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Esther Abrahams and the First Jews in Australia

January 27, 2018

Esther Abrahams, born in 1767 (or 1771 by some sources), was one of between eight and fourteen Jews among 800 British convicts who anchored in New South Wales on this date in 1788, as part of the first fleet of British prisoners sent to colonize Australia. Abrahams, convicted of shoplifting silk lace in 1786, had given birth to a daughter while in Newgate Prison. Headed towards the penal colony aboard the Lady Penrhyn to serve a seven-year “transport” sentence, she became involved with a marine lieutenant, George Johnston, with whom she ultimately had seven children. In 1808, Johnston led a coup and became governor of the colony for six months. By then the couple controlled a good deal of the trade in rum and were among Sydney’s most prosperous families. Historians estimate that 463 Jews came to Australia during the first four decades of British colonization, including 384 convicts, 52 free settlers, and 27 children. Over 90,000 Jews currently live in Australia, 90 percent of whom reside in the Melbourne and Sydney areas.

“I shewed her a piece of black lace, and asked her two shillings and tenpence, but told her I would take two shillings and ninepence; she bid me measure it . . .  I turned round and took a pen and cast it up . . . and the mean while I turned, she took a piece of lace; I was obliged to turn my back from her to get the pen . . . I then looked in my box and missed a piece of black silk lace.” --Hannah Crockett, prosecution witness at the trial of Esther Abrahams, 30 August, 1786