Jessica North, Esther; The extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became First Lady of the colony

Allen & Unwin, 2019, pp 1-277, ISBN 9781760527372, p/bk, AUS$29.99

They could have hanged Esther Abrahams. In 1786, the pretty young Jewish woman had attempted to conceal twenty-four yards of pilfered black lace under her petticoats. Worth fifty shillings, thefts of such value technically led to the gallows. But luckily for Esther, she was instead sentenced to ‘exile beyond the seas’ for seven years.  Before she was transported, she was incarcerated in the abysmal conditions of London’s notorious Newgate Prison. Here, the sixteen-year-old prisoner discovered that she was ‘with child’ and gave birth to her daughter Rosanna in March 1787. A few weeks later, both mother and infant were removed to the Lady Penrhyn to start their incredible eight-month journey to the other side of the world. The thief and her daughter were to be a tiny part of one of the most remarkable experiments ever undertaken in penal, maritime and colonial history; the British settlement of New South Wales. And both their lives would be profoundly transformed by it.

Fast forward to 1814, Esther had given birth to eight more children and was a much-loved grandmother.  After twenty-six years together, she was now the well-respected wife of Major George Johnston, who had been one of the leading movers and shakers in the ‘Rum Rebellion’ against ‘tyrant’ Lieutenant-Governor William Bligh in 1808. In her own right, Esther was also a much-revered lady and astute businesswoman and for years, during Johnston’s frequent absences, had successfully overseen his extensive estates in Annandale and elsewhere. Daughter Rosanna had been the first ‘free’ Jewish settler in New South Wales back in 1788. By this date too, she had also become a regarded colonist and a prosperous wife and mother.

This is an inspired and remarkable ‘rags to riches’ story. From convict thief to one of the colony’s most respected matriarch’s, Jessica North’s Esther is the fascinating account of a truly remarkable woman, cleverly interwoven with all the leading social and political events of the first three decades of early Sydney. Here we encounter the large and colourful early colonial cast – from the officers of the First Fleet to the convict bolters, Mary and William Bryant, and the ‘convicts made good’ Susannah and Henry Kable. First Australians Arabanoo, Bennelong and Colbee all appear, as does the Reverend Samuel Marsden and the gentleman rogue Dr D’Arcy Wentworth, and later, Second Fleet arrivals John and Elizabeth Macarthur. Life in the nascent colony is vividly, vibrantly and gruesomely explored; desolate isolation, hunger and drought, devastating bushfires and floods, curious and strange wildlife, convict floggings and hangings, and early violent encounters with the Gadigal peoples. All are skilfully entwined within Esther’s own epic saga of personal struggle and survival.

The early story of Sydney will be a familiar one to many Dictionary of Sydney readers. However, North’s writing is so utterly beautiful and compelling that reading her prose is akin to hearing the remarkable history for the first time with much wonderment (and at times) great disbelief – because as the old adage goes, ‘truth really is stranger than fiction’.  It is also so richly evocative that at times I felt I was watching the drama emerge in real life, that I was right there with them, rather than merely sitting reading a book in a café in Rozelle with a yawning gap of two hundred years between us.  This is a book that is also striking, inventive and full of nuance to person, place and period. Indeed, (albeit on a personal note), this is up there with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005) which also had the same deeply profound, spine tingling effect upon me.

Meticulously researched over ten long years, North’s depth of knowledge of early colonial history is deep and clear. She has consulted official colonial records, contemporary accounts and journals, and personal letters and diaries. And, as detailed chapter notes explain at the end of the book, in between the spaces and silences of the archival records, the author has used other close sources to re-imagine what possibly might have been the scenario when in fact it cannot be known for sure. It makes for a delightful narrative, and by delineating what is fact from what is fictive in the book, North successfully and skilfully navigates the power of her own soaring imagination to fill in any historical silences, weaving a new thread between history and fiction.

Esther is beautifully – actually it is sumptuously – illustrated, and it contains extensive notes and a comprehensive bibliography. It is also indexed marvellously.

This book is a triumph. I absolutely loved it.

Dr Catie Gilchrist
July 2019

Dr Catie Gilchrist is an historian at the University of Sydney. She has written for the Dictionary of Sydney and the St John’s Cemetery project, and is the author of Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court (Sydney: HarperCollins 2019)

Visit the publisher’s website to purchase or to find a sample of Esther: https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/history/Esther-Jessica–North-9781760527372

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