The Real Michael Howe

For over two hundred years, the story of bushranger Michael Howe has been greatly distorted, with the facts buried beneath murky layers of falsehood and political disinformation. Since colonisation, Australia has been home to many bushrangers and convict bolters, with most experiencing a twisting of their story by newspapers and writers of the time; indeed, that continues to happen today. However, perhaps none have had their lives and actions so completely misrepresented throughout history as Yorkshireman Michael Howe, the self-titled “governor of the ranges.”

Within most texts, he is noted as being “callous”, “cruel” and “brutal”, with names such as “Black Michael” and “wild beast of Tasmania” thrown in for good measure. Thomas Wells, clerk to Lieutenant-Governor Sorell, was the author of most of the misinformation which has tainted Howe’s story, which was published in a pamphlet shortly after the outlaw’s death in 1818. It can be argued that given Wells’ connection to Sorell, his pamphlet was more or less a piece of government propaganda, widely used to denounce the man who had for so long embarrassed the men of power and led them on a merry dance. Indeed, the 19th century writer and distinguished surveyor, James Erskine Calder, asserted that Wells’ work required to be read “with caution”, as it is “so overcoloured that it requires some discrimination”. Calder was one of the earliest voices of truth and fairness for Howe, with the only other voice being Tasmanian historian Bob Minchin. Both these men relied heavily on primary source material when shaping their narrative, with Calder also speaking to people who had personally known Howe. Sadly, these works have not been utilised by most contemporary writers and therefore have remained largely unknown.

Throughout the retellings of Howe’s life, there are countless examples of a great contradiction between what is reported within the accepted narrative and what is stated in the recorded history. Murders, robberies and wanton destruction of property have been placed on the shoulders of Michael Howe without evidence to prove such claims; and in some cases, the actions he is claimed to have undertaken were, in fact, carried out by others. Such discrepancy is seen in the reporting on the gunfight between Howe’s gang and Irishman Dennis McCarty at New Norfolk in 1815. In the newspaper reporting published at the time, it is stated, and therefore generally accepted, that Howe and his gang ambushed McCarty in a barrage of musket fire. However, the truth is completely at odds with this. Witness statements made by members of McCarty’s party state it was McCarty who opened fire on the unsuspecting outlaws, even going so far as to cry, “now you dogs, if you are men, face us like men!”

Another example is the burning of Bartholomew Reardon’s and magistrate Adolarious William Henry Humphrey’s wheat stacks. Howe is often blamed for this crime when in reality he took no part, and James Whitehead, who did, was so appalled by the actions of the two instigators he shortly left their company. According to Calder, “Howe disliked unnecessary violence, and though he sometimes threatened it […] he never would permit it except in self-defence, or when, according to his style of thinking, he believed his victims deserved it.” Such a statement is evident in Howe’s actions at Humphrey’s house in early May 1815. It is often reported that after robbing the house they proceeded to smash everything that remained, and while this is true, one key detail is often neglected. While preparing to leave quietly, Howe found two pairs of leg irons in the magistrate’s home and, unable to ignore the brutal implications, proceeded to smash all that remained in the house. Actions such as this were few and far between, and throughout Howe’s outlawry he only ever took what he “stood in need of”.

A significant inaccuracy in many accounts, is Howe’s supposed romantic relationship with Mary Cockerill. It must be acknowledged that the lack of substantial evidence, coupled with her readiness to aid the soldiers that captured her in tracking Howe, is telling on this front. Just how Mary and the other unnamed Aboriginal woman came to be with the gang is unknown, but that they proved invaluable in reading tracks and keeping them away from Aboriginal tribes is indisputable. The reports of Mary being pregnant with Howe’s child are completely false, and suggestions they were lovers little more than the result of misreading contemporary reports.

Because of these inaccuracies, the real Howe has been forgotten. In appearance, Howe was described as a “rough sailor-looking fellow”, “slightly pockmarked”, with a “profusion of coarse hair” and “deep set eyes”. He had a fondness for knitting, reading and gardening, with the latter being such a passion he stole a book pertaining to the topic and “so studied it, as to have thumbed its covers off.” On its flyleaf, Howe noted the date of his sister Mary’s birthday and the number of years they had been parted. He also kept a journal, the cover bound in kangaroo skin which had been sewn “very neatly with sinews”. Within it, Howe made lists of flower, vegetable and fruit seedlings he wished to acquire for his bush home and wrote of the dreams that haunted his mind and of outlawed life, observing, “the life of the damned was nothing to it.” It has been stated that Howe “was never known to perform one humane act”, but there are glimpses of humanity all throughout his outlawry. He showed courtesy to women and men, with personal violence an extreme rarity; and with him at their helm, his gang acted in the same manner, Thomas Seals reporting in 1816, “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.” Moreover, at Lieutenant-Governor Davey’s Coal River property, Howe asked for the loan of a dictionary, which he promised to return, and made himself eggnog while overseeing the offering of milk and rum to a sick servant. For a short while he also became a street vendor, selling knitted wares outside the Hobart gaol while awaiting news of his pardon. Calder also notes that after Howe’s surrender “he was visited by the Chief Superintendent of Convicts, Mr. Paterson, to whose charge he had been consigned when he first landed here […] 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 […] saying he had often thought of the old superintendent with kindly feelings.”

If anything is to be gained from learning of the real Michael Howe, it is that what is often repeated as fact is not always the case. Calder stated much of the reporting had been “painting the devil blacker than he really was”, which is undoubtedly the fairest assessment of the situation.  Such cases of character assassination through the distorting of facts are rife, and without diligent research and questioning such narratives our understanding of our history, and in turn of our world and our nature, remains far from the truth.

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