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A Multicultural First Fleet

Despite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that so many of the convicts were sentenced in London, there were two small groups of convicts who were different from the majority. Their existence shows that from the first Australia was a multicultural society.

Jewish Convicts

Jewish convicts are clearly identified when they gave evidence after swearing on the Old Testament.

Never again did the population have such a high percentage of Jews, as in those first few years when the convicts came mainly from London.

However as there were less than ten Jewish men amongst the convicts on the First Fleet, they could not constitute a congregation and hence were unable to contract legal marriages under Talmudic Law. In any case some (John Harris for example) were already married when they were convicted, and so were unable to marry again in Australia.

This lack of sufficient numbers proved an insuperable problem for the creation of a congregation for many years, and the first official Jewish marriage did not occur until 1832. Of the first 250 Jewish convicts who arrived before 1820, only 45 married in Australia, and all of these were married in the established Anglican church, so as to be married in the eyes of the law. The first marriage where both the partners were Jewish was conducted by Rev Samuel Marsden in front of an Anglican altar in July 1826.

However intermarriage with non-Jews meant that any children were not regarded as legitimate, which further compounded the problem of developing a congregation.

Another problem that the early Jews in Australia faced was the question of language and origins. The older English community in England dating from the 17th century identified with their Spanish and Portuguese ancestors, and kept all their records in the Spanish derived language, Ladino, rather than English.

By the 1780's London had become the destination for large numbers of penniless Jewish refugees from eastern Europe, whose language was Yiddish. This influx of Ashkenazim caused considerable consternation to the older established Sephardic community of England, who did not wish to be saddled with the responsibility for caring for so many refugees. Contemporary records of English Jews make no reference to the transportation of Jewish convicts, despite the fact that it must have been a cause of shame for them.

This problem of origin surfaced when the first community was officially formed in 1832, and decisions had to be made about the official language to be used. The community decided to use Ashkenazim forms with modifications appropriate to their circumstances, and also accepted as Members children of Jews married prior to the formation of the congregation.

These issues indicate the ways in which the new community in Australia had to develop variations of a wide range of English practises to suit local circumstances. These variations were in matters of law, land ownership patterns, agricultural methods, and social structure.

Esther Abrahams

When she was arrested Esther Abrahams was sixteen or seventeen years old and pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter on 18 March 1787, while in Newgate prison awaiting transportation.

She travelled to Australia with her daughter, and whilst on the journey she formed a liaison with Lieutenant George Johnston, then aged 23.

Over the years Johnston became a leading player in the events of the colony. Transferring from the marines to the NSW Corps, he led the suppression of the revolt at Castle Hill in 1804, and led the rebellion against Governor Bligh in 1808, following which he declared himself Lieutenant Governor. As a result of the ensuing Court Martial in England he was cashiered, and he returned to NSW in May 1813.

Over those years they had three sons (born in 1790, 1792, 1800) and four daughters (born in 1801, 1803, 1804, 1806), and Esther eventually married Johnston on 12 November 1814.

During Johnston's extensive absences in England and no doubt during his active political phases, Esther supervised their extensive property, Annandale. Until he married her, Esther used the name Mrs Esther Julien in all transactions and musters. The origins and significance of the name Julien is unknown, however it may be significant that her daughter also used the name.

Johnston died in January 1823, leaving the care of Annandale to Esther. For some reason she decided to mortgage to property while she returned to England, but her children challenged this decision in court. The community avidly consumed the details that emerged in the case. The doctor called for the children's application described Esther as being "of eccentric habits, hasty in temper, and with an abrupt mode of expressing herself". He went on to say that he found it difficult to "distinguish between excitement caused by drinking, and that which is the effect of insanity".

Esther produced a witness who testified to the fact that she was the victim of violence from her son, and that "she had accumulated her property by hard struggling, that it was not the red jacket [George Johnstone] who got the money". He went on to say that if "she takes a glass, so do we all, the higher classes as well as the lower".

The jury found that Esther was not of sound mind and placed the estate in the hands of trustees, to the chagrin of her son.

When she died in 1846 she was interred with her husband.

George Nicholls, Esther's grandson by the daughter she had given birth to in prison, went on to become Auditor General of NSW in 1856. A successful solicitor from the 1830s, in 1841he appointed as his secretary the same man who was also the Honorary Secretary to the Sydney Synagogue. As a member of the Legislative Assembly from 1848, Nicholls also arranged for the Jewish community to be treated the same as Christian congregations for the receipt of Government assistance for minister's stipends.

Convicts of black African descent

At the time the First Fleet sailed slavery was still not outlawed in England, although the movement towards abolition was beginning to gain ground. Many former slaves of African descent who lived in London, had been freed on the death of their owner, or for some other reason. Others of African descent had travelled to England from the West Indies or direct from Africa, perhaps as sailors.

Some of convicts were said to have come from the West Indies or were described ambiguously, but no specific evidence exists to confirm their colour.

There were definitely 11 convicts of African descent, and another five who may also have been in this category.

John Caesar was one of these convicts.

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