Abraham Rheuben’s great times eight granddaughter

Posted: 18 February 2020

by Charlotte, 7th generation Australian

A few years ago I wrote a speech for school to say in front of my class. “Write something personal,” the teacher said, and so, interested to know more about my history I set out to write this speech. Previously, I only had a minimal knowledge of Abraham’s story and was so interested to dig through the files that we had, as well as what I could find on the internet. Much to my delight at the time, the ending elicited an audible gasp from my classmates as they realised that the teenager I was talking about was my ancestor, something that is not so common anymore. Here is the speech that I said in class:

“In 1776, when America gained independence, England was forced to find somewhere else to send its convicts. Australia was the perfect place. To the English it was a deserted, free,barren land, great for sending the unwanted. Over the next 70 years, England would send over one hundred and sixty four thousand criminals to the other side of the world including a 16 year old boy named Abraham Reuben.

Abraham Rheuben
Abraham Rheuben

On the 19th of May 1827, 193 years ago, Diana Fitzgerald, wife of Edward Fitzgerald, was out shopping in Whitechapel in London on a nice evening. When she reached into her basket, she found that her purse was missing. An officer, Francis Keys, was the Bow-street patrol that evening. He testified he saw the teenage Abraham Reuben and another boy approach the shoppers and search through their bags and belongings. When the boys bolted, he followed, cornering only Abraham and forcing him to hand over the stolen items. In her recount of the event Diana Fitzgerald stated that she lived opposite the Jews’ chapel, Bethnal-green. Both Diana and the officer who caught Abraham refer to him as “the prisoner,” with obvious disdain. The prisoner’s defense – that he merely picked it up – was enough to send him to an island in the middle of nowhere. He was “transported for seven years” to Van Diemen’s Land as a convict, a sentence given for even the smallest of crimes. But although he was only sentenced for seven years, Abraham Reuben never came back. Abraham left England on the 13th of March, 1828. He was one of 170 other convicts, all with unique faces, unique crimes and unique fears about what was to come. The one thing that wasn’t unique was their names. Scrolling through the list of convicts you will find at least 20 Henrys, Johns, and Williams. It is likely that Abraham was the only Jew on the ship. They travelled aboard the Bengal Merchant for only five months, a considerably smaller travel time compared to the first ships, and arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on the 10th of August that same year.

The Bengal Merchant travelled to Australia four times and each time carried around 200 passengers with an average sentence of 9 or 10 years. 1828 was the only time it travelled to Van Diemen’s Land, an island off the south coast of Australia that is now known as Tasmania. Van Diemen’s Land was a tough place for prisoners to be around this time. It became increasingly crowded and crime began to seep through the stuffed barracks where the prisoners slept.

When Abraham became a free man, he, his new wife, Rosetta Marks and their ten children, donated money to a Synagogue that was starting up in Hobart. The summer before last, I attended a Saturday service in the shule, with a ladies’ area smaller than this room with our friends leading the service because there was no one else but our small party of around 15 people. It was an honour to see his picture and name hanging on the wall.

Why was it an honour you ask? Because 9 generations later, I stand here today as his great times eight granddaughter, a product of his journey, quite proud of my heritage. Because although your history does not define you, it is a part of who you are. And it doesn’t define me, it is a part of me – I am a proud Australian Jew and am always ready to explain my heritage when anyone asks, but I will hopefully never be shipped off to another country away from my parents and family with fears of the life to come. We all have a story, they all matter, they are all a part of who we are today”