Mary Jane (1816?–1857)

by Lucy Frost


Mary Jane was born into slavery on the West Indian island of Barbados. In 1834, after colonial slavery was abolished, those who had been slaves became ‘apprenticed labourers’. Two years later, on 17 December 1836, a local newspaper reported that ‘Mary Jane, apprenticed labourer, was charged with a most brutal assault on the person of the infant daughter of her master’. The evidence against her ‘was wholly circumstantial’, and at 5 o’clock, the jury adjourned without reaching a verdict. Next morning, they found her guilty. The Chief Justice, in passing ‘the awful sentence’ of death, ‘observed to the prisoner, that it was her master’s intention to petition the Governor for a mitigation of the sentence’.

Months passed, until sometime a year or more later, the young black woman was taken from her prison cell in Bridgetown, and put on a ship for London. Her sentence had been mitigated not to Life, as was usual at this time, but to 14 years’ transportation. From London, Mary Jane was transferred to a convict ship, the Atwick, on which she sailed to Hobart Town, arriving in January 1838. Though the official record of her crime was ‘Wounding etc’, she defiantly stated her offence in more graphic terms: ‘Injuring a Child by throwing it down and striking it with a piece of Wood’. She also told the muster master that her real name was Mary Ann Bradford, a proper name and not a slave name from pre-Emancipation days.

Described in the records as a ‘woman of colour’, a 22-year-old nursemaid with black woolly hair, Mary Jane was first assigned to a family in the country, but by the time of the convict muster in December 1841, she was back in Hobart Town. No master charged her with any offence, and her blank conduct record renders her virtually invisible throughout the years of her sentence. In January 1843, however, the clerk of the Cascades Female Factory registered the birth of a female child born to Mary Jane Bradford, female convict. From the Female Factory hospital, Mary Jane and her baby daughter would have gone into the convict nursery, and with no record to suggest that the baby died or was sent later to the Orphan School, it seems likely that Mary Jane would have retrieved her when she was granted a ticket of leave on 16 August 1844 and was in a position to support the child herself. Given her background as a slave working in West Indian households, Mary Jane probably made a much better domestic servant than most of her convict counterparts, and now that colonists were being asked to pay for labour under the probation system, finding work may not have been difficult in spite of being hampered with a child.

Perhaps she had already teamed up with the man she would later marry, Thomas Burrows. Thomas too was born into slavery, and was still a slave in 1831 when he was sentenced at the Bermuda Assizes to transportation for life. In March 1847 when their son Francis was born, Thomas held a conditional pardon and was working as a steward aboard one of the ships in the colonial trade. Perhaps he was away for the child’s birth, which was registered by a friend, and some months passed before he applied to marry Mary Jane. The application was approved, and on 2 September 1847, Thomas Burrows, sailor, married Mary Jane, spinster, in the Bethesda Chapel, South Hobart. As befitted the family of a sailor, they set up housekeeping down by the harbour at the Old Wharf, and in the census for 1848, their household included two children born in the colony, a male under the age of 2 (Francis), and a female between 2 and 7 (Mary Jane’s daughter born in the Female Factory).

For ten years Mary Jane had a family. Three more children were born in quick succession. A second son, confusingly registered again as Francis, was born in 1849, but disappears from the records and may have died as a baby. In 1850, Caroline was born, and in 1851, Robert William. In a family with the father often away at sea, Mary Jane as mother must have been the stabilising centre of her children’s world, a world shattered suddenly and unexpectedly on 5 August 1857 when she died during a ‘premature confinement’.

At first, Thomas Burrows tried to keep the family together. He found a job closer to home, working as a cook on the Culloden steamer which plied up and down the D’Entrecasteaux Channel from Hobart Town. In territory without road connections to the larger settlements, everyone depended on the steamer, especially farmers who needed to get their produce to market. One of these was Charles Slaughter, a tenant farmer in the Franklin district. A year after Mary Jane’s death Slaughter came into Hobart, and stayed the night at Thomas Burrows’. The two men struck a bargain. Slaughter would take Thomas’s oldest son, ten-year-old Francis, to live at his farm. He would pay him 6d a week, give him ‘plenty to eat and wear’, and ‘send him to school as he would his own boy’.

‘I went to Slaughter’s place to mind his cows for him’, Francis later said. ‘My father left me down there with Slaughter. So long as my father remained on board the Culloden steamer, Slaughter gave me plenty to eat. He did not lay a finger on me. I was then quite happy minding his cows’. Unfortunately for Francis, his father changed jobs, and began to work on a Hobart-to-Melbourne steamer. Thomas Burrows no longer went down the Channel, and after he stopped checking on Francis, Slaughter’s attitude changed dramatically. He beat the boy and kicked him with his thick heavy boots. His wife joined in the beatings, and would lock the boy out of the house at night, leaving him to sleep in a cold stony hollow. No one knew that Francis had tuberculosis. The ill-usage eventually killed him.

At the inquest, the coroner and jury heard from neighbours who had witnessed the violence but had not intervened. Eventually Francis totally collapsed, and was brought back ‘in a bad state’ to Hobart by his father’s former workmates on the Culloden. The eleven-year-old ‘lad of color’ was emaciated, bruised, and beyond recovery when he was admitted to the General Hospital where he died on 13 November 1859. After the inquest, Charles Slaughter was charged with assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. In spite of the evidence, the jury acquitted him, and he was discharged, ‘the Judge telling him he had had a very narrow escape, for many a man had been tried for his life on less evidence’.The horrific death of Francis may have unhinged Thomas, who gave evidence at his son’s inquest. How terrible it must have been for a father born into slavery to know that he had handed over his oldest son to a barbaric master.

Shortly afterwards, when Thomas Burrows sailed from Van Diemen’s Land, he did not return. He left his daughter Caroline with Robert James, a trusted friend. Burrows and James had known each other as shipmates transported on the Augusta Jessie, and probably before then as shipmates sent from the West Indies to London. James, another black convict, had been tried in Mary Jane’s home island of Barbados. When Robert James married, Mary Jane and Thomas Burrows were the witnesses at the wedding. If only Mary Jane had lived, her children might have grown to confident adulthood in a close-knit enclave of free West Indians living and working on the Hobart waterfront. But Robert James had a growing family and did not make enough money to support Caroline and her younger brother Robert, who had been left by his father at a farm in the Kingston district but had run away to be with his sister.

When the promised weekly payments for the children stopped coming from Thomas Burrows, Robert James sought help from a clergyman who applied on 29 June 1861 for the admission of Caroline Burrows, aged 10, and Robert Burrows, aged 8, to the Queen’s Orphan Schools. In July 1861, admission was refused because their father was alive and earning an income. After this, the Burrows children disappear from the records. The plight of Mary Jane’s children is a reminder of how fragile family formation could be for the women transported to Van Diemen’s Land. If the mother died, as she all too frequently did, there were rarely any women from an extended family to help. Keeping the family together depended ultimately upon the father, and for a wide range of circumstances, the father might prove an unreliable source of stability. Colonial Tasmania could be a cruel place for children without support.

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Further reading:

Lucy Frost, ‘“Mary Jane”, a convict slave’, in Convict Lives: Women at Cascades Female Factory, 2nd edn, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2012, pp 63-65.



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