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'A White Rag Burning': Irish women who committed arson in order to be transported to Van Diemen's Land

Snowden, D 2005 , ''A White Rag Burning': Irish women who committed arson in order to be transported to Van Diemen's Land', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Between 1841 and 1853, 248 women were transported from Ireland to Van
Diemen's Land for arson. Of this number, there is evidence that at least seventynine
women in the Famine and post-Famine period committed arson in order to be
transported. This group of deliberate offenders challenges traditional notions of
convict historiography and raises questions about the fundamental nature of
criminality and transportation. This thesis argues that the women, as active
agents, were using transportation as a form of emigration. For many poor women
in Famine and post-Famine Ireland, emigration was not an option because they
did not meet selection criteria for assisted emigration schemes, or could not afford
the costs associated with emigration. Arson was a perfect crime for those who
wished to be caught. It was visible, immediate, and effective. It was serious
enough to warrant transportation. By the early 1850s, it was entrenched as a
means of engineering transportation among women, a fact recognised by the Irish
courts and frequently commented upon in Irish newspapers. There is no evidence
that the deliberate arsonists were social or political protesters. For them, arson
was a means to an end, not a political statement.
More than passive economic victims, the deliberate arsonists were marginalised
women actively seeking to change their circumstances. Initially, this was from
the dislocation and chaos of Famine and post-Famine Ireland but the process
continued in Van Diemen's Land. A major focus of this thesis is the colonial
experience of the deliberate arsonists, tracing what happened to them and
examining whether there was evidence that they tried to improve their position in the colony, especially when they were free. This thesis argues that, by using a
number of survival strategies, the women's attempts to seek control over their
lives continued.
This thesis is presented in two parts. The first contains an historiographical
survey, an explanation of the methodology, the Irish background to the
phenomenon as well as a profile of the deliberate arsonists. The second part
analyses social and economic outcomes for the women in Van Diemen's Land:
marriage, economic survival, and death. Research has been primarily based on
convict records, newspaper reports of trials, civil registration records, colonial
newspapers, colonial court records, and family papers. Detailed biographies of
the seventy-nine deliberate arsonists have been compiled as Volume Two of the
This thesis adds to the body of knowledge about the female convict experience,
generally, and the deliberate arsonists, specifically. As far as I am aware, this is
the first time that a comprehensive study of a group of convict women, grouped
by crime, has been carried out. It is also the first time that a study has looked
specifically and extensively at 'courting transportation', at transportation as
emigration, and, in this respect, it has only touched the tip of an iceberg. The
phenomenon of deliberately courting transportation was not limited to the female
arsonists or post-Famine Ireland, although it was a period when it was undeniably
most effectively and publicly used. Transportation was not regarded as
punishment by impoverished, marginalised women in Famine and post-Famine Ireland but a way of improving their situation. This thesis is also the first time
that the female post-sentence convict experience has been looked at in detail in a
Tasmanian context, with a focus on individuals, and using family history
techniques. It concludes that, despite economic, political and social constraints
imposed on them, in Ireland and Van Diemen's Land, the deliberate arsonists
exercised agency over their lives by using a number of survival strategies.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Snowden, D
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