Tough Mothers, Nobody's Slave

What would you do if you were 12, without parents, and starving? That was the predicament faced by Agnes McMillan, just one of the 25,000 girls and women who Great Britain conscripted as "tamers and breeders" and deported to Australia from 1788-1868. Agnes was poor and illiterate. In the middle of winter she stole a pair of stockings to keep herself from freezing. For this, she was disposed of as human chattel, herded onto a converted slave ship and punished with imprisonment, seven years forced labor, and exile for life. Many of the transported women suffered rape and abuse at the hands of their captors.

As we commemorate International Women's Day on March 8, it's an opportunity to take action and end the human trafficking that still exists today. Free the Slaves reports that there are currently 21-30 million women, men and children enslaved worldwide. According to the Polaris Project, a global organization committed to ending trafficking and slavery, "There are more individuals in slavery today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade." This includes those who fall prey to bonded labor, forced labor or sex trafficking.

I recently heard a young woman speak about how she was lured into prostitution at age 14 when she was left on her own with no parents to support her. Now married and a mother of two, she opened her remarks with, "People forget this child has a story." Like Agnes two centuries before, she had no safety net and was forced to do whatever it took to survive. Choice was an illusion for these two teenagers who lived centuries apart yet share a harshly familiar coming of age as targets for human trafficking.

Agnes was among the 162,000 British citizens whose own government sentenced them to indentured servitude. An estimated 22 percent of Australians are descended from these hardy survivors. Most had been convicted for stealing food, clothing, or small items they could pawn to ward off starvation in the slums of London and Dublin. Forced labor and exile for life far exceeded the scope of their crimes. Those more sinned against than sinning lay hidden in history's dark recesses until present-day descendants began to uncover the truth about their family's past.

Edna Cullen from Banora Point, New South Wales was in her sixties when she discovered that her great-grandmother Agnes McMillan had been transported in 1836 to Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania) aboard the convict ship Westmoreland. As Edna observes, "Agnes was cold and needed something warm to wear to stay alive. If I'd been in that situation, I'd steal too." Upon emancipation, Agnes became one of the founding mothers of modern Australia.

Melbourne convict descendant Glad Wishart refers to "the convict treasure," describing her ancestor Ludlow Tedder who was transported for stealing eleven spoons and a breadbasket. Ludlow, a literate widow, worked as a servant. She was the family's breadwinner but, being a woman, earned 30 to 40 percent of a man's wages. With prostitution the only other means to supplement her income, selling stolen spoons seemed a better option. This first offense earned Ludlow a ten-year sentence. As property of the crown, she was deported to Australia with her nine-year-old daughter. Once freed from indentured servitude and given a chance for a new life, Ludlow used her skills as a nurse midwife. She passed onto future generations her strength and compassion, including a long tradition of nurses in the family. Wearing her heritage like a badge of honor, Glad feels pride in the convict legacy: "They worked hard and helped build modern Australia -- the ordinary people who were the backbone for our country." Like many who survive trafficking, they thwarted their captors by daring to live.

Ludlow and Agnes were pawns in Britain's plan to beat the French at colonizing Australia. That couldn't happen without women to populate their new source of wealth. Enslavement has always been about greed, whether it's an empire, a warlord, or a common thug. In the United States, the movie 12 Years a Slave shines a bright light on slavery's brutality in nineteenth-century America. In Australia, songstress Katie Noonan gives a voice to Australia's indomitable convict maids via her show Love-Song-Circus. It honors the women she calls "the original feminists, some of the toughest working mothers you could meet."

This year's theme for International Women's Day focuses on inspiring change. It took two centuries to expose the dirty secret of what happened to Agnes, Ludlow, and 162,000 British citizens. We can't wait that long to confront today's human trafficking. Slavery exists because, as Free the Slaves reports, it generates $32 billion annually. The voices of those enslaved in 2014 will remain unheard unless we act now with the courage to effect change that stands the test of time.