Hope Adams’ historical mystery, Dangerous Women, has a particularly inspired setting: the Rajah, a British transport ship carrying almost 200 female prisoners to Australia in 1841. In this essay, Adams reveals how the quilt made by the Rajah’s occupants inspired her to write her debut novel.
In 2009, I went to see an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum. It was called “Quilts,” and the Rajah Quilt, sent all the way from Australia, was hanging there among the exhibits. It’s a very beautiful piece of work. Beside it was a card detailing its history. I learned that it was made by women convicts under the guidance of a matron, Kezia Hayter. I also discovered that by the end of the three-month-long voyage, Kezia was engaged to be married to the captain of the ship, Charles Ferguson.
I could hardly believe it. If this story were invented, instead of historically true, an editor would say, “That’s too much. That’s too easily ‘happy ever after.’” I decided to write a novel about it then, astonished that it hadn’t been done before, by someone else.
I began to research the story of this voyage. I knew that men were transported to Australia and Tasmania, but did not know that since the late 18th century women had also been sent to the other side of the world.
What must such a voyage have been like? How would it be to find yourself in the middle of the ocean, far from everything you knew and were used to, separated from all those you knew and loved? The crimes that led to transportation were mostly theft, burglary, receiving stolen goods and forgery. The women who committed them often did so at the behest of men. They had scarcely any rights. They were poor for the most part and their crimes were those associated with poverty. Alongside Elizabeth Fry, the famous prison reformer, the real Kezia Hayter had worked tirelessly to improve the lot of prisoners even before she set sail on the Rajah. Her creative oversight of the work on the Rajah Quilt undoubtedly qualifies her to be thought of as an artist.
What must the women convicts’ feelings have been? How would they deal with unfamiliar companions? Who could they trust? Would they make friends? Who would take against them? All the problems experienced by any new prisoner (see “Orange is the New Black”) were going to be much harder to bear on a ship in the middle of the ocean, far away from every single thing they’d been used to.
Conditions on board the convict ships were better by the time Kezia Hayter was appointed to be matron on board the Rajah, but they were still harsh. She was to oversee the welfare of the women and one of the things she did was organize some of the convicts to make what is now known as the Rajah Quilt.
My research was helped enormously by an old school friend of mine, Carolyn Ferguson. She is an expert on the Rajah Quilt and has written extensively about it. She also showed me pictures of every single piece of fabric used in the making of the patchwork, and I’ve used word pictures of these at the top of some chapters.
This voyage of the Rajah is very well-documented. We have the captain’s log and the surgeon superintendent’s log. Kezia Hayter kept a diary. We have a list of the convict women with their names and crimes written down carefully. I have not used those names, because the descendants of these women are still living in Australia and Tasmania. The 1841 voyage of the Rajah was a very peaceful one, without much illness and only one death, from natural causes. I added a thriller element to the story to make it more suspenseful. This is a novel and not a history, so I have also changed somewhat the timeline of the romance between Kezia Hayter and Charles Ferguson.
The idea that more people will learn about Kezia and the others who made the Rajah Quilt by reading Dangerous Women gives me enormous satisfaction. I really hope everyone enjoys it.
Author photo © Hope Adams.