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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Damned whores, Beautiful Bodies

Gerald Stone is better known as the man behind 60 Minutes, the groundbreaking television current affairs format that set the benchmark for Australian investigative reporting during the 1980s.

However post-television, Stone has carved out a respectable reputation as an author of six primarily non-fiction books, including his latest venture, Beautiful Bodies - a harrowing tale about an 1833 shipwreck that claims the lives of 102 female convicts and 12 children.

The Amphitrite was one of the first convict ships to be lost at sea, and its ‘cargo’ perished, their bodies washing up on the shores of France.

London’s The Standard newspaper quoted a witness as saying: "I never saw so many fine and beautiful bodies. The French and English wept together at such a horrible loss of life."

In August 1833, the Amphitrite, a small convict ship bound for the colonies of Australia, was wrecked in a terrible storm on the coast of France. She carried 102 female prisoners, 12 of their children, along with the captain, the crew, a medical officer and one passenger – the medical officer's wife. Only three people survived.

It was the convict era's first major shipwreck. The death of so many women and children, largely due to the incompetence and blind bigotry of those responsible for their safety, was a scandal that threatened to rock the very foundations of the transportation system.

The reaction of the British Government was to cover it up, refusing to release even the names of the dead, depriving those tragic women and children of their very identity, even in death.

In writing the book, Stone was driven by a strong sense of social justice to tell the story of these nameless women and children whose only crime, in many cases, was the theft of food to keep themselves and their children alive.

"I'd just finished a book on Australian history called 1932 and I was looking for another subject and thought I'd look at the convict era," Stone said. "I came across this story, which I thought was fascinating.

"One of the criticisms of the convict era was that you threw in relatively innocent people with hardened criminals…women were often convicted for much lesser crimes but could only work back their passage through of the examples of this was the Amphitrite and I found out it was one of the first convict ships to be lost at sea."

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