Pirate, Convict, Thief, Wife

The Many Histories of Charlotte Badger

* STORIES ON THE GO, History, Non Fiction, NZ History, *BOOK EXTRACT, Ockham NZ Book Awards, For Adult Readers, Long Read
Dyslexia Font
Jennifer Ashton

Nov 08   ●  20 min read   ●  Auckland University Press


This is a story of doubt. It is a story of people who left little trace. . . . There are no writings to pore over; no monuments to gaze at; no perfectly preserved homes to visit. We will never see their faces; we cannot hear the sound of their voices. In other words, they were like most of those who inhabit the past. Charlotte Badger is a woman around whom many stories have been woven: the thief sentenced to death in England and then transported to New South Wales; the pirate who joined a mutiny to take a ship to the Bay of Islands; the first white woman resident in Aotearoa; the wife of a rangatira, and many more. In this remarkable piece of historical detective work, Jennifer Ashton shows what we know about Charlotte Badger, and how the stories about her have shifted over time. From a Worcester courtroom to the outskirts of Sydney, from the English countryside to Wairoa Bay, Ashton brings to life the maritime and wider imperial world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – and the convicts and runaways, sailors and soldiers, governors and missionaries who filled that world. The author shows how history and historical figures like Charlotte Badger are made and remade over time by journalists and historians, painters and playwrights. Charlotte Badger’s was a life that is at once more remarkable, more curious and more mundane than has previously been written. Jennifer Ashton tells the fascinating story of a remarkable, curious, ordinary woman and her place in history.


This is a story of doubt. It is a story of people who left little trace and whose lives are subject to speculation and doubt. There are no writings to pore over; no monuments to gaze at; no perfectly preserved homes to visit. We will never see their faces; we cannot hear the sound of their voices. In other words, they were like most of those who inhabit the past. We catch glimpses of people like them as names in documents recording the major events of their lives. If they lived at a time and in a place where the state was actively engaged in data collection, we might find them coming into contact with the courts, crossing a national border, boarding a ship, or listed as members of a household in a census. But the details of their daily lives remain out of reach. They are the people from whom most of us descend, but for the most part they are mysteries to us.
The woman at the heart of this story, Charlotte Badger, was one such person. Her life, which began at the bottom end of eighteenth century English society, in many ways remains a mystery, or a series of gaps to be filled in. But she differs from the vast majority of history’s inhabitants because her obscurity has not prevented her from playing a role in a nation’s history.
Our awareness of Badger owes much to her status as one of the first Pākehā women thought to have resided in New Zealand. Some of New Zealand’s best-known history books, including Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand, James Belich’s Making Peoples, Anne Salmond’s Between Worlds and Barbara Brookes’s A History of New Zealand Women, have introduced readers to the story of her transportation as a convict to New South Wales and her subsequent escape to the Bay of Islands in 1806. In most of these accounts, though, she is an interesting but unknowable shadowy figure who fleetingly appears before vanishing again. She is a bit of added colour before the story moves on to the main events of (mostly male) missionaries and Pākehā traders and their interaction with Māori in the pre-colonial period.
The regular addition of Badger to the nation’s story followed her appearance in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB) in the 1990s. Thanks to the internet, the online DNZB has become a leading means for New Zealanders to learn about her, and her inclusion in recent publications owes much to her entry in the Dictionary. The DNZB tells us that she was baptised at St John’s Church, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, in 1778, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Badger. In 1796 she was convicted of housebreaking at Worcester summer Assizes, and transported to New South Wales four years later, arriving in Sydney on board the convict ship Earl Cornwallis in 1801 to serve a seven-year sentence. The entry then says, ‘In 1806 she had two years of her sentence to serve, and was an inmate at the old Parramatta Female Factory, where she gave birth to a child. In April she and her friend, Catherine Hagerty, were assigned as servants to a settler in Hobart. In late April 1806 they sailed from Port Jackson on the Venus with the child and a group of male convicts.’ The Venus then became the target of an act of piracy, as members of the crew, abetted by some of the passengers, took the vessel when the master was onshore at Port Dalrymple, now Georgetown, Tasmania. The Venus then arrived at the Bay of Islands and dropped off the two women, as well as first mate Benjamin Kelly and another convict named John Lancashire. Within a year Hagerty was dead and Kelly and Lancashire were gone, leaving Badger as the sole remaining survivor, completely dependent on local Māori. Months later, Badger was offered passage back to Sydney but refused, preferring to stay on and take her chances in her new home. The Dictionary entry concludes by saying that Badger’s fate is unknown but quoting one story saying that she might have passed through Tonga a few years later and possibly then gone to America.
The doubt that surrounded her life made her a problematic figure for a publication dedicated to telling the nation’s history, but it did not stop her entry in the Dictionary from giving her a new breath of historical life. Nonetheless, historians have been reluctant to take Badger’s story much further, and it isn’t hard to understand why. We know just enough about her story for it to be enticing but not enough to flesh her out and turn her into a clearly defined historical character. The absence of her own account of her life makes her a difficult figure to get to grips with, and the lack of clarity about her fate leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth of biographers looking to write her life story. So, she has remained an ephemeral, fleeting player in the story of modern New Zealand.
My own interest in Badger began with this story that has been told about her. I came across her while researching early contact between Māori and Pākehā in Northland, and specifically a nineteenth-century trader named John Webster in Hokianga. Badger’s experience struck me as an early example of the type of cultural interaction that happened in the north of New Zealand in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the challenges inherent in reconstructing such a sketchy life were enticing. While Webster left behind a wealth of first-hand accounts of his life and other useful documents, Badger, who was illiterate, left behind nothing of herself. I began to ask myself, how might such a life be reconstructed?
What’s more, when I looked at what I thought I knew of her, she seemed a fascinating figure, and not just because of what she might be able to tell us about the experiences of the shadowy convict runaways who made up a portion of New Zealand’s earliest European visitors. Hers was a life lived on a truly global scale. It seemed that examining Badger’s movement through time and space could give us a way of understanding what her life, her travels and experience tell us about New Zealand’s early relationship with Sydney, the trading nexus between Sydney, New Zealand and Norfolk Island, and the routes across the globe that linked New Zealand to faraway places from the earliest days of Pākehā contact. The pathways of Badger’s life could tell us about the Pacific’s and, in particular, New Zealand’s maritime and trade connections to the rest of the world in the period before permanent Pākehā settlement began in the north in 1814.
As I began searching for Badger in earnest, I was struck by the extent to which she had entered wider culture. The retelling of Badger’s story wasn’t limited to history books; she turned up in novels, plays, songs, paintings and exhibitions. There was even a restaurant named after her. In most of these versions of her life she was an active player in the taking of the Venus, a daring convict pirate on the run from the authorities. In one song, the vocalist takes on the voice of Badger and defiantly proclaims, ‘I am not a good person’; in another she and Catherine (Kitty) Hagerty ‘stole the Venus from under their noses and swore we’d be convicts no more’. In a picture by Lester Hall, she is a dark-haired, thin-waisted, tattooed beauty, the sword behind her back and the skull and cross-bones over her shoulder clearly marking her out as a pirate. Lorae Parry’s play Vagabonds takes Badger’s rambunctiousness to new levels, while also taking a leap of imagination and placing Badger in the middle of the New Zealand Wars of 1863, where she must contend with a group of actors trying to make their way from Waikato back to Auckland. Lisa Reihana, meanwhile, uses Badger’s experience in New Zealand as the basis of an exhibition that ‘explore[s] the social tension between cultural leadership, spiritual custom and egotistical desire in the face of foreign political challenge in 1800’s New Zealand’. Angela Badger’s 2002 book Charlotte Badger: Buccaneer sticks more closely to the version of Badger’s life found in the Dictionary and attempts to put flesh on the bare bones. Written with Charlotte as the first-person narrator, it follows her life from the struggles of childhood and the shock of transportation through to her eventual escape from New Zealand to Tonga.
It would be easy to see Angela Badger’s novel, in particular, as simply a way of bridging the gaps of our knowledge of Badger’s life, as fiction doing the job that history cannot, and of dramatising the most thrilling episode in Badger’s life for its sheer entertainment value. But this proposition does not take into account the other complexities surrounding Badger’s story, because once we pick away at even the most basic elements of what we think we know about her, such as her stay in the Female Factory, let alone the more speculative aspects such as the escape to Tonga, we find that at least some of them have been borrowed from fictionalised accounts that filled in the spaces in between sparse evidence and were then repeated as if they were the evidence itself. In the telling and retelling of Badger’s story, fiction has become history and history has become fiction, and the result has been the creation of a number of different histories of the same person.
If we look closely at Badger’s story, we see that the narratives that have been told about her, and what has come to be seen as her history, have a history of their own. In the almost two hundred years since she was alive, she has appeared and disappeared, been rediscovered and reinterpreted multiple times and in multiple ways, and those reinterpretations have sometimes been the result of feats of imagination. This aggregation, the mixture of fact and fiction, has been happening since at least the late nineteenth century, particularly in relation to the taking of the Venus. While the earliest accounts of the piracy barely mention Badger, by the end of the century she was a major protagonist instead of a largely passive observer of events. In the process she has found life after life and has become a person of obscure birth about whom songs have been written and who has featured in historical works, including this one.
The intersection between fiction and history was the subject of the 2017 BBC Reith Lecture series given by novelist Hilary Mantel. In the second lecture in the series, ‘Iron Maiden’, Mantel made the case for the ability of fiction writers to tell the untold tale: ‘They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced. Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record.’ She argued that fiction ‘can sit alongside the work of historians – not offering an alternative truth, or even a supplementary truth – but offering insight’. She had made this same point in the previous lecture, ‘The Day is for the Living’: ‘I start to practice [sic] my trade at the point where the satisfactions of the official story break down. . . . The historian and the biographer follow a trail of evidence, usually a paper trail. The novelist does that too, and then performs another act – puts the past back into process, into action – frees the people from the archive and lets them run about, ignorant of their fates, with all the mistakes unmade.’ On that occasion, though, she had also talked about the contingent nature of history and its relationship to fiction, particularly when it came to the stories that nations tell about themselves: ‘[W]e reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe, our nation, and found them on glory, or found them on grievance, but we seldom found them on cold facts.’ The myth making extends to individuals, too: ‘As soon as we die, we enter into fiction. . . . Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted.’
These observations have relevance for the study of the life of Charlotte Badger. Her appearance in the Dictionary raised her profile as a character in the story of New Zealand, and yet her own story has been constructed and reconstructed over time, and in the process a myth made up partly of elements of fiction and pure imagination has entered the national narrative. But in addition to that, Mantel’s comment about the recreation of the life stories of the dead gets to the heart of one of the problems of history-writing: we cannot, despite our best efforts, ever ‘know’ the whole story of the past; the person who existed and the person about whom we write are always separated by space and time and by both the partialness and the partiality of the evidence they leave as clues for us to follow. Mantel sums up this conundrum, too, noting that ‘history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. . . . It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth.’ In Badger’s case we barely have the stones, let alone the cloth. And much of what has been left to us comes from record-keeping authorities who encountered her at those points in her life when she transgressed the limits of the law, instead of from her own hand. Yet because of the contacts she made with those authorities we still know enough to judge that she lived an extraordinary life of a truly global reach, even if we cannot see the sweat on her brow or feel the thump of her pulse as she jumped from one obstacle to the next. History cannot deliver her to us whole, but we are not without ways of making sense of her.
To return to the question I first asked myself: how might we go about such a task? To begin with, we can revisit the histories that have been written about her and try to discover where the various building blocks have come from. This approach treats the documented life of Charlotte Badger as a kind of archaeological dig that works away at a pile of layers heaped one on top of the other. This deconstruction risks leaving us with less than we had before, but it can go hand in hand with an act of creation. Once we have identified how her life has been retold over time, we can look at how she helps us understand the historical currents that ran through her life. In doing so, we can expand out the meaning of her life, so that instead of merely being a character in a New Zealand story she becomes a citizen of a wider world. We can take her from the local to the global, from a Worcester courtroom to the outskirts of Sydney, from the English countryside to British imperial trading routes. Then, she ceases just being a minor bit of colour added to the New Zealand story and becomes an active participant in a story that goes beyond New Zealand’s shores, but which recognises its role as a destination on a global maritime highway. By changing the point of view from which we view her we can interpret her all over again.
In this way, this study of Badger adds to the series of histories of her life that have been recounted. It offers an interpretation of Badger and the life she led, doing the best it can to base that interpretation on available evidence while acknowledging that that evidence is partial and that history is not simply what happened in the past, it is also an understanding of what happened that we construct for ourselves; it is ‘something that happens later’. For this reason, this study doesn’t just present a new understanding of Badger, it also tries to explain how and why the various interpretations of her developed, and how they reflected the time in which they were written. It also tries to get to grips with why this woman, of all people, has been given the chance to enjoy a kind of life after death, and why her story has captured the imaginations and attention of later generations.
The version of Badger’s life offered here follows the contours laid out elsewhere, including the Dictionary entry, but also differs in significant ways, particularly when it comes to her fate. It was a life that is at once more remarkable, more curious and more mundane than has previously been written. It was characterised by extreme danger as well as domestic tedium; by travel across great distance as well as close regulation. It started in provincial England shaped by the upheaval that industrialisation and an exploding population wrought at the end of the eighteenth century. That upheaval brought with it an increase in the crime rate and a need to find a permanent answer to the problem of what to do with the country’s criminals, especially once the American colonies were no longer available as sites of transportation. The choice to relocate the penal colony to the Australian continent came only a few years before Badger’s fateful decision to steal from a man of means, which led to her being banished from England and sent to the far side of the world. There, in Sydney, she joined a nascent settlement of convicts, colonial officials, soldiers and free settlers carving out a home that was part prison farm and part Pacific trading station. After five years in New South Wales, she travelled to Van Diemen’s Land on board the Venus and then found herself headed for the Bay of Islands. In less than a year, though, she was heading back to Sydney on board a government ship from Norfolk Island. At this point her global travelling came to an end, and only a few short years later she became a soldier’s wife and spent the rest of her life on the frontier of European settlement, facing out to a continental rather than an oceanic expanse.
In tracing all these aspects of her life, though, we must acknowledge that there will not be concrete answers to many of our questions, and that the doubt that was previously filled by imagination will persist. Instead, we have to accept likelihood rather than certainty as the outer limit of our knowledge – but this likelihood can still be based on the evidence left to us, on the pieces of rock left in the sieve, and it can still reveal plenty about the past. This approach lacks the reassuring conviction that history-writing can give us a clear window into what has come before us, but it allows us to deal with the figures such as Charlotte Badger who make a fleeting appearance in the record and gives us a way forward when we have to accept that we just don’t know.
This book tells the story of that life in six chapters, each addressing a different stage, and each looking both at what we can establish about her and the stories that have been told. Chapter 1 looks at Badger’s early life in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. It examines the circumstances around her conviction for housebreaking in 1796 and her subsequent four-year imprisonment in Worcester County Gaol; it puts those experiences in the context of England’s treatment of its criminals, especially its female wrongdoers, and asks why Badger avoided the mercy handed out to other women around her, setting her on a path to transportation.
Chapter 2 follows Badger as she is sent to New South Wales. It looks at the voyage itself and the conditions on board, and then examines what is known about her life in Sydney, and considers the treatment meted out to female convicts generally.
The third chapter looks at possibly the most dramatic episode in Badger’s life: the piracy of the Venus. It asks why she was on board in the first place, introduces the people who joined her on the journey, examines the reasons why those on board joined together to overthrow the captain and take the ship, and looks at the evidence for Badger’s involvement in the piracy.
Chapter 4 examines the evidence for Badger living at the Bay of Islands and the story of her life as a cultural emissary. It also looks more widely at the history of the Bay’s interaction with Sydney, places it on the Pacific shipping route and studies the traffic that was passing through in order to understand how Badger came to leave New Zealand for Norfolk Island, leading to her eventual return to New South Wales.
The fifth chapter examines the evidence for Badger marrying a soldier in 1811 and spending the remainder of her life on the outskirts of Sydney. It looks at the frontier violence that was happening all around her as she took up residence in Parramatta and contrasts this phase of her life with everything that came before. Finally, it examines, after everything, how far she might have really travelled from her early working-class roots.
The final chapter looks specifically at how the various histories of Badger have changed over time, paying attention to the context in which they were written and considering what they say about the writers and their audience.

Hope you enjoyed this preview. Borrow a copy from your nearest library, treat yourself and buy a copy from your local bookshop or gift it to somebody special.