Mary Beckwith – Another Story
(Mary Beckwith – encore une chronique)
An Essay in Alternative History
by Anthony Brown
History is story-telling. One thing that is disappearing in history is this pretence that the author is telling you a scientific fact. History has its limitations and the full story will never be told – the storyteller always influences the tale. (Prof. Norman Davies, 1998)
Some 15 years ago I uncovered the little-known story of Mary Beckwith, a 17 year old English convict girl who, as Nicolas Baudin’s ‘companion’, was almost certainly the first European woman to set foot in South Australia, at Kangaroo Island in January 1803. Baudin had met her in Sydney, in the household of Richard Atkins, the colony’s judge advocate, and taken her aboard the Géographe with the unwritten consent of Governor King. (S.A. Geographical Journal, vol. 97, pp. 20-32, 1998).
My article traced what little was known of Mary’s life, from her trial for theft at London’s Old Bailey in June 1800, her sentencing to trans-portation, her arrival at Sydney in December 1801, her association with Baudin, and her journey with him to Mauritius. Her (step)mother, Mary Beckwith snr., transported with her in 1801, became Atkins’ housekeeper and eventually his wife.
Later historians have since incorporated these basic facts into their studies of Baudin’s (and even Flinders’) expedition. During Encounter 1802, the State major event celebrating the bicentenary of the meeting of Baudin and Flinders at Encounter Bay in April 1802, the Kangaroo Islanders erected a memorial to Mary at what is now known as Baudin Beach. It seemed a fitting conclusion to her story.
A year or so later, while browsing through the memoirs of Captain R. W. Eastwick, an English merchant captain of the early 19th century (A Master Mariner: Being the Life and Adventures of Captain Robert William Eastwick, ed. by H. Compton, pp 183-7. London 1891), I came upon his account of a chance meeting with a pretty young woman in Simeon Lord’s store in Sydney in 1803. ‘She was dressed extremely neat, though in the fashion of a servant, but she appeared both from her manner and speech to be of gentle birth and good education’. Aged about twenty four, she approached Eastwick without diffidence, and said she ‘was maid to the judge’s lady’, before asking him whether he had come from India.
The young woman grew increasingly agitated as he replied to her questions − he had just arrived from India, he knew ‘a gentleman named M−’, and, finally, he had met the latter ‘no longer back than last year’. At this answer she drew closer and clasped her hands:
‘Tell me all about him. Is he well? Is he happy?’
‘He was both well and happy when I saw him’, Eastwick assured her, ‘but why do you ask?’
‘Because I am his sister! Because I would give twenty years of my life to see him once again!’, she answered to my great surprise, since the gentleman she alluded to was of considerable position, whilst she from her condition could only be a convict. ‘Oh, sir’, she added, with tears in her eyes, ‘you have made me so happy to hear that he is alive and well. He is my dear brother, though I am no longer worthy to claim relationship with him’.
Then of her own accord she explained to me that, although of good family, she had fallen into the crime of theft in London, and had been unhappily, although, as she allowed, properly punished by transportation. Her offence was that of shoplifting, being urged thereto by some species of madness which she could not explain, since she had never wanted for anything, being a lady of good family. Having been caught in the act of secreting some article in a silk-mercer’s shop, she was apprehended on the spot, and had given a false name, under which she was convicted and sentenced, so that none of her friends knew of her disgrace or where she was.
She assured me I was the first person living to whom she had confessed her secret, being surprised into doing so upon my mentioning my acquaintance with her brother. She begged me if ever I met him to inform him of her condition, so that he might know she was alive and well, and to tell him that though she could never hope to see him again, she retained in her heart an affectionate memory of him.
Eastwick adds that fifteen years later he met the brother in England, and passed on his sister’s message. Though ‘astonished beyond words’, once he accepted it as true the brother set to work to procure her return to England – only to find that she had since married in the colony, risen to ‘a very respectable station’, and declined to leave it.
His account rang true. Might the ‘pretty young woman’ in fact be the elder Mary Beckwith – the details of her arrest for theft and conviction coincided; in 1803 Richard Atkins was the sole judge in the colony; Mrs Atkins had arrived unexpectedly in Sydney in July 1802, found her husband living with a convict woman as his housekeeper and mistress, and retained her in service as her maid. How else to explain the two conflicting stories – the stepmother and step-daughter narrative which I had first accepted as factual, versus this fresh story in which the younger Mary seemingly played no part?
Each has a single source – the former, Mary’s remarks recorded at the Beckwiths’ trial for theft, and the latter, the young woman’s confession to Eastwick of her disgrace and transportation for a similar crime. Believing as I now do that Mary senior and the young woman are probably the same person, which of these appears more credible?
For readers today, the court papers provide a confusing summary of the proceedings. The operative judicial principle seems to be that the accused were guilty unless proven innocent. There was no defence counsel, and the court questioned the accused. The two Mary Beckwiths, the elder claiming to be the wife of John Beckwith, and the girl his daughter not hers, were ‘indicted for feloniously stealing, on the 10th of June, in the parish of St. Martin’s in the Fields, 46 yards of printed calico [linen], value £5, the goods of Thomas Ball, privately in his shop’. The amount of £5 entailed the death sentence in the event of a guilty verdict.
The shop assistant asserted that while the elder Mary was purchasing a yard of calico and a handkerchief, the girl removed 46 yards (!) of the material from the counter and concealed it under her gown. Suspecting she had taken something, he jumped over the counter and ‘took from her three quantities of printed calico’. Meanwhile Mary senior left the shop, but was quickly apprehended; saying she had gone to look for her husband, she added ‘it was the fault of the father, the child was not hers’. The constable (a local employee, there was no organised police force) took both into custody and searched them, but found nothing.
The elder Beckwith protested she knew nothing of it; the younger that the calico had fallen off the counter, and before she could pick it up the assistant jumped the counter and seized her. The jury did not question how the girl had concealed 46 yards of material under her gown without his knowledge while standing within a yard or so of him. No search was made for the elusive John Beckwith; the only personal details recorded were that the defendants were aged 34 and 14. Each was sentenced to death, the jury recommending mercy for the girl; both sentences were later commuted to transportation for life (a common practice, to meet the shortage of women in the convict colony of New South Wales).
Shoplifting from a draper’s or silk-mercer’s shop was common enough at the time; nor was it confined to the criminal classes. One of Jane Austen’s aunts was indicted for this offence, and held in a furnished room in the jailer’s residence (not a cell) for months before relatives secured her release, perhaps in return for a generous payout. There is little doubt that sometimes the owner and his assistants conspired to accuse a wealthy customer of theft in order to blackmail her family.
[NB. The judge in the Beckwith trial was Sir Soulder Lawrence. I can’t confirm this, but I think a Justice Lawrence presided at JA’s aunt’s case at the Old Bailey]
Eastwick’s account implies that the young lady visited the silk-mercer’s shop alone. In fact the likelihood of a gentlewoman shopping at Charing Cross at night without a companion was slight – she would have been accompanied, at least by a personal maid. The younger Mary thus has a credible role in either scenario – whether as an accomplice to her ‘mother’, or as a maidservant to her mistress. Of more concern is the elder Mary’s age – given as 34 in the court record, and estimated as ‘about 24’ by Eastwick three years later. However, the discrepancy is not conclusive; the detail may be incorrect (provided by the prisoner), and Eastwick (years later, in hindsight) was perhaps mistaken in his guess.
The two Mary Beckwiths arrived in Sydney Harbour on the transport Nile on 14th December 1801. A new ship, she carried close to 100 female convicts, and on arrival was inspected by Governor Philip Gidley King and his officials. The colony’s senior officers routinely selected the women ‘most agreeable in their person’ for domestic work in their households. Records of convict assignments for this period are not available, but either then or within months the judge advocate, the 56-year-old Richard Atkins, chose Mary senior as his house-keeper (and mistress); I believe it’s likely that the girl joined her in the judge’s house.
Atkins has been called Australia’s first ‘remittance man’ – sent to the colonies by his family to escape his creditors at home (leaving his wife Elizabeth behind in Dublin). Arriving in February 1792, he made much of his connections to the powerful Cecil family, and was appointed a magistrate and registrar of the Vice-Admiralty Court. In 1796 John Macarthur declared Atkins ‘a public cheater living in the most boundless dissipation’, but successive governors, impressed by his social background, continued to appoint him to high civil positions. In 1800, on the death of the then judge advocate, Governor King recommended Atkins for the position, despite his lack of legal training, as no one else in the colony was ‘at all equal to that office’. He moved into the judge’s residence – ‘a small house, in the Cottage Style, near to Governor King’s’.
A contemporary, the gentleman convict John Grant, describes Atkins as ‘a little Gentleman about 50, and most agreeable in his manners’; he also describes him as ‘the perfect delicate gentleman when himself’ – a euphemism for his addiction to the bottle. He also appears to have had a penchant for convict housekeepers who in turn became his mistress. The first we know of was Ann Bockerah (or Buckrill), a widow with a young daughter Sarah; she died giving birth to another, Penelope (perhaps by Atkins), in February 1793. In his Diary he noted ‘a great domestic loss’; the girls apparently remained in his care.
Next was Catherine Haggarty, a young Irish convict from Dublin, who may have joined Atkins late in 1793 as Penelope’s wet nurse [acknowl-edgements to Prof. Alan Atkinson for details re Ann and Catherine]. She had given birth to a son, Henry, whose seaman father had returned to England, in November 1793; in July 1795 she had a daughter, Theresa, by Atkins. She stayed with him until 6th February 1800, on which day she received an absolute pardon from Governor Hunter and sailed the same day for England, with her son Henry, in HMS Reliance (in which ship Lieutenant Matthew Flinders also returned home, with his plan to circumnavigate and chart the continent.). Atkins recorded: ‘Kitty left me, went on board the Relliance (sic) with her son for England’; she also left the three young girls in his care – Sarah, Penelope, and Theresa.
Catherine’s pardon, and her departure for England with her son on a naval ship, is surprising; it can only have occurred at Atkins’ urging. Prof. Atkinson suggests that very likely she ‘passed her child off, even in Downing Street, as Atkins’ son’- thus explaining the boy’s return to the colony at government expense in November 1803 to rejoin his ‘father’. Catherine also returned, but whether as a convict or free is not clear – I have not found any record.
The next mention is in the Sydney Gazette of July 13 1806, reporting the mutinous seizure of the brig Venus by her mate, Benjamin Kelly, some of the crew, and a few convicts being transported from Sydney to Van Diemens Land – including two women, Catherine Hagarty and Charlotte Badger, now celebrated on the web as Australia’s first female pirates!
I suspect, but have no proof, that Catherine (also from Dublin) may have found her way there, with Henry, to confront Mrs Atkins – perhaps for blackmail, perhaps to assure Henry’s future. Their meeting would help explain Mrs Atkins’ decision to rejoin her husband in 1802 (after a decade’s separation!), Henry’s voyage the next year to rejoin his ‘father’, and Catherine’s own mysterious return (perhaps with the boy). It may also be a possible motive for her later deportation from Sydney to Hobart.
Richard Atkins, meanwhile, was left with three young girls on his hands (two of them his own daughters); despite his short-comings, nothing suggests he abandoned them. What temporary arrangements he made for their care after Kitty (Catherine) left in 1800 remain unknown, but we can presume he planned to resume ‘normal’ family relations with a live-in housekeeper without delay. ‘Mary Beckwith’ senior must have seemed ideal for the position – very presentable, if Eastwick is to be believed, of good family (according to both Baudin and Eastwick), and the presence of her ‘daughter’ would have been a bonus – a young female to help care for the three girls, now aged 6, 8 and ca. 10.
Normality was disrupted by the surprise arrival of Mrs Elizabeth Atkins on board the Atlas in July 1802. Nothing is known of the reasons for her voyage, but as I suggest above it may have been prompted by Catherine’s return to England with Henry in late 1800. If, as seems the case, the authorities accepted her claim that Henry was Atkins’ son, they would most likely have been in touch with her and the family (one brother was an admiral and another a general). Given Atkins’ high position in the colony (ranking immediately below the Governor and his deputy), informal talks between government and family may well have decided that she, Catherine and Henry should all be sent out to Sydney (whether Catherine returned voluntarily or otherwise is not known).
Mrs Atkins’ behaviour after her arrival in Sydney is curious. John Grant, who made their acquaintance in 1804, has left a description (in a letter dated July 1804):
Mrs Atkins came out to him [in 1802] after an 11 Year separation; he lived then with a Woman (as is customary with all the Gentlemen here …) by whom he has 2 Girls whom Mrs Atkins adopts as her own. She has never been introduced however into Polite circles here, which is singular as the Judge Advocate’s Lawful Wife; but the truth is, Her Pride prevents it, the Origin of the first Woman in the Colony is so obscure.
(Yvonne Cramer, ed. This Beauteous Wicked Place – Letters and Journals of John Grant. NLA, 2000. p.52)
Grant adds, that ‘from the failings of Mr Atkins, and her abilities, she wears the Breeches completely’. Unfortunately, Grant fell out of favour with them both; he says nothing about the housekeeper, and his comments about the two girls being the judge’s daughters by her may be set aside − his main interest was in seeking a post as the judge’s clerk. In Samuel Marsden’s ‘Female Muster’ of 1806 Elizabeth Atkins is recorded as having four ‘Natural’ (or illegitimate) children, a boy and three girls, in her care – the boy was probably Henry, now back with his ‘father’.
* * * *
Meanwhile the ships of the French expedition led by Captain Nicolas Baudin had arrived in Port Jackson – the Naturaliste in April 1802 and Baudin himself in the Géographe in June. Despite two bouts of serious illness on the voyage – including a near-fatal attack of fever at Timor – it seems Baudin was in relatively good health at the time. He took lodgings ashore, and soon built a close friendship with Governor King, a fluent French speaker. A frequent visitor at Government House, Baudin no doubt met the Governor’s close associates – among them Richard Atkins, who also read and spoke French and owned a sizeable library.
Baudin, occupied with the business of the expedition, lived ashore throughout the five months of his stay. He visited Parramatta, and made a short trip into the interior, with the Danish adventurer Jorgen Jorgensen (alias John Johnson, second mate of Flinders’ tender the Lady Nelson) as his guide. Strangely, his place of residence in Sydney is not known – surely it was within easy reach of Government House, for Baudin notes he met the Governor ‘daily’; on at least one occasion he stayed overnight with the Kings. (Later, his officers recognise the young Mary Beckwith as the girl – dismissed as a fille de joie − he had lived with in the town).
Lacking evidence, let us fall back on conjecture. I presume his residence would have accommodated Baudin’s own quarters (suiting the commandant en chef of a national expedition of discovery), a servant and/or clerk, an office/reception room to receive his officers and other visitors and to deal with his correspondence, and perhaps a maid-servant (?). (Whether he kept a journal during his stay will be discussed below).
Baudin very likely met Atkins early in his visit, perhaps before the arrival of the latter’s wife on 7th July. The judge – cultured, fluent in French and a ‘perfect gentleman’ when not in his cups – may well have invited the Frenchman (an avid reader) to join him for talks over drinks in his library. Likewise Mrs Atkins’ hauteur may not have extended to Baudin – an urbane Frenchman who had mixed with high officials in the Austrian court at Vienna, as well as in Paris, and the same age as Richard – and she too may have welcomed him to their home.
More significant by far is Elizabeth Atkins’ reaction to the situation she found in her husband’s household upon her arrival. She may have had little option but to accept his adultery; yet she also ‘adopted’ his illegitimate children, and retained his mistress as her personal servant. At the official and family levels this might well be viewed as the preferred solution for all concerned – a classic cover-up, with minimal impact on the social status quo! Another explanation, though, may be explored at the personal level, based in part on Elizabeth’s personality, but also on the presumption that ‘Mary Beckwith’ was indeed ‘a lady of quality’ and not a common thief.
The initial impact of the confrontation on each of the protagonists must have been devastating – perhaps less so on the judge, who one imagines resorted to the bottle as usual. For both Elizabeth and Mary one would expect it to be far worse, posing a direct challenge to their immediate and longer term futures. Yet between them, within a year at most (judging from Grant’s account) it seems they were able to develop a modus vivendi which suited both and continued until Elizabeth’s death in 1809 (see below); in fact, they could almost be described as friends.
In February 1810, in a submission to Governor Macquarie soliciting a free pardon on Mary senior’s behalf, Atkins wrote that she had ‘lived with Mrs Atkins a considerable length of time, and behaved herself in all respects becoming her station, honest, prudent, and industrious’. He added that during his wife’s final illness, lasting for several months, ‘her care and attention to her was most exemplary’. Their collusion, I suggest, appears more plausible if during their altercation Mary let slip the same information to Elizabeth that she gave Eastwick the following year – understandable in such a tense situation. Given their aristocratic background, both women may well have chosen to keep the knowledge to themselves − and from Richard − and to maintain the fiction of Mary’s statement to the Old Bailey (remember, this is conjecture); this also helps to explain Elizabeth’s reluctance to mix in colonial circles – she as well as Mary viewed herself as an exile from polite society.
The accommodation between the two women, however, did not extend to the younger Mary – the sole person in the colony aware of the truth of her ‘mother’s trial and conviction. As such (again this is speculation), she endangered their future security, which needed to be addressed. Here the courteous and cordial Captain Baudin must have come to mind as a potential solution – first, it seems, he was offered and accepted young Mary’s services as a maidservant, and then it was suggested she might accompany surgeon Thomson and his wife (who were returning to Europe with Captain Hamelin in the Naturaliste) as their maid.
Perhaps Thomson had no need for a maid, but in any case the Governor lacked the power to pardon a convict in such circumstances. A new stratagem was then devised, as described by Baudin in his Journal:
At about 11 at night [on 17th November 1802] an English girl named Mary Bickaith [sic] appeared on board in men’s clothing. I had known her during my stay at Port Jackson, and she had more than once asked me to obtain Governor King’s permission for her to return to England as Mr Thomson’s assistant. I had promised to interest myself in her case and indeed spoke of it to the Governor. He would not have refused me this request had it not been contrary to the general instructions concerning deported persons, but he told me that if she wanted to leave, no inquiry would be made about her. She was, therefore, taken aboard the Naturaliste on the day before departure; but as she is unable to re-enter England without authentic permission from the Governor, I have embarked her to set her down somewhere in the Moluccas. Her youth will soon be noticed there and will find her some happy fate.
(N. Baudin: Journal, 1800-1803; transl. by C. Cornell. Friends SLSA, 2004. p. 425)
He added that the girl was 17 years old and came from a good family in England, had voluntarily joined her mother, transported to Port Jackson for stealing a length of muslin, rather than be sent to a convent, and was ‘interesting more on account of her behaviour than for her prettiness’. Readers may make what they will of this last comment.
Re-reading this passage, it seems Baudin is repeating information he has been given by the girl – it is straightforward, and gives us little reason to doubt his belief in its accuracy. Today, however, with the benefit of hindsight, we can query several of the statements made – namely that she wished to return home as the surgeon’s assistant, she came from a good family, she came to the colony with her mother voluntarily, and she had preferred to do so rather than be sent to a convent.
This was a girl who had spent a year in prison before transportation, then six months or so on a convict transport, before assignment as a felon in the colony; we do not know whether or not she was literate, nor whether she had any contact with surgeon Thomson. More surprising is the claim she would have been sent to a convent if she had not accompanied her mother; this was not the case in England, but may have applied in Ireland.
Lacking facts, there seems a whiff of conspiracy about these claims – a feeling that the girl may have been tutored in the details she was to relay to Baudin by the two women. No one else need be involved – young Mary could be induced to believe it was a means to return home, the judge that her departure would ease the tension in his household, and Baudin and King that they were acting in the best interests of their friends the Atkins and also of the colony. The latter two seem to have agreed that Mary might be put ashore in the East Indies on the homeward voyage.
* * * *
Young Mary Beckwith boarded the Géographe late at night on the 17th November 1802, escorted by capitaine de frégate Emmanuel Hamelin, deputy commander of the expedition. Midshipman Breton, officer of the watch on the Naturaliste, records in his journal that, on the 16th, Captain Hamelin spent the day with Baudin, returning to the ship at dusk with a foreign woman wearing a hooded cloak. She spent the night in his cabin, then next day remained hidden in the gunroom to avoid being seen by the English passengers, surgeon Thomson and his wife; after nightfall Hamelin himself escorted her across to the Géographe.
Breton’s testimony is highly significant. It is almost inconceivable, in my view, that a senior officer of Hamelin’s stature would have deigned to compromise himself by personally smuggling aboard une fille publique (a prostitute, as his officers assumed), for his commander – or for that matter that Baudin would have risked his own reputation or discussed taking the girl aboard his ship with the Governor (who in turn would surely have spoken with Atkins) − unless he believed there were substantial grounds for doing so. The initial impetus, I suspect, came from Mrs Atkins and Mary Beckwith, was then perhaps channelled through the girl, and accepted as valid by Baudin, Hamelin and King.
It is no coincidence, I feel, that before his departure Baudin generously donated £50 sterling to the colony’s Female Orphanage, chaired by Mrs King – ‘bestowed’, she acknowledged, ‘in a Manner that does Equal Honor to your Philanthropy and Humanity’; the same amount was often levied on visiting captains for breaching colonial regulations, such as taking convicts on board without permission. Was this perhaps a quid pro quo suggested by Governor King to Baudin?
Although Mary sailed with the Governor’s connivance, without a formal pardon her status became that of an escaped convict, for which death was the punishment in any British territory; Baudin understood this, but it seems unlikely that Mary herself did. For the next nine months she shared the captain’s cabin, until the Géographe’s arrival at Ile de France (Mauritius) in August 1803. In January 1803 she became the first European woman to land in South Australia, while the ship lay at anchor in Nepean Bay, Kangaroo Island, for almost a month. A memorial erected in April 2002 marks the probable landing place, at Baudin Beach.
With one exception, no record survives of Mary’s presence on board during this voyage, and François Péron and Louis de Freycinet do not mention her in their history, Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes, 3 vols. Paris, 1807-1816. The sole reference is by Péron’s friend and colleague, Charles Alexandre Lesueur, the expedition’s natural history artist, in a journal entry (unpublished) dating from their call at Koepang, Timor, in May and June of 1803:
Our commandant’s health having improved slightly, he had, as was known, secretly embarked a young woman at Port Jackson; it was also known the sort of girl she was. During the voyage she had affairs with several members of the crew, and she also caused the commandant’s health to worsen again. He wished to leave her at Timor, and made this quite clear to her. In no way would she agree to this, but rushed off headlong like a fury; she ran towards the bridge crossing the little river in Koepang, and threatened she would throw herself from it. Reassured by two blacks sent after her by the commandant, she allowed herself to be brought back to him, and it was agreed between them that she could continue on the voyage. The same evening she was embarked, but in the meantime she had drowned her sorrows in drink, and had to be carried to the boat. She was in a truly horrible state; distraught, her hair dishevelled, her clothing in disorder, out of her mind, disgusting in the extreme. They had to haul her up [over the side], and she was carried to the commandant’s cabin in front of all the crew …
[C A Lesueur: Journal. Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, Le Havre. Collection Lesueur 17 076 – 1, p. 62. transl. by author]
Mary’s reaction is palpable; from Lesueur’s account it is clear she had no inkling that she might be put ashore at the small Dutch settlement, while Koepang itself was no place for a white woman. The Dutch governor and a handful of senior aides were the only Europeans, few survived the fever-ridden climate for any length of time, and the majority Malays were Muslims. British troops had stormed the tiny port a few years before, and left much of it in ruins. This was no place for her to find a ‘happy fate’.
Lesueur’s reference to his captain’s ill-health is also of interest; we can be virtually certain that it was due to tuberculosis, a major threat to mariners of the period. Symptoms were probably apparent earlier in the voyage, and grew steadily worse on the homeward passage; as the expedition approached Timor Baudin was confined to his cabin for days at a time. The terminal stage developed in the Arafura Sea in early July, when weather conditions (rather than illness) at last forced him to call off his mission and return to Ile de France. Mary had no option but to tend the dying man, now wasting away, often bedridden, and continually coughing blood, but still in command.
After his arrival at Ile de France Baudin wrote to his friend Governor King, informing him that the Naturaliste had left for France with Surgeon Thomson and his wife on board; both were in good health. He made no mention of Mary – not surprising in view of her questionable departure from the British colony. He died within a month, and was buried on 17th September 1803 with the honours due to his rank in the Navy – although one of his midshipmen described it decades later as ‘a dismal event’. Commander Milius, his successor, acknowledged Baudin’s unswerving dedication to his task: ‘The commandant was so determined that he resolved … to sacrifice all the time necessary and even his life to fulfil entirely the object of his mission’.
Young Mary probably was not allowed to attend the funeral. She was not abandoned, however, and perhaps went into service with one of Baudin’s friends or relatives on the island. Curiously, Matthew Flinders provides the last known reference to the shards of her life story. Arrested by the island’s Governor, General Decaen, when calling in for repairs at Port North-West in December 1803, and detained for 6½ years, Flinders kept a Private Journal throughout his enforced stay, making entries almost daily.
He writes that in August 1804 he was twice visited by Captain Augustin Baudin, Nicolas’ brother, the master of a Danish vessel trading between Ile de France and Tranquebar, a Danish possession on India’s east coast. ‘Deprecating very much’ the great contrast between Flinders’ treatment by the general and the warm reception the French officers had received at Port Jackson, Captain Baudin sought his advice ‘concerning the propriety of taking a young woman to India whom his brother had brought hither from Port Jackson’.
Flinders does not mention what advice, if any, he gave his visitor. A letter to the Chief Archivist of Mauritius elicited the reply that ‘despite searches made in our records and archives, no information has been found on this woman’. It is likely, then, that young Mary journeyed with Augustin Baudin to Tranquebar – what ‘fate’ she found there is unknow-able, but is not likely to have been a happy one.
Mary senior’s fate, in contrast, is both documented and relatively secure. Following Elizabeth Atkins’ death from a lengthy and painful illness in October 1809, she remained in the judge’s service (as housekeeper, carer of the three girls, now in their upper teens, and de facto wife). In January 1810 Richard Atkins was at last replaced as Judge Advocate by Ellis Bent, an English lawyer sent to take up the post as part of Governor Macquarie’s mandate to reorganise the colonial government.
Paying a courtesy call on his predecessor, and familiar with the social comforts of a lawyer’s life in London, Bent found him living in ‘a perfect pig-stye’ with his housekeeper and illegitimate children. Despite the squalid conditions and his frequent intoxication, Atkins, he wrote, was ‘a fine-looking man, very prepossessing … and a gentleman in his deportment’; he ‘plainly showed he was in a situation beneath him … and accustomed to polished and higher classes of life’.
Macquarie brought with him orders recalling some of the colony’s senior officials, Atkins among them, to give evidence at the court-martial of Lieutenant Colonel George Johnston, for alleged mutiny against former Governor William Bligh (the ‘Rum Rebellion’). In April 1810 Atkins and Mary Beckwith, now a free woman, left the girls in Sydney and sailed for London in the Hindostan, along with Bligh and his former colleagues. Macquarie reportedly thought it unlikely that he would survive the passage, but he reached England safely and duly testified at Johnston’s court martial.
After a short spell in a debtor’s prison, Atkins retired with Mary to the village of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, close to his childhood home at Denham. Chronically insolvent, his financial problems again came to a head in 1817, forcing him to reach a settlement with his numerous creditors. He must also have settled matters with his family, for about this time he married his ‘sincere friend and companion’ of many years; it is inconceivable he could have taken this step without their consent. Lacking the record of their marriage, it remains unknown whether she took her vows as Mary Beckwith or Miss M- .
Richard Atkins died on 21st November 1820, aged 75, leaving his widow his ‘household goods plate linen china books ready money and other effects’ – plus the responsibility of settling his remaining debts; he was buried in the family vault at Denham. Mary joined him nine months later, in August 1821 – requesting in her own will the right of burial with ‘my late dear Husband’. It had been an amazing life passage, from hearing the death sentence at the Old Bailey, to transportation for life to the penal colony at Botany Bay, and a final resting place at the side of a descendant of Queen Elizabth I’s trusted Chancellor, Sir William Cecil.
Did she, I wonder, in these final years give any thought to the possible fate of the young girl (step-daughter or personal maid?) who had shared with her the horrors of the calamitous years from 1800 to 1802?
* * * *
The naturalist François Péron, Commander Pierre Bernard Milius, and other officers and scientists of the expedition left records of their visit to Sydney in 1802, but not Captain Baudin. His Journal de Mer ceases on 17th June, outside the Heads at Port Jackson, and resumes on 17th November, the day before departure. It was standard practice for captains to maintain official records of their voyage, the property of the Navy, at sea, and personal journals while in port. Baudin records his stay at Ile de France on the outward voyage, and at Kupang, in West Timor, in his Journal, but apart from his correspondence we have no record relating to his five months stay in the colony.
Given his clear intention to write a detailed account of the voyage, for which full and clear records of all aspects – navigational, geographic, scientific, and administrative – were essential, I believe that Baudin very likely kept at least a personal record of the expedition’s visit to the British colony. Since after 200 years the narrative has not come to light, the question needs to be asked – was it indeed written, and if so, what happened to it? Does it still exist, or has it been destroyed – perhaps by Baudin’s own wish, or by someone else’s hand?
[N.B. These paras. to be re-drafted and extended as a Postscript to the essay]