by Jennifer Ashton
The author of Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife is a technical writer and editor with a degree in history.
It's not surprising then that the back 30 pages of the book contain notes citing sources, a 13-page bibliography, acknowledgements and an index. This is a serious and well-researched work.
The subject, Charlotte Badger, has been written about extensively, sung about, even portrayed on stage numerous times before. Convicted deportee to Australia, escaped convict, pirate – the legend has been gold-plated inspiration for novelists, balladeers, and creative writers of several genres.
But how much of it is fact? Jennifer Ashton talks about the intersection of fiction and non-fiction in her thoughtful introduction. It is a subject she returns to in the final part where she puts the story, fact and fiction, into fuller perspective.
Overall, this work sets out to establish the facts which it does, as much as is now possible, in six chapters.
After covering the background of the social conditions in 18th century England and the justice system of which Charlotte Badger was a detainee for years, comes details of the 7-month long voyage to Australia. Crowding, the dark and damp of below decks, the pitching and rolling of the small ship, inadequate food, all contributed to illness and 35 deaths – a 12% mortality rate among the prisoners.
In chapter 3 the author seeks to discover the truth of Charlotte’s life from then on – not a straightforward task because of the need to unravel fact from much fiction. The following part, which deals with Charlotte Badger’s association with Aotearoa is the result of perceptive detective work by Jennifer Ashton who has examined all available sources and pieced together details to produce the most likely scenario.
Broad indications of the latter stages of Charlotte’s life can be made as she is traceable through official records, but a deal of supposition is still necessary in order to fill in gaps.
Together, the chapters give a good summary of life as it was over the time in England, east coast Australia, and Aotearoa. Ten illustrations help add detail.
For those readers who fancy the thought of a cut-throat female wielding a cutlass and wearing a skull and crossbones decorated hat, the findings may come as a disappointment regarding Charlotte herself, but there’s still plenty in this well-researched work to inspire and inform a good deal of further fiction.
Author: Jennifer Ashton
Publisher: Auckland University Press