Esther Abrahams was aged only 16 when, in 1786, she was sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing 24 yards of black silk lace. She was transported to Botany Bay as part of the First Fleet in 1788. Over time Esther rose to become one of the most prominent women in the colony.
Once on shore, Esther became the servant of first lieutenant George Johnston. Over time they became lovers. And when George Johnston became Lieutenant-Governor of NSW after the Rum Rebellion deposed Governor William Bligh in 1808, Esther was the leading woman in the colony for a period of seven months. In the 1828 census, some five years after the death of George Johnston, she appeared as a free settler in possession of 2460 acres (996 ha).
Ms North undertook her research for this book over a period of ten years, after first encountering Esther in a book about women in Australian history. The paragraph said that Esther had been a convict on the First Fleet and had later become First Lady of NSW. Ms North was intrigued: she thought that she would have heard of Esther if this was true.
While Ms North documents the known facts of Esther’s life from a number of different sources, little is known of her origin. She was tried in the Old Bailey as ‘Esther Abrahams’ but by the time of her marriage to George Johnston in 1814 she was known as ‘Esther Julian’. During her trial she was represented by a barrister, which was unusual at that time, and three people appeared in court to declare that she was of very good character. We do know that she was Jewish, she was convicted of stealing 24 years of black silk lace valued at 50 shillings, that she was sentenced to be ‘transported beyond the seas for seven years’, and that she was pregnant.
Ms North’s research enabled her to find out more about Esther and her imagination enabled her to bring Esther to life. Through Esther’s story, we meet several of the people who shaped the European settlement of Australia. An interesting read, which I’d recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the early European settlement of Australia.