EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS
Illustrated by a Sketch of the Career of Michael Howe, “The last and worst of the Bushrangers.”
Written by J. E. Calder.
Transcribed by Aidan Phelan.
Introductory View of the State of the Country between 1813 and ’18. — I think that there are but few in the present age, who believe too implicitly in the apothegm that there was more happiness in the condition of those who lived before us, than in our own; and as well as we can understand from the study of history, there is but little to regret in not having lived in those days, that we too fondly call the “Good old times.”
But whether the early times of other countries were good or not, it is not my purpose to enquire into here; but turning back to those of our own, its early times were none too pleasant; for what with the murderous onslaughts of our native tribes; the predaceous acts of bushrangers; the everlasting pursuits of military parties, and their hard bush fights with the marauders they were after, Tasmania, half a century ago, must have been one of the liveliest places to have dwelt in, but certainly not the most agreeable.
I purpose in this paper, giving some sketches of the insecurity of life and property in Tasmania, during the times of the Governors Davey and Sorell, thoroughly disorganized as society then was by the marauding classes, whose existence in the woods, produced such a condition of things here, as it seems to me, that the present occupants of the country, have almost no conception was ever known in Tasmania, which I will illustrate by a sketch of the bush career of the most remarkable of the disturbers of its peace, known in the annals of the time, as “the last and worst of the bushrangers” of Tasmania.
But before proceeding further, I will take a general glance at the causes which led to the curse of bushranging, which I own I am far from being convinced are solely ascribable to the innate depravity of the prisoner classes, who were the chief but not the only men who followed it. There were other causes at work to produce it, such as the very peculiar circumstances of the Colony for several years after its first establishment, which sometimes drove, and at others invited men into the bush; and to the arbitrariness at one moment, and laxness the next, of the rule of some of our first governors and commandants, whose systems of what was called penal discipline, were sometimes most tyrannical and brutalizing.
For several years after the colony was first established, there was something very like famine at head quarters; the weekly dole of ration just sufficing to keep life from going out altogether, whilst comparative plenty reigned outside the settlement in the bush; which enticed the most licentious of the convicts, to many of whom ordinary labour was quite now, into the woods, to subsist, partly by hunting like the native tribes, and partly by plunder, whilst the police of the colony, which was chiefly the military stationed at the two settlements of Hobart Town and Launceston, was for along time lunch too weak to put down the disorders that frequent desertions from headquarters produced.
These, however, were not the sole causes of the troubles of the times. There was a great deal of unnecessary severity in practice, and the lash was almost ever at work, frequently for the most trumpery offences; and the gaol-gangs, as the chain-gangs were originally styled, comprised a large proportion of the population, who the after experiences of half a century proved were not to be coerced into good behaviour by debasing and brutalizing punishment. Besides this, the domestic lives of some of our very early governors and commandants were none too exemplary.
Until the end of the year 1825 Tasmania was a mere outlying province of New South Wales, and the methods of subordination in force in the “parent colony” as the latter was called, necessarily governed ours; and even when this country was declared to be an independent colony, this brought no relief to the class from which the ranks of the bushrangers were recruited; for the severe discipline in force before, rather increased with the change than otherwise; for the statements from which I am writing, namely many old reports which were laid before a committee of the House of Commons in 1838, and that of witnesses then personally examined (printed in the Parliamentary Blue Books) proved that our disciplinary systems were formerly most cruel, and that the gravest severities were, even to a comparatively late period, practised not only on men in private service, but that at the penal establishments of the colony corporal and other punishments were pushed to the furthest limits compatible with human endurance, of which the most appalling examples are given, either in the form of penal statistics or direct oral testimony, that are published in the volumes referred to, but some of which it would only shock any reader to repeat.
I may, however, without offending the sensitiveness of anyone, state on the authority of one of these old volumes, that publishes the penal returns of a couple of years, that in a single twelve month, there were inflicted on one class of convicts only – namely, those in private service – the frightful number of 51,370 lashes on 1,456 individuals, besides 3,224 other punishments, such as banishment to penal settlements, consignment to chain-gangs, for various periods, &c, &c. ; but from which are excluded, and probably by design, the torments endured by men on the various public works of the colony, and at such places as Port Arthur, Maria and Norfolk Islands; and those whose recollections extend back to any portion of the period between 1820 and ’40, will not have forgotten the ever present spectacles in the streets of Launceston, Hobart Town and elsewhere, that were created by the then prevailing system of over-punishment (often for the most frivolous infractions of order and other slight offences), exhibitions happily succeeded by a more healthful condition of things, which it has been the lot of so many of us still living to see effected, under the exalting influences of modern sentiment, and beneficent systems of Government in which it is our privilege to live.
Such were the chief causes, and not the depravity of the convict classes, as a few still amongst us pretend, that led to the curse of bushranging in Tasmania, and for which, beyond all doubt, the home and local authorities of the time, must be held to have been chiefly accountable, and not entirely the inferior agents by whom their instructions were executed.
It is, however, due to one of the old commandants of Port Arthur to mention that he never would countenance undue severity being practised there. This gentleman was Mr. Champ, on whom the mild and most benevolent Bishop Wilson passes the highest eulogium (Printed in the House of Commons’ Journals), as a most discriminating magistrate and merciful man; and had all others been as wise as he, in not carrying out too exactly the ill-considered orders of the times, the history of the early years of settlement, would have had nothing to disclose of scenes which drove men mad, or sent them by hundreds into the bush, to die by the bullet or on the scaffold.
But that there were some who took to the highway from other causes than magisterial tyranny, such as disappointment or hatred of subjugation, is, however, pretty certain. Of those who were amongst the followers of Howe, two were never convicts, and must be believed to have taken to evil courses from some such motives as those named just above. These were James Geary, who was a deserter from the detachment of military stationed here, the 73rd, and Dennis Currie, a deserting sailor. And Howe himself seems to have had no better excuse for absconding, than an inextinguishable abhorrence of subordination, which manifested itself very strongly throughout his whole life; and without anticipating what I shall have to say about this man, I may state that he was almost a born runaway. He was originally a sailor, and in very early life, entered the merchant Navy, and was afterwards a man-of-wars-man, from both of which services he deserted. (See Wentworth.) He was once in the Army, and deserted from that too. Again when on ship-board as a convict to this country, he made a most desperate effort to escape while still in harbour, and had well nigh reached land by swimming, before he could be re-taken. Arrived here, he was off to the woods directly he got a chance and though taken twice or thrice afterwards, he invariably got clear away again, before his captors reached the gaol with him. From hope of pardon, he twice surrendered himself, and was actually within-side the four walls of the prison, but repenting his surrender, he both times made good his escape; and even when betrayed by a confederate, as he was in the end, and overpowered, he still fought with such bull-dog courage and determination, that his assailants were forced to kill him, by beating him to death with their muskets, as he would not give in while life remained. Hatred of subjection, must have been unconquerably strong in this man, that throughout his whole career he sacrificed everything in resisting it, and finally his life.
To revert for a minute or two to the condition of the free inhabitants at this period, and the practices of the authorities in reference to them, it has to be said, that insecurity of life and property, were not the sole troubles that our settlers had to bear with; whose liberty of action was not only grievously interrupted by these licentious fellows, but through them was further abridged by the Government of the day in many ways, that we can hardly believe at present. Even in the early part of Sorell’s time things were none too pleasant here; but then he found the place in such a topsy-turvy condition, that he was forced for a time to continue the old established methods of dealing with the people, that he found were in vogue here, until he saw his way clearly to removing obnoxious usages. Thus, it had long been the practice to prevent persons of all ranks, stations, and conditions whatever, from travelling on the road or track, that led from Hobart Town to Launceston, (or the two settlements as they were then called), without taking out a printed passport signed by the Governor himself. But as the free portion of the people would not always stand this, they sometimes took French leave to do so. He therefore issued a formal Proclamation forbidding this procedure of crossing the island without his leave in future, unless possessed of the talismanic pass, which he commanded them to produce to the “Officer or Non-Commissioned Officer commanding the detachment stationed at Wright’s, York Plains, in order to its being countersigned by him,” and failing which, “any person” (says the order) “arriving at either settlement without having a pass so counter-signed at York Plains, will in future be refused permission to Cross the Country.” This was in August, 1817.
Some of his other proclamations and public notices, read strangely enough by the light of our own times. Bushranging wits not yet extinguished, and was raging fiercely almost close to the boundaries of Hobart Town; and military parties were out after the robbers in all directions; and such was the dangerous state of the neighbourhood (how different from its present quiet condition), that it became necessary to caution all persons not wishing to be knocked on the head, not to venture out after night-fall; and they are told, if they do so go abroad “on their lawful business, they are desired to keep the Roads or Beaten Paths; and when they meet any soldiers, and are challenged, to go forward immediately, and shew who they are, and give their Names, and on no account to run away,” &c. (25th September, 1817.)
This was not the Arcadian age of Tasmania, when none dare to cross the country without a Pass; or stir abroad in daylight without being pretty certainly stuck up by armed bushrangers, or speared by wild natives; or after dark, without running a good chance of being shot down by soldiers, all of whom seem to have been about equally dangerous to meet with, and as carefully to be avoided as the plague itself.
But the state of disquietude that reigned here so long, was brought to a close by Sorell in about eighteen months. He was not slow in bringing order out of disorder, and when he left the colony, and long before, the country was in such a state of tranquillity, as was not the case at any previous period, and the greater portion of his government appears like a bright light, in tho times of darkness that preceded and followed it. His recall in 1824 elicited from the people such proofs of their regret, as I do not at this instant recollect any other Governor receiving. I do not refer solely to their money presentation, large as it was, considering its scarcity then, nor to mere complimentary valedictions, but to a general united effort to retain him amongst them. But his rule, which had been very mild after he had restored quiet to the country, was probably not in harmony with the temper of the times in Downing-street, and the prayer of the people went unheeded.
But let us be thankful that all such times (except those spoken of in the last paragraph) are past; and that we live in days when license and disorder are unknown, and that if we have not much to call our own, we can do as we like with the little we have, never being called on to stand and deliver, by anyone more ferocious than the taxgatherer; and when we go to rest at night, we can do so without fear of our repose being invaded before morning.
CAREER OF MICHAEL HOWE.— If any reader who sees this paper, happens to have a scarce old work that was published by Mr. Andrew Bent in 1818, entitled “Michael Howe, the last and worst of the bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land,” or Wentworth on the same subject, I would take leave to counsel him to read them with caution. Like most of those who lived at the time, and one of them in the midst of the scenes he writes about, their narratives, though pretty true in the main, are so overcolored, that it requires some discrimination to reduce their descriptions to their proper dimensions, and to avoid swallowing a good deal of fiction along with the truth. Other works contain a good deal of information about Howe, namely the old Government Gazettes from 1814 to 1818, Colonel Sorell’s despatches, and a memoir by a Mr. Symes. This latter I have not met with, but have used all the rest; and the information that I have derived from them, I have interspersed with anecdotes obtained from private sources.
About twenty-five miles from the city of York, and in the West Riding of that county, there is a very ancient borough town, of no particular note in present times, but formerly of much historical importance, called Pontefract. Like many another pleasant old place of merry England, its antiquity is so great, that its first settlement belongs to the pre-historic times of our country. But it was once a very famous place; and it is recorded that the first church in which Christianity was preached to our half-savage ancestors, was in Pontefract, the ruins of which, though in the last stage of decay that precedes obliteration, still attract many pilgrims of the class who think with the greatest British poet of this century, that
. . . . Even the faintest relics of a shrine
Of any worship, wake some thoughts divine.
In more recent, but scarcely less savage times, it was also a place of great note, and its celebrated castle, built by one of the most zealous followers of the Conqueror, became the scene of important events, and of many a deed of blood; and it continued to be for six hundred years, as one of its historians says, “the ornament and terror of the surrounding country.” Here it was that Richard II was murdered; and here also were enacted many of the worst butcheries of the sanguinary Richard III.
Within sight of the ruins of this famous castle, and of the spot on which the most sacred of British edifices formerly stood, it was that the ill-spent life of Michael Howe began, about eighty-six years ago, that is some time in 1787.
Of his parentage nothing is known, and of his early years almost as little; but it seems he had a sister, of whom he entertained a fond recollection even to the last days of his career, as appeared from a curious record that was found in his knapsack, which he lost in one of his many hard fights, a little before his death, in which he related that he had recently dreamed of her. This little incident stands out in bright comparison against the many dark events that make up the history of this self-willed and ungovernable man, giving us another example of the force of the early recollections of childhood, when evil is not often a predominating feature of the character. But Howe, like other men had his vulnerable points, that were easily reached by reminiscences of this kind: thus, when in the Hobart Town Gaol in 1817, after his 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 shewn 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, &c.
His journal before spoken of, showed in other ways, that his thought were not always vicious; and that there were moments when he was not plotting so much against the safety of others, as in maturing expedients for securing his own. He was fond of gardening, and his love of it never forsook him; and he looked forward hopefully for the coming of the day, when he might escape altogether beyond the settled districts, where he would pass the rest of his life, free from the everlasting pursuit of the military, and take again to his favourite occupation. But his mode of life was unfavourable for keeping up his knowledge of it, which must have well nigh departed from him; but he resolved to reteach himself the art.
In one of his maraudings, he attacked the house of a gentleman named Pitt, the father of the still living Frank and Philip Pitt, and finding a volume on the subject there, he made a prize of it, and appears to have studied it with intenseness. This book was in his lost knapsack, and was restored to its proper owner, in whose family it is still preserved, as a curious relic of the past eventful life of a settler in Tasmania. It was long in my own possession on loan. Howe had so studied it, as to have thumbed its covers off at last, but he secured them with kangaroo skin, that is still on it, very neatly sewed with sinews, and is on the whole a good rough job in its way.
On a fly-leaf of it, now lost, the wretched out-cast had inscribed another notice of the sister spoken of above, of whom he seems often to have thought in the solitary hours of his vagabond existence. Miss Pitt remembered it, all but a word. It ran thus :— “This is my sister’s birthday; it is now __ years since we parted.” The date was also forgotten.
His journal contained a long list of the vegetables, and even the flowers, that he hoped to cultivate, whenever the day of escape from robber-life arrived. How forcibly this brings back to mind, a trait in the character of one of Byron’s ruffian heroes — of a verity a man of Howe’s own mould — whom he tells us had the same tastes, and that
” A love of flowers,
Bedewed his spirit in his calmer hours.”