Aboriginal Peoples and Bushranging: An Overview 

NOTE: The following will be discussing people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent and will also include images of persons now deceased.

Telling the history of bushranging in Australia would not be complete without making note of the importance of Aboriginal peoples on both sides of the law. Whether we are referring to bushrangers like Musquito or Jimmy Governor, or the “black trackers” that so many police forces relied on to help them track down fugitives, it would be utterly ignorant to not highlight their contribution to this unique history.

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Picture Credit: “The Black Tracker”. George Rossi Ashton. Australasian Sketcher, June 18, 1881. Courtesy State Library of Victoria

Aboriginal Bushrangers

The defining trait of bushrangers is an ability to survive in the wilderness and utilise it as a tool in the outlaw’s armoury. For people whose ancestors occupied the land tens of thousands of years before European occupation, such a trait was second nature.

Musquito

Musquito was one of the earliest Aboriginal bushrangers, an Eora man from Port Jackson. Operating around 1805, Musquito began committing raids on farms around the Hawkesbury and was soon a wanted man. After being turned in by other Eora men, he was sentenced to eight years on Norfolk Island. In 1813, Musquito was taken by ship to Launceston where he remained. For a time he acted as a tracker and received commendation from Lieutenant Governor Sorell who gave permission for Musquito to be returned home. This never eventuated. After Sorell’s apparent betrayal, Musquito turned rogue. Forming a gang of Aboriginal men from surrounding areas that became known as the Tame Gang, Musquito was considered to be almost supernatural in his ability to blend into his environment and was notably tougher and stronger than his companions. Operating in the 1820s, the Tame Gang stole from farms to survive. He soon joined the Oyster Bay tribe and was implicated in the murder of several settlers with another Aboriginal bushranger known as Black Jack, before finally being captured by an Aboriginal boy named Teague in 1824. Musquito and Black Jack were tried and sentenced to death on dubious evidence. They were hanged on February 25, 1825. Musquito’s life demonstrates the impact of white settlement on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the early nineteenth century. His once proud people, who lived on the land and were in tune with the natural way of things, found themselves overtaken and forced away from their way of life and off their traditional homes, denied the right to observe the language and customs of their people dating back millennia. In their desperation to survive they broke white man’s laws and suffered fierce reprisals. Musquito’s use of guerilla warfare tactics made him a fearsome opponent for British soldiers.

Jimmy Governor

Another significant example of the persecution of Aboriginal people leading to lawlessness can be seen in the horrific story of Jimmy Governor and his gang. Raised in Talbragar at a time where it was impossible for a non-white man to be given equal footing in Australian society, regardless of aptitude, Governor felt oppressed and bullied his whole life. He was literate, was a renowned horsebreaker and even worked as a tracker for the police. Despite his obvious positive qualities, he was still looked down upon in white society. The scorn he felt only increased when at twenty three he married a white girl – sixteen-year-old Ethel Mary Jane Page. Mixed marriage in Australia was a big taboo and frowned upon, especially by the women. Jimmy managed to find work, gaining a position on the Mawbey farm in West Breelong. One day Governor snapped after his wife had gone to the main homestead for their ration of flour whereupon she was turned away with an earful of abuse for the nature of her marriage. When Ethel told Jimmy about what had happened, he was apoplectic. He stormed over to the manager, John Mawbey, and asked for his rations and Mawbey told him that he’d sort it out. Jimmy returned to the shack he and Ethel shared and stewed in his rage for hours before inducing his mate Jacky Underwood, also Aboriginal, to go to the homestead with him. They were armed with a rifle and an axe. In the dark of night, Jimmy roused Mrs. Sarah Mawbey and demanded an apology. Not only did Sarah Mawbey not apologise but she responded with another tirade, her friend the local school teacher Helen Kurz adding “You black rubbish! You should be shot for marrying a white woman!” That was enough for Jimmy. The years of abuse, scorn and ill-treatment bubbling to the surface. He and Underwood went on a killing spree, slaughtering Sarah Mawbey, Helen Kurz and the Mawbey children Grace, Hilda, and Percy. Bert Mawbey, age eight, escaped and raised the alarm. When the men reached the house they found Cecil and Garnet Mawbey still alive with their cousin George. It was claimed that Jimmy took his brother Joe, Ethel and Jacky Underwood with him into the bush saying “Now we’ll be just like Ned Kelly.” For months afterwards the Governor gang raged through the community adding more murders (usually women and children) and robbery to the tally of crimes and were hounded like foxes. On October 13, 1900, Jimmy and Joe Governor were found and set upon by Bert Byers and Bob Woods, Jimmy being shot in the mouth and separated from his brother. Jimmy was captured on October 27, 1900, severely malnourished as his mouth wound prevented him from eating properly. Joe Governor was shot dead on October 31, 1900, while attempting to seek refuge in an Aboriginal settlement at St. Clair. His corpse was put on display on a billiard table in Singleton. Jacky Underwood was hanged in Dubbo Gaol on January 14, 1901. Jimmy Governor was hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol on January 18, 1901.

Jimmy Governor, from his prison record
Frequently, what separated Aboriginal bushrangers from all others was that it was usually the introduced laws and culture that pushed them into criminality and their natural affinity for the land that made them formidable to the forces of the law.

Aboriginal Trackers

Since Australia had been occupied by Great Britain, the British forces had relied on the abilities of Aboriginal peoples to find water and food and later on people. The institution gradually became what would be referred to in law enforcement as Native Police or Black Trackers. Capable of reading the environment considerably better than any white man, some bushrangers considered them to be their only real opponents. First utilised in the 1830s in Western Australia, trackers became a vital part of law enforcement all across Australia by the 1870s, the first “Native Police” created in Victoria in 1837. New South Wales also formed a similar division of the police force in 1848 that operated until 1859 when the newly formed colony of Queensland took control until 1900. During the latter period trackers were hired in New South Wales unofficially. Unfortunately the trackers were frequently misused by colonial forces and the Aboriginal troopers often found themselves being forced to exterminate or round up their fellows to be shipped off to camps. One of the most infamous of these massacres was the Cape Bedford Massacre wherein Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor and his troop of Queensland trackers slaughtered around thirty indigenous people on a beach. A week later O’Connor was heading South with his troops to help the Victoria police find the Kelly gang.

Copy of PM0130

Sub-Inspector O’Connor (seated) poses with his Queensland Native Police and members of the Victoria police during the hunt for the Kelly gang
In many bushranger stories the trackers are just as important as the outlaws. No telling of the story of Ben Hall would be complete without the inclusion of Billy Dargin; the Clarke brothers found themselves facing off against a formidable police party that featured the famous tracker Sir Watkin Wynne who lost an arm to injuries sustained in battle with the Clarkes; Ned Kelly famously referred to the indomitable Queensland trackers as “six little devils” as they were the only people capable of closing in on the Kelly gang. Colonial police were typically out of their depth with bush work and this played into the hands of bush-going fugitives. Naturally, the disruption to this game of cat and mouse by introducing trackers kept outlaws on their toes and bred a deep resentment within them.

Without the talents of Aboriginal trackers, the forces of the law would not have been capable of succeeding against bushrangers at anywhere near the rate they did. Some police understood this and treated the trackers with respect, while others allowed their racist tendencies to taint their view and looked down on their contributions. In the case of O’Connor’s trackers, he campaigned after the dissolution of the Kelly gang for his troops to receive their cut of the reward as promised, and although the governments agreed to pay the money never reached the men and they ended up in internment camps as destitutes.

It is evident that Aboriginal peoples have shaped the history of law and order in this nation considerably and are an indispensable part of the history of bushranging. Whether on the forces of the law or against them, Aboriginal peoples have many fascinating stories to contribute to an already rich history of crime and punishment in Australia.

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Sources:
McIntyre, P. (2016). Musquito: How an Eora man from NSW sparked rebellion in Van Diemen’s Land. [online] ABC News. Available at: http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-02/musquito-and-tasmanias-black-war/8075714?pfmredir=sm [Accessed 4 Jul. 2017].

Naomi Parry, ‘Musquito (1780–1825)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/musquito-13124/text23749, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 7 July 2017.

Aboriginal trackers. Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, 24 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 July 2017. <http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/aboriginal-trackers&gt;.
Kerwin, D. (2010). Aboriginal heroes: episodes in the colonial landscape. [online] Queensland Historical Atlas. Available at: http://www.qhatlas.com.au/content/aboriginal-heroes-episodes-colonial-landscape [Accessed 6 Jul. 2017].

Hunjan, Raveen. “Aboriginal trackers in NSW given ‘long overdue’ recognition for law enforcement work.” ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 Nov. 2016. Web. 06 July 2017. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-11-18/aboriginal-trackers-recognised-for-police-work-in-nsw/8037064&gt;.

Arthur Wilberforce Jose and Herbert James Carter (editors), The Illustrated Australian Encyclopaedia, vol. 1, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1925, page 170
Powell, G. (2016). Bushranger Tracks. 1st ed. Sydney: New Holland Publishers Pty Ltd.
Nixon, A. (1995). Stand and Deliver: 100 Australian Bushrangers 1789 ~ 1901. 2nd ed. Port Melbourne: Lothian Pty Ltd.

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