Popular culture records Charlotte Badger as Australia’s only female pirate. According to one tale, under the captaincy of Badger –
The Venus became the terror of Bass Strait. Frightful atrocities were committed; ships were captured, plundered and sunk.Elvie Williams, Australian Woman’s Mirror
But was Charlotte Badger actually a pirate?
WHO WAS CHARLOTTE BADGER?
Charlotte was born in Bromgrove, near Worcester in England in 1778. Little is known of Charlotte until 1796, when she was convicted of housebreaking at the Worcester Assizes. Charlotte was said to have stolen four guineas and a Queen Anne half-crown from her employer. Charlotte was around 18 years of age at the time.
Charlotte was sentenced to transportation, and arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the Earl Cornwallis in June 1801. Charlotte had served her sentence by 1803 and was emancipated.
THE VOYAGE OF THE VENUS TO PORT DALRYMPLE
In April 1806, the Venus set sail from New South Wales with provisions for the fledgling settlements of Port Dalrymple and Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land. The ship was captained by Samuel Rodman Chace. On board with the crew were male convicts, Charlotte Badger and her infant child, and a second woman Catherine “Kitty” Hagarty. Hagarty reportedly co-habited with First Mate Benjamin Burnet Kelly during the voyage.
The ship stopped at Twofold Bay and the journey was delayed by five weeks due to unfavourable winds. Captain Chace was concerned items were being pilfered from the provisions for Van Diemen’s Land. This included a cask of spirits he believed had been breached by Kelly (which Kelly denied). Chace, while in port at Twofold Bay, had mentioned to a fellow captain that he was concerned for the safety of himself, the ship, and of the risk of mutiny.
After finally departing Twofold Bay there was an incident at sea where a box of letters, that were to be delivered to Van Diemen’s Land, had been thrown overboard by Kitty Hagarty. Captain Chace sent out a boat to retrieve the correspondence but was unable to do so.
The ship dropped anchor at Port Dalrymple on 16 June. Chace left the ship to deliver despatches to Lieutenant-Governor Paterson at York Town. Chace decided to overnight on another vessel, the Governor Hunter. Unwise, given the concerns he had previously expressed.
When Chace attempted to return to the Venus the following day, he saw it under sail. A boat with five of his crew made its way to him, stating that Kelly and two accomplices had taken control of the ship and had cast them off. Still on the ship were Charlotte, her infant, and Kitty Hagarty.
The facts as outlined above, are drawn from an 1806 newspaper account of the mutiny as deposed by Captain Chace. Charlotte was mentioned by name in the article and described as
A convict, very corpulent, with full face, thick lips, and light hair, has an infant child.Sydney Gazette, 13 July 1806 p.4
It wasn’t the most flattering of descriptions, especially in comparison to that given to Kitty Hagarty (light hair, fair complexion, much inclined to smile).
A week later, a public notice of piracy appeared in the Sydney Gazette.
A newspaper account in April of 1807 gave information about the fate of the Venus and those upon her after it departed Port Dalrymple. A Captain Bunker, who had charge of whaling vessel Elizabeth, is said to have spoken with the captain of the Indispensible off the north end of New Zealand.
The Indispensible had recently left the Bay of Islands and reported news that the Venus had put ashore there two men (one of whom was Kelly), two women and a child. One of the women reportedly died on shore. Captain Bunker offered to take Charlotte and child aboard but she declined. It isn’t clear but Charlotte was likely on board the Indispensible at the time, and may explain why she declined Captain Bunker’s offer.
The story of the Venus and Charlotte Badger was revived in 1895, some 89 years later, and sensationalised for the modern reader.
THE MUTINY ON THE VENUS: AN OLD COLONIAL TALE by “TE MATAN”
Enter screen left, an author calling himself Te Matan (who turned out to be author Louis Becke). Matan, whilst mostly keeping reasonably close to the reported events up to the point of the Venus sailing off without her Captain, wrote a detailed and compelling (mostly fictional) account of Charlotte’s adventures from that point onwards.
Kelly and Hagarty, wrote Matan, decided
To do Fletcher Christian’s trick and take a cruise among the South Seas.Te Matan, Sydney Evening News, 23 November 1895 p.3
The ship reached the Bay of Islands in New Zealand’s far north where friendship was struck with the local Maori chiefs and the mutineers lived with them for some years. Matan wrote that Kitty Hagarty died suddenly whilst Kelly was away on a warlike excursion with his Maori friends. It was said this may have been at the hands of a Maori woman who wanted Kelly for herself.
Eventually Kelly was captured by Europeans and was sent to England where he was hanged for piracy.
Charlotte was offered passage to Port Jackson by a ship passing by, but declined saying she would prefer to live with the Maori. Charlotte must have had a later change of mind however, as the captain of an American whaler, the Lafayette, reported that a ship had visited a Tongan island where he had been a decade earlier. On board was “a very stout woman with a little girl about eight years of age”. The woman was reportedly an English woman who had escaped captivity from the Maori. With such a specific description, who could that possibly be other than Charlotte?
At least two other authors added to the story spun by Te Matan; Roy Alexander and Elvie Williams. The version by Alexander, published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1937, described Charlotte as the engineer of the mutiny. Benjamin Kelly, by contrast, was described by Alexander as a hardworking, well-known and well liked sailor.
No doubt poor Kelly little thought, as the prisoners came aboard in Sydney Cove, that his meeting with the buxom Charlotte was to ruin his career within a few days, and eventually, 8 years later to swing him from an English gallows as a pirate.Roy Alexander, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1937, p.21
To add to the claims of piracy, Alexander spoke of another ship that the Venus attacked before leaving the coast of Van Diemen’s Land. Alexander noted in a postscript that Charlotte and her daughter sailed to America, where they no doubt experienced the freedom Charlotte had long sought.
Charlotte, as you can see, is reported to have had an eventful time after setting sail from Port Dalrymple. But which parts of it are true? Historian Elsbeth Hardie explored this question in her paper, Was Charlotte Badger a Colonial Renegade?
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AFTER THE MUTINY?
Contemporary newspapers don’t mention Charlotte again after the 1807 newspaper account. With the significant digitisation of historical records in Australia, however, Historian Elsbeth Hardie was able to piece together Charlotte’s life after the mutiny.
The Venus indeed made it to New Zealand. Charlotte’s experiences there are unknown, though she was likely there only a matter of months. Charlotte was onboard the Indispensible by December 1806, according to the report from Captain Bunker of the Elizabeth, who had spoken to the Indispensible. The Indispensible stopped at Norfolk Island on its way south to the whaling grounds in October 1806 so Charlotte could not have joined the ship before then.
The Indispensible stopped again at Norfolk Island on the return journey, leaving Charlotte there by June 1807. Charlotte boarded the Porpoise in mid-June 1807 to return to New South Wales, reaching Sydney nearly a month later. The passenger list for the Porpoise noted Charlotte’s name and commented –
Brought from New Zealand in the Indispensible and is one of the women who was in the Venus schooner when ran away with from P. Dalrymple.Porpoise Passenger List, as cited by Elsbeth Hardie
There was no mention of Charlotte’s child.
Charlotte’s life, at least according to surviving records, was uneventful following her return to New South Wales. In 1811 she married a soldier, Private Thomas Humphries, who was considerably her senior. By 1814, they had a daughter named Maria. In 1822 Humphries left the Royal Veterans Company and was granted 100 acres. The last mention of Charlotte was in 1843 when she was accused of stealing a blanket (she was by now 62 years of age). Her husband and a local carpenter and cabinetmaker stood surety for her.
JUST TO BE CLEAR
Charlotte led the mutiny
There is no evidence for this outside the sensationalised accounts written a substantial period after the events.
Charlotte was the first female European colonist of New Zealand
It appears that Charlotte was in New Zealand for a short period after arriving there on the Venus.
Charlotte lived out her days in America, finally free at last
Charlotte’s epilogue is far more prosaic. She returned to New South Wales, married, and had a child. Other than the charge of stealing there were no further mentions of her.
The romantic tales of piracy by Matan/Becke, Alexander and Williams are undoubtedly enjoyable reading (Williams’ is my particular favourite for unashamed sensational fun). There are kernels of truth in the tales, but they are embellished.
Charlotte’s true story is no less fascinating, though. She experiences a mutiny, journeys to where few (if any) European women had been before, travels with a working whaling crew, and returns to tell the tale.
The paper Was Charlotte Badger a Colonial Renegade by Elsbeth Hardie is highly recommended. She concisely unpacks fact from fiction relating to Charlotte, and locates the events within a historical context. In addition though, the footnotes contain interesting information that suggests the fate of the Venus and of First Mate Benjamin Kelly.
Laura Sook Duncombe has written an anthology of profiles of female pirates, A Pirate’s Life for She. This has some fun reading but buys into the mythology rather than facts of Charlotte’s life. You can read my book review here.
Angela Badger has written an historical fiction novel based on Charlotte’s life. This is best suited to people looking for a fictional representation of what could have been. You can read my book review here.
If you’re keen to read the sensational 19th and early 20th Century re-tellings of Charlotte’s tale, you can find –
The Te Matan version here
The Roy Alexander version here
The Elvie Williams version here
Australian Woman’s Mirror, The Pirate’s Mate by Elvie Williams, v.13 no.50, 9 November 1937, p.11
Badger, Angela, Charlotte Badger Buccaneer, Briar Hill Victoria, Indra Publishing, 2002
Charlotte Badger in Australia, List of Convicts with Particulars, 1788-1842, www.ancestry.com
Charlotte Badger in Australia, Marriage Index, 1788-1950, www.ancestry.com
Charlotte Badger in Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Other Fleets & Ships 1791-1868, www.ancestry.com
Charlotte Badger in England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935, www.findmypast.co.uk, cited from Home Office: Correspondents and Warrants.
Charlotte Badger in England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, www.ancestry.com
Charlotte Badger in New South Wales, Australia Convict Ship Muster Rolls and Related Records, 1790-1849, www.ancestry.com
Charlotte Badger in New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1856, www.ancestry.com
Charlotte Badger in New South Wales, Census and Population Books 1811-1825, www.ancestry.com
Charlotte Badger in New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia Convict Musters, 1806-1849, www.ancestry.com
Dent, John., Phillips, Helen., Ranson, Alma., York Town: A Respectable Looking Village, Beaconsfield, West Tamar Historical Society, 2020
Duncombe, Laura Sook, A Pirate’s Life for She, Chicago, Chicago Review Press, 2020
Hardie, Elsbeth, ‘Was Charlotte Badger a Colonial Renegade’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, 2019, pp.84-97
Sydney Evening News, The Mutiny on the Venus by Te Matan, 23 November 1895 p.3
Sydney Gazette, Piratical Capture of the Venus Colonial Brig, 13 July 1806, p.4
Sydney Gazette, Public Notice, 20 July 1806 p.1
Sydney Gazette, Sydney, 12 April 1807, p.1
Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s Only Woman Pirate: Charlotte Badger’s Colourful Career by Roy Alexander, 26 October 1937, p.21