Thomas was an officer on His Majesty’s ship Britannia. Mary was a horse thief.
Thomas was a 19 year old junior officer when in 1794 he proposed to 17 year old Mary. Thomas was serving in the employ of the British East India Company at the time and Mary was under a seven year sentence of transportation to Australia, having arrived in 1792. Thomas had worked in India and other parts of the British Empire before coming to Australia.
Transportation (the criminal sentence) is an interesting topic. The individual was transported by ship to a remote British colony. Originally convicts were transported to British colonies in North America but the American Revolution put a stop to that. After a few years the British resumed transportation, this time to the newly established colony of New South Wales in what is now Australia.
Transportation generally came in three varieties, seven years, fourteen years and life. One of the interesting consequences of transportation is that those individuals so sentenced were free to return home after their period of transportation was up. Those sentenced to transportation for life were out of luck of course. The trick is that the transported individual had to pay for their own return trip. This was beyond the means of most. Thus for almost everyone transportation was a one way trip.
After Thomas and Mary married they settled on a land grant near Sydney which they began farming. It was standard practice at the time for the colonial government to parcel out land to free settlers and released convicts. The newly minted farmers were expected to start producing food within a few years. If they failed to do so they could forfeit the land.
Along with farming, Thomas also established a trading business. Over the next 15 years his assets and business grew. Using his connections in the East India Company he traded with locations as far away as India and China.
During this period Thomas would still sometimes go to sea. While he was away his wife Mary would manage the various businesses.
In 1806 Thomas heroically rescued several people during a period of severe flooding on the Hawksbury River north of Sydney.
Thomas made one final sea voyage in 1809-1810 and then died in Sydney in 1811 from a disease apparently picked up in India two years earlier. This left Mary Reibey in charge of her husband’s business empire. She was now a wealthy woman thanks to her husband’s business acumen. The young naval officer had done well for himself, and the horse thief had sorted herself out too.
Using experience gained by assisting her husband, Mary continued to run and grow the businesses. She opened new warehouses and purchased new ships. Such was her standing in the community that the Bank of New South Wales was founded in her house.
In 1820 she went home to England for a visit with two of her children. Yes she was wealthy enough to pay her own way back. She returned to Australia in 1821. This was her home now.
In 1825 Mary was appointed as the governor of a grammar school.
In 1828, seventeen years after the death of her husband, Mary stepped back from active involvement in her businesses and transitioned in to retirement. She went on to live another 27 years in comfort.
Feminists would have us believe that men have historically oppressed women. In contrast Mary Reibey was accepted by her society as a business owner and was appointed to a custodial position over a school. She bought and sold land in her own name. Even when Thomas was live she was active in business.
Mary was a well respected member of her society. Wealthy and powerful. Hardly the image of the down-trodden woman that feminists would have us believe was the historical norm. Mary’s situation was common. Wherever and whenever we look at the historical record we see women being active participants in their societies. Women who achieved were respected by men for their hard work and intellectual capabilities.
Along with supporting her husband in business, Mary bore Thomas seven children. The idea of the man working full-time and the woman working part-time while being the primary carer for small children is often seen as modern but it has been the norm for humans societies throughout history.
We must also not forget this society was not a democracy. New South Wales was still operating under marshall law when Thomas and Mary settled there. Governors were all senior officers in the Royal Navy or British Army during this period. Mary didn’t have the vote but nor did Thomas. Australia was amongst the first places in the world to grant both universal male suffrage and universal female suffrage yet this would only happen decades after they died.
Both Thomas and Mary contributed to the development of the colony of New South Wales, out of which Australia would grow. Alas gynocentrism is alive and well. Today Mary Reibey is remembered as an important figure in colonial Australia and has appeared on Australian currency. Thomas is largely forgotten.
The featured image depicts Mary Reibey because we couldn’t find a picture of Thomas. Any pictures you find online labelled Thomas Reibey are probably of his son or grandson, who were both also called Thomas Reibey. –Ed