Mme Brussels


Madame Brussels LaneLOCATION: Madame Brussels Lane, Melbourne

Caroline Baum – later known as Madame Brussels – was born in Prussia before migrating to Australia with her husband in 1871. After separating from her husband around 1874, she gradually become Melbourne’s best-known brothel keeper, running some eight houses of “ill repute” for over thirty years at the top of Lonsdale St. Situated close to Parliament House, her main establishment 32-34 Lonsdale St, was famous for its opulent interiors, numerous sculptures and decadent artworks.

However you regard the nature of her business dealings, Madame Brussels employed her business acumen in ways that were largely out of reach for most women of the time and endured considerable public vilification, particularly in the later part of her career.

Sista Zai Zanda, in her eponymous work “Mme Brussels” summons ‘notorious women’ like Madame Brussels, to tease out the tensions between our past, present and future. The tightrope of respectability, economy and body is still precarious and hard to walk. Like Caroline Baum/Madame Brussels before us, questions of survival, subjugation or success are often determined more by others than by women themselves. What or who is the fully liberated feminine and what alternatives are there to our “rapacious, genocidal and misogynist robber” past?



Once upon a time,
Power-foolishness posed as a genteel fairy tale unfolding
In a city built Down Under from gold rush booty, genocide and looting.
There, so the fairy tale goes, softly-spoken women from respectable families married well-to-do men of
influence and power
and kept orderly homes.
Yet, beyond the shiny veneer of morality and respectability
Away from the better homes and their fine parks and gardens,
So-called “Dangerous women” ruled from the slums.

Without a care for reputation or social perception,
These wayward ones
Strutted through the slums.
From opium dens to public houses and brothels of Little Lon, they
And some even made their fortune and bought real estate.
They smoked in public,
Ran successful businesses,
Maintained their independence,
Boozed and
Entertained men of power and influence in their disorderly homes.

Then, there is a story of a notorious woman with one foot in both worlds.

Born Caroline Hodgson in Prussia,
Her portrait still paints a picture of high society respectability .
A poster child of prudish Victorian morality,
Caroline married, wisely, into a well-connected British family.
Respectably wedded, she accompanied her husband and set sail for a life of fortune in the colony.
Her eyes were set on a famous city that shone bright in the minds of all,
Like a glittering jewel, sparkling in the far Southern Hemisphere,
Melbourne called and
She arrived, respectably, with a husband.
There, she became the police officer’s wife and while he took a post in the country, she dubiously remained behind in the
city but ran a respectable boarding house until poverty threatened, she did as most businesses of the time
She did so amidst marble and exquisite fine furnishings,
A stones throw from Parliament and the Treasury building,
Caroline became “Madame Brussels”,
Propertied woman, brothel owner and entertainer of wealthy men and highest society.

Once upon a time,
Madame Brussels found out how best to survive.
Her crime?
The exercise of business acumen and skill – in a man’s world.
That is a business world imposed and thrust upon thousands of years of Aboriginal cultures.
This extractive colonial business culture
Seduces and enamours.
Its get-rich-quick promises
Powers a “might-is-right” type of Predatory Capitalism.
In that kind of colonial man’s business world, Madame Brussels learned to thrive
While others, mired in the quick-sands of predatory capitalism, were soon trapped in a life of poverty and crime,
and some literally gave up their life.

The world willingly sacrificed the Feminine for the love of money, power, status and prestige.
While the people suffered and
Mother Earth lay heaving underneath the weight of a growing city
Built by rapacious, genocidal and misogynist robbers,

A woman called Caroline Hodgson took on the moniker Madame Brussels and learned to walk a tight rope.
One day, she toppled
And the newspapers reported her for keeping “a disorderly house”,
Trading in the flesh of young and naive women.
In time, a Liberal women’s herstory told another version of her story:
Madame Brussels amassed wealth in a man’s world, a man’s world that worked against women’s equality.
But we are in the future now.
So, please,
Rest yourself here.
Inhale, deeply, and feel the story that emerges .
As you connect with that primordial life-giving energy that constantly rises up to greet us from the ground,
Caress the Earth.
Lovingly devote each step and thought to a fully liberated feminine.

This work is a part of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre collaboration, Taking Space, for Feminist Journeys, featured as a part of the 2020 Feminist Writers Festival.


Author: Sista Zai Zanda

Sista Zai Zanda is an Afrofuturistic Storyteller and Community Builder. She loves big ideas. Her latest project, “Sista Zai’s 5PM Storytime”, brings the joy, love and magic of storytime for her social media audience to indulge in a restorative break and reflective pause as we collectively re/imagine a #NewNormal where everyone thrives. You are welcome to join the private Facebook group. Amongst Sista Zai’s career highlights, she founded and curated the iconic Pan African Poets Cafe, toured Denmark delivering slam poetry workshops, worked as the Youth Zone Consultant for one of Africa’s top ten international arts festivals, received a Round Four Neilma Sydney Literary Travel Fund for a self-directed research tour in South Africa and co/hosted several events including a Creative State Summit, Melbourne Writers Festival Opening and Closing Night and Community Broadcasting Association Of Australia Annual Conference. You can find Sista Zai on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – just don’t spell her “Sister” because Sista Zai’s not a nun – yet.

Your thoughts?