and so whisks her away to her mansion where Mathinna is constantly insulted and watched for any sign of “savageness.”
Meanwhile, Evangeline is eking out a living as a governess in London when she is accused of theft. It’s a trumped up charge because the young master of the house had a fling with Evangeline. The poor woman ends up in Newgate, pregnant, and looking at a fourteen year sentence in Australia. Like many innocents, Evangeline hopes that her lover will rescue her…but that hope quickly vanished. She manages to survive as long as she does because other inmates either take a shine to her or take pity on her. Things only get worse for Evangeline on the ship to Australia.
Mathinna makes fewer and fewer appearances in The Exiles. I was interested in Evangeline’s story and, later, the stories of Hazel and Ruby; the experiences of transported women are gripping enough to sustain a narrative. But I was much more interested in the treatment of Mathinna. As an American, I grew up on stories about the Indian Wars. I lived near a reservation for a good chunk of my childhood. My still-scanty knowledge of the enduring history of Native Americans has made me curious about how other indigenous people have survived in other places around the world. The Exiles is not the best book to satisfy my curiosity in that regard, but it is a good introduction to the history of Australian transportation, from the women’s side.
Recommended, with reservations.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.