Sophia Sances (1791?–?)

By Cheryl Griffin

 

Sophia Sances, a Sephardi Jew, was part of a Jewish minority, descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Around the time of her birth, Amsterdam’s Jews were struggling to survive and the poor were actively encouraged to leave for the colonies. It is likely that Sophia Sances was one of the four hundred Sephardi ‘despachos’ (dispatched people) who made their way to the West Indies in this way.

A 39-year-old married woman with one son, Sophia was a distiller by trade and at the time of her conviction in 1830 she was living in Demerara, a district of Guyana in the British Caribbean famous for its rum distilleries. Without access to court records or newspaper reports, it is impossible to know whether she was employed by a distillery or ran her own distillery, although her level of literacy (she could read but not write) suggests the former.

On 15 February 1830 she was tried for forgery at the Demerara and Essequibo Court of Criminal Justice. Whether the forgery had to do with her work as a distiller is not known. And given that she could read only, perhaps she was party to a forgery rather than the forger herself.

Although this was her first offence, she was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation to New South Wales. Forty years old, married with a son, she arrived in Sydney on board the Earl of Liverpool on 5 April 1831. Her son did not accompany her.

On arrival, Sophia’s background proved advantageous. She was assigned to Sarah Cooper, the wife of wealthy emancipist and distiller Robert Cooper of ‘Juniper Hall’ in Paddington. Within a month, Sophia applied to marry Irishman Michael Tobin, a 60-year-old former convict who had arrived on the Earl St Vincent in 1818 and who was also employed by Robert Cooper. Despite being refused permission on the grounds that she was already married, their marriage was registered in that year at St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Sydney, where her name is recorded as Maria Sances.

She received her certificate of freedom on 29 April 1837 and sailed for England in May 1842 as Sophia Tobin, widow.

Although we know little about her life in New South Wales and nothing of her life after she returned to England, Sophia Sances emerges from the records as a woman in control of her destiny. She had economic independence, as she must have paid her way back to London, but where she went from there remains a mystery.

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