A Jewish “First Lady”?

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Naturally my daughter and I couldn’t “see” all of Australia in the brief eight days we were touring there.  Or to know it beyond a few choice locales. It would be like claiming familiarity in a week with the vast but disparate territories that make up the U.S. or Canada. But there were certainly many unforgettable moments, enough to make us want to return for more.

Who could forget sailing into Sydney harbor at sunrise? We rose at 5 AM in order not to miss the sunrise, and, as we stepped onto the ship’s top deck, already crowded with passengers who didn’t want to miss it either, we gasped at the first sight of perhaps the most beautiful harbor in the world, yet strangely reminiscent in its early morning, ethereal beauty of Vancouver’s equally breath-taking harbor in Canada. As a matter of fact, I thought fondly of Canada throughout my visit to Australia. Both countries were historically colonies of Great Britain in the time of its proud, great Empire. Both are now independent countries, of course; yet, as a Canadian-born person, I felt an almost automatic kinship to Australians, both of us retaining more than a little bit of Brit “keep your chin up” in us.

It was not such a happy entry into Australia for England’s Esther Abrahams, in 1787.  But she did keep her chin up, despite her disastrous early history. Her story is so well known in Australia that her portrait looks down at visitors today at the Jewish Museum in Sydney. Tourist brochures mention her. Internet sites record her story. At the age of 15, unmarried and recently pregnant, she was convicted at London’s infamous Old Bailey courtroom of stealing 24 yards of silk lace and sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia, where she would work as a convict. She sailed there on Lady Penrhyn, one the First Fleet’s sixships of convicts, certainly not in the luxurious comfort my daughter and I experienced on our cruise ship, but below the waterline with the portholes bleakly boarded up, and along with 262 other convicts, 15 of them Jewish. Of the 582 convicts aboard the first six ships, 193 were women. And, of all the convicts shipped to Australia in the years transportation as a sentence was in force, an estimated 7 % of them were Jewish. Some of them were part of Australia’s first police force, which was made up largely of convicts.

It would have been a sad entry for Esther Abrahams into the hardships – rape, among other things – that female convicts faced in colonial Australia if she had not encountered a young marine lieutenant, the well-born George Johnson, aboard the ship; his duties took him down below to keep order.  Since she was a most attractive young lady, with curly, black hair, an oval face, a rather long nose, and a rosebud mouth, and he was 23, he promptly fell in love with her. He even purchased a nanny goat at one of the stops so that Esther’s newborn, Roseanna, could have milk. She was to become his “de facto” wife when they landed, and — since she had plenty of brains as well as beauty – they accumulated large financial holdings, He finally married her some 25 years later. In the interim, they had seven children together.

Although Johnson was later court-martialed for his part in the mutiny against the colony’s infamous governor, William Bligh, he was cleared of most of the charges. For six months, in fact, he served as the acting Governor of the colony in Bligh’s stead. And that is how, Esther Abrahams, former Jewish felon, became the “First Lady” of Australia for a short time. It is said that she wisely kept herself in the background.

After Johnson died, he left his extensive property to Esther; after her death, it was to go to his children. Unfortunately, her eldest son couldn’t wait for that eventuality, and it resulted in unsavory litigation; he tried to declare her senile. She spent her last years living quietly in the home of her youngest son, David. Some of her descendants became influential leaders in Australia.