The Misrepresentation of Michael Howe

On this cold and wet Tasmanian afternoon, as I sit at my desk listening to the inescapable rasping call of a native hen, my mind begins pondering the question posed to me for the writing of this essay; ‘Has Michael Howe been mispresented?’ (No, do not rub your eyes or adjust your screen brightness, you read those words correctly.) I understand this may seem odd to some and perhaps hardly worth touching upon, let alone worthwhile reading. After all the man was a violent psychopath, he set fire to half of Van Diemen’s Land and left a wake of destruction wherever he trod. The history books and newspaper reports tell us so, do they not? In fact, according to Thomas Wells, Michael was a man who committed crimes “with the coolest indifference” and was “never known to perform one humane act.” Surely there is no way such strong declarations could possibly be wrong? Surely the records were properly scoured before such judgments were cast? Or were they? Firstly, I must begin by admitting that this is a question I never believed I would be answering, let alone examining in such detail. In fact, if asked for my thoughts on the subject of Michael’s misrepresentation several months ago, I would have shaken my head and given the reply of most Tasmanians: “What is there to misrepresent?” At that time, I could not have contemplated the degree to which Michael’s character has been cruelly defaced by the scrawls of ignorance and just how much his memory has become blackened. Over the past month, however, I have found myself completely drawn to this “rough sailor-looking fellow”, with his “profusion of coarse hair” and “deep set eyes”, who had a fondness for gardening, knitting and reading. Which in turn has led me to dedicate my free time to pouring over witness statements, government dispatches, newspaper articles and history books. This obsessive search to better understand Michael, led me to discover that the Michael Howe who has long been presented has almost no semblance to reality. In fact, much of what has been written about his actions completely contradict those detailed within primary source documents, with some events entirely omitted from both posthumous reports and those written during his lifetime. This discovery quickly awakened my bloodhound-like tenacity and in turn has sparked a serious yearning to tell Michael’s story and to redeem the character of this Yorkshireman, who himself expressed regret at feeling “greatly injured by the country at large.”

For some, the simple mention of the name ‘Michael Howe’, or as he himself pronounced it in his Yorkshire accent, ‘Mick’l’, is enough to cause a shudder. Which as it happens, was the exact reaction given by my father when he found out I had become interested in this “demon bushranger”. Eyeing the illustrations Aidan had done of Michael he asserted, “He was bad man, Georgina. You better not be trying to make him out to be someone he wasn’t,” and as I listened, tight-lipped, I knew there had to have been more to this man than what is commonly told. Which, as it so happens, is exactly the case and my wish to remove the black cloak from Michael’s shoulders has led to me to uncover details about his character which has brought me a strong sense of pride. I believe the lack of understanding and compassion given to Michael is tremendously sad, and even while alive the want of these things seems to have been something he longed for. According to James Calder (a 19th century writer and researcher who is quickly becoming my idol), after Michael’s surrender to Captain Nairn, “he was visited by the Chief Superintendent of Convicts, Mr. Paterson, to whose charge he had been consigned when he first landed here, and who had shown him kindness. This gentleman once more uttered a few fatherly words to him. Howe had been so long a stranger to civil words, that he warmly expressed his thanks for the slight attention now shown to him, saying he had often thought of the old superintendent with kindly feelings.” It can also be argued that this want of kindness, or remembering those that had showed it to him, was why he specifically wrote about his sister Mary in both his journal and the gardening book he took from Mr. Pitt. Like his journal of dreams, this book was held together with kangaroo skin, which Michael had sewn “very neatly with sinews”. Owing to him being a great lover of gardening, Michael had “so studied it, as to have thumbed its covers off”, and on the flyleaf of the book recorded Mary’s birthday, in conjunction with the number of years they had been “parted”. It is moving to think of Michael, alone in his hut on the upper Shannon River, remembering his life back in Pontefract and the sister who loved him.

Another reality at odds with the known narrative is the way in which Michael treated the men and women he stuck up, which is a point highlighted by witness statements and Calder who asserts, “none of these pillagings were attended with personal violence of any kind…Howe disliked unnecessary violence, and though he sometimes threatened it, using hard words and black looks, he never would permit it except in self-defence, or when, according to his style of thinking, he believed his victims deserved it.” One such example is seen at Governor Davey’s residence at Coal River, near Richmond, which Michael and his gang robbed on the evening of the 8th of September 1816. Not wishing to alarm the wife of Mr. Peachey the overseer, Michael instructed the man to wake up his wife and allow her to dress before he entered. Once he had scoured the room of what he “stood in need of”, Michael informed Mr. Peachey of the items he had taken, adding he had “not touched his wearing apparel.” It was also noted by the overseer that before leaving, Michael asked for his dictionary, promising to return it when the book had served its purpose. An item which would no doubt have served ‘the lieutenant-governor of the woods’ well in his communications with ‘the lieutenant-governor of the town.’

This habit of only taking the necessities is seen throughout many of the robberies Michael was in command of and differs greatly from the belief that he and his gang ransacked these premises with the zeal of a Roman legion. For the most part, green tea (black tea was bitter and undesired by the settlers), flour, sugar, ammunition, weaponry, clothing, blankets, needles and thread, and meat, were the necessities taken. The only occasion these acts differed was on the 10th of May 1815, while raiding the house of Mr. Adolarius William Henry Humphrey, a police magistrate who was known for abusing convicts. Humphrey and his wife were not at their Pitt Water (Sorrell) home when Michael broke open their front door with an axe, which was fortunate for the magistrate as Michael and his gang had expressed their desire to murder the unkindly man in order to “prevent him ever flogging another man” or “serving out slop” to convicts. Once inside the house, the gang began searching the premises for necessities which on this occasion also included Humphrey’s compass; an item Michael would come to show Thomas Seals the following year.  While he and two other members of his gang, James Geary and Richard McGwyre were filling their knapsacks, Michael came upon two pairs of leg irons, with the discovery sending his blood cold. Fetching the remainder of his gang from the servant hut, they proceeded to smash everything left in the house, knowing all too well the weight of irons clasped at their ankles.  Before leaving, Michael relayed to one of the servants that they would have left quietly if it weren’t for finding the leg irons. Further to this, the gunfight between Irishman Dennis McCarty and the gang on the 24th of April 1815 is another event which has seen key details omitted from newspaper and posthumous accounts. Unlike what is often presented, Michael did not surprise McCarty with a barrage of musket fire, but rather it was McCarty who opened fire upon the unsuspecting gang while they rested beneath trees on the banks of the Derwent River near New Norfolk. In response to this attack, the gang, excepting Michael and James Geary, left their weapons and ran a little up the hill, which led to McCarty defiantly shouting, “now you dogs, if you are men, face us like men!” Adhering to this order, the remaining members of the gang, including Mary Cockerill, retrieved their arms and the firing commenced. With the wounding of five of McCarty’s men, Carlisle, Murphy, O’Burne, Triffett and Jemott, one of the gang, most likely Michael, demanded a cease fire with the wild call, “McCarty, stop, you scoundrel, it is you we want, or we will blow your brains out!”

Such acts of violence were few and far between and the gathering of weapons from settlers, it should be remembered, was vital if Michael and the gang were to stand a chance against soldiers, with them believing there were “two or three parties of soldiers out” at the time of the fight with McCarty. Furthermore, the burning of haystacks and barns, like those carried out on the wheat and corn harvests of Bartholomew Reardon and Humphrey, were not overseen by Michael and it is unclear whether he was even aware of their undertaking until afterwards. Instead, these were the actions of George Watts, Thomas Garland and James Whitehead (not John). In my research, I have discovered that many of the acts attributed to Michael, which are often used to further demonise him, were undertaken by others and often times are quite fanciful in their diversion of fact, with the known narrative’s description of the burning of wheat stacks and gunfight with McCarty clear cases of this. I feel I must also point that Watts and Garland’s act of wanton destruction was too much for James and he left the pair shortly after, declaring to a servant that he did not feel safe among them. For me, James’ comment about not trusting Watts and Garland, brings into question why James continued to stand by Michael if he was as cruel and unhinged as he is portrayed. How could he have trusted his life with ‘the wild beast of the ranges’? By all accounts, James had a strong moral compass and like Michael, treated the men and women within his company with respect. On one occasion, a servant by the name of George Green expressed his regret at seeing James in such a situation, with James replying he was sorry to find himself in the situation also, adding it never would have been the case if not for the treatment of his previous master.

Another gang member who was known to show respect was Peter Septon, who, like Michael, had served time in the British army. While travelling close to Launceston, accompanied by George Jones and John Brown, the trio met a gentleman in the company of two ladies. Fearful of their whereabouts reaching the ears of soldiers, the gang took them to a farm house, where it was stated the “outlaws behaved in the most becoming manner, having refused to take any refreshment till the ladies had done; and even led their horses the next day over the difficult part of the New River.” In conjunction with this action, upon seeing a servant of Governor Davey’s by the name of Lucas was unwell, Peter mixed the man up a concoction of milk and wine, while Michael made himself a tankard of eggnog. Such actions, for which I have only mentioned a few, are omitted from nearly all the tellings of Michael’s life, but of course, you never let the truth get in the way of a good story, do you?

While the known narrative may portray Michael as a paranoid and unhinged leader, this could not be further from the truth. By all accounts, he kept the gang in orderly control and no man or woman were ever molested or left fearing for their life by his actions. In fact, as I have come to find, there is a stark difference in the way the gang conducted themselves when Michael was leading them as opposed to when he was not at the helm. The first example of this is in October 1814, when while robbing McCarty’s house John Mills repeatedly threatened to “fuck” Mrs. McCarty, who he deemed to be a “whore”. It should be noted that Mills was a man who Michael noted to a solider he would only have freed from Launceston “if he was worth the risk.” The other example is seen in the second robbing of Lieutenant-Governor Davey’s house, when George Jones, visibly drunk, made the servants drink rum, threatening them if they did not partake of spirit. Such actions, along with a list of others, are often laid at Michael’s feet but this is simply ignorant of the facts and nowhere better are his beliefs described then by Thomas Seals, who had been told, “if I would be a friend to them, they would reward me well […] for they were fully determined to be like Turpin, to rob from the rich and give to the poor.”

In concluding this essay, I wish to point out the lack of inclusion about Mary Cockerill is due to truth differing greatly from the narrative. There was no baby, there was no incredible love story (highlighted by her own actions), and he certainly did not shoot her for falling behind. Just how Mary and the other unnamed Aboriginal woman came to be with the gang is unclear, but it is likely they left abuse and slavery just as Michael and the others had done. They would have proved invaluable in reading tracks and keeping them away from aboriginal tribes, which proved near fatal to Michael while alone, as recorded in his journal.

By no means is this an exhaustive list of the wrong-doings done to Michael’s character over the last 200 years and nor does it include an explanation for every event and action in his 31 years of life, for such pieces are still to be written. However, what I hope this essay does do is convey the truth of who Michael Howe was and to bring forward details which have long remained in the shadows.


Sources

Historical Records of Australia, Series 3, Volume 2.

Historical Records of Australia, Series 3, Volume 3.

‘Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land’, by T.E. Wells.

‘Tasmanian History: Early Troubles of the Colonists’, by J. E. Calder.

‘Governor of the Ranges: Mike Howe, Wild Beast of Tasmania’, by Bernard Cronin and Arthur Russel.

‘History of Australian Bushranging’, Volume 1, by Charles White.

Baptism record of Mary Howe located on Ancestry.com and comes from the parish of Pontefract, St Giles.

Source for correct name of James Whitehead comes from witness statements (Historical Records of Australia), his prison record (Ancestry.com) and his death record (Tasmanian Convict Registry).  

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