Constance Couronne (1824-1891)

by Cassandra Pybus

 

Constance Couronne arrived in Sydney on Brig Dart arrived in Sydney from Port Louis, Mauritius, on Wednesday 10 July 1834, one of two female prisoners from Mauritius. The other was her older cousin Elizabeth Verloppe. The Sydney Herald further reported that these two females had been ‘convicted of an attempt to poison their mistress’. They were barely more than children: Elizabeth was fourteen and Constance was ten, making her one the youngest female convict to be transported to New South Wales. She was described on the indent as ‘black’ and her trade was said to be ‘Embroiderer & needlewoman’.

At the time of the trial Constance was the property of Marie Julie Melanie Deville Lasablonière, as was her mother Adele Couronne and her sister. On the convict indent her skin colour was described as black, but documents in Mauritius described her as having a lighter complexion, ‘Olivure’, lending credence to later claims that she was the daughter of her owner’s husband, Gabriel Henry Lasablonière. There is no reliable evidence of a kin relationship between Constance and the Lasablonière family and no-one in this family attempted to intervene in her trial or seek mitigation of her severe sentence.It is significant that the slave registers list her mother and sister as being ‘Olivure’, as well as her maternal grandfather Lindor Couronne, who was also described as Indian. Indian slaves were always significant minority in the enslaved work force of Mauritius, having been originally imported from Pondicherry, the Malabar Coast and Bengal in the eighteenth century. Their numbers declined sharply in the nineteenth century, but and there were still about 3000 Indian slaves in Mauritius at the time Constance was born. It is most likely that Constance had both Indian and African racial inheritance given that Elizabeth’s father, an African man, identified Constance as his niece.

Constance and Elizabeth had been convicted of attempting to poison a woman named Madame Morel, who was not their legal owner, rather they had been placed in her service to learn needlework. The alleged poisoning took place on Friday 11 May 1832, when Madame Morel was served afternoon tea by Elizabeth, then succumbed to ‘a violent headache, dizziness and palpitations’, and collapsed on her bed, with a fit of vomiting. Constance was said to have confessed to putting a white powder into the tea that Elizabeth had brewed for Madam Morel. The powder was merely an emetic, not arsenic and no real harm was done. A considerable degree of ambiguity existed as to whether these children believed the powder to be arsenic and whether they had committed a premeditated act. When the case was tried on 24 September 1833 the court was unanimous that there had been a poisoning. A deep paranoia among the slave-owning classes about slave poisoning encouraged a court of learned men to believe that an illiterate eight-year-old knowingly administered arsenic to her mistress so she would not have to work anymore. Indeed, the governor took the view that he had seldom seen ‘a more deliberate crime, more distinctly proved’.  In such cases a capital sentence was mandatory, but as Constance and Elizabeth were under sixteen the punishment for such a crime could be modified, so they were sentenced to transportation for life.

By the time of their transportation, Constance had been in prison for over a year. On arrival in Sydney she and Elizabeth were sent to the Female Factory at Parramatta, where two months later First Police Magistrate Henry Wilson made an application for the girls’ assignment within his household.  In September 1834 Wilson took Elizabeth and Constance to his elegant residence at Miller’s Point, where Constance became the lady’s maid for his daughter Marcia, aged nineteen. Ultimately, her life expectations were largely determined by the fortunes of Marcia Wilson.

The available evidence suggests that Wilson was a good master who cared about the fate of his charges. In August 1840, he made every effort to secure a pardon for the girls and sang their praises in the faint hope to the governor might ‘permit their restitution to their parents’. Wilson had no luck on that score, but he was successful in persuading the governor to award the girls a bounty for good conduct in assigned service. A few months later, Wilson interceded on their behalf with the Mauritian authorities, noting their ‘excellent character’ and desiring to know if there were any circumstances upon which he ‘could found an application to the Secretary of State’ for a pardon.  Neither this nor the petition of her uncle Nereus Verloppe had any effect.

By the time Wilson wrote his letters, Constance had moved away from Wilson’s household. In August 1840 she travelled with Marcia Wilson to Bathurst for her wedding to William Finch and remained in service at the Finch property Nubrygyn in the Wellington Valley.It was here she met ex-convict Robert Trudgett, an experienced bushman working as a stockman for Finch on the Nubrygyn run, who already possessed a few cattle of his own.  He and Constance were married at Bathurst on 3 March 1841. At the wedding Constance gave her maiden name as de la Sablomière [sic]. Constance and Robert Truggett continued to work for the Finches for several years and Constance remained very close to her mistress; on two occasions, Marcia’s and Constance’s newborn children were baptised on the same day at the Wellington parish church.

Constance was recommended for a conditional pardon in 1847, a reasonably short period for her to wait and was most likely a function of the Finches’ influence on the Wellington Board of Assignment. Sometime after Constance received her conditional pardon, the Trudgetts got their own property—called Gum Flat near Nubrygyn—and Robert henceforth described himself as a grazier. Constance flourished in the pastoral country of mid-western New South Wales, raising eleven children, all of whom survived into adulthood. She helped Robert in the improvement of the property and according to Trudgett family lore acted as her as midwife for the area.

Although she was an ex-convict, as was her husband, Constance was able to prosper and thrive under the continuing patronage of the highly-placed Finch family in the Wellington Valley. When her husband died in 1871, Constance had several sons of adult age to work the property, which remains in the family to this day. A surviving photo of Constance shows a diminutive old woman, who could easily be considered completely African, whose black face is framed by a white bonnet. She died in 1891, aged nearly seventy, a pioneer of the bush, respected by her neighbours, loved and surrounded by her many children and grandchildren.

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Further Reading:

Allen, Richard Slave, Freedmen and Indentured Laborers in Colonial Mauritius, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999
Anderson, Clare, Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790–1920, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012
Duyker, Edward, Of the Star and the Key: Mauritius, Mauritians and Australia, Australian Maritime Research Group, Sydney, 1988
Starkey, Robert K, The complete story of the Trudgett family: 1766 to present, Bellambi, N.S.W. 2012
Cassandra Pybus, 'Children in Bondage: Elizabeth Verloppe and Constance Couronne', in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart 2015, pp. 61-76.

 

 

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