With the British Empire now firmly establishing Australia as an outpost, it became increasingly apparent that the authorities would have their hands full with rebels and rogues. Perhaps one of the most important figures in the formative years of law and order in Australia is Michael Howe, a ruthless bushranger who sought survival and liberty at any cost.
Howe was born in 1787 in Pontefract, Yorkshire. Life during this time was rough on lower class families thanks to the Industrial Revolution and poverty was rampant. For a young man in poverty there were really only two options: join the armed forces to fight for Queen and country; or lead a life of crime. Howe chose the former, joining the navy on a man-of-war before finding himself transported to Van Dieman’s Land in October 1812 after a conviction for highway robbery.
Howe was assigned to a merchant named Ingle but resented indentured servitude and took to the bush. Forming a gang of bolters they took up highway robbery until Lieutenant Governor Macquarie offered a pardon to any felon who turned in another on May 14, 1814. The incentive to betray his fellows was too strong and Howe convinced a few of his mates to join him in turning in the rest. The plan was a success and they lived it up in Hobart town before Howe again took to the bush. Here he joined the gang of legendary rogue John Whitehead. Whitehead had one of the largest bushranger gangs ever recorded with a purported member count of at least twenty eight by most accounts. Confirmed members were Richard McGuire, Hugh Burne, Richard Collier, Peter Septon, John Jones, James Geary, and an Aboriginal woman named Mary Cockerill, nicknamed “Black Mary”. The gang mainly comprised of vagabonds, deserters and convict bolters like Howe. Howe’s navy background and ruthlessness esteemed him in the eyes of Whitehead and he soon rocketed up the ranks to become second in charge. The gang raised hell in New Norfolk, raiding farms and torching properties. The people were powerless against this reckless army of rogues. During a shoot out between the bushrangers and a combined force of soldiers and settlers, the bushrangers came out on top shooting two, capturing a third and driving the settlers from their homes.
Such insurrection was not to go unpunished and a special contingent of soldiers from Hobart ambushed the gang during another raid and a fire fight ensued. Two of the gang were captured as night fell and Howe led the rest to escape. In the shooting, John Whitehead copped a deadly wound and instructed Howe to remove his head so that the soldiers couldn’t claim the reward on it. Howe complied, sawing off the bushranger’s head before taunting the soldiers with it as he escaped. The head was later found dumped in the bush. Howe soon plugged the power vacuum by stepping up into the leadership role instituting naval style discipline as the gang raided over huge areas following the leads from their scouts. Howe took much pride in his position and referred to himself as the “Governor of the Ranges” (as opposed to the “Governor of the Town” who was the official head of government).
Howe continued his life as a rogue, accompanied by Mary who had become his defacto wife. Mary was enamoured by the self-proclaimed “Governor” and the two had a “Bonnie and Clyde” romance as they traveled the Tasmanian wilds sticking up travelers and stations. Her natural gifts for tracking seemed invaluable to the bushrangers. Before long their passion resulted in a pregnancy and this would prove their undoing.
Howe found that as the pregnancy continued Mary was increasingly immobile and this came to a head one day as they were intercepted by soldiers from the 46th regiment. Howe fired back at the redcoats with a stolen musket and at some point one of his musket balls hit Mary. Some postulate that it was accidental and she merely got caught in the crossfire but most believe it was deliberate to cause a distraction to facilitate his escape and relieve the burden that was slowing him down. Discarding his belongings, Howe disappeared into the scrub. In his effects were the musket and a book bound in ‘roo skin filled with letters seemingly written in blood that spoke of Howe’s pursuit of greatness and delusions of grandeur. When Mary recovered from her wounds she was not happy with Howe and became a tracker to help the soldiers find him. The pursuit became so hot that Howe wrote a letter from the “Governor of the Ranges” to the “Governor of the Town”, who was Governor Sorell at this time, to negotiate a surrender. Sorell sent an emissary and surrender was achieved.
Howe’s incarceration did not last long as he took advantage of the relaxed security he had negotiated and fled to the bush once more. He picked up two of his former accomplices and resumed bushranging, but after a disagreement he murdered the men in their sleep by slitting their throats and clubbing them with a rifle. Soon gang member Brown surrendered to the authorities leaving only Howe and another bushranger named Watts. Both had a £100 reward on their head.
Howe was now desperate. Watts conspired with a stock man named Drewe and the two pounced on Howe over the campfire and restrained him, confiscating his knife and pistol. The next day they began to escort him to town to claim the reward when Howe broke his bonds and revealed a hidden dirk and stabbed Watts in the back and reclaimed his pistol which he promptly used to shoot Drewe. Watts was not dead however and struggled back to town where he told of what happened before dying of his wounds.
Without friends or accomplices Howe was living a solitary life in a cave without any comforts. His clothes disintegrated, his firearms ran out of ammunition and he could not find nutritious food. He tried to clothe himself in a cloak of stitched together kangaroo skins, his dark beard was long and bushy and his only tool was a hatchet. When an old ally sent him word that he had supplies for him the offer was too good to refuse.
The former accomplice cum kangaroo hunter named Warburton, had befriended a farmer named Worrell and had struck a deal to lure Howe and kill him for the reward of £200 on his head and free passage back to England. Warburton managed to track Howe down and told him there was ammunition and food in his home on the River Shannon. In actual fact the house was the hiding place for Worrall and an infantryman named Pugh who were waiting, poised with rifles. Howe hesitated to go inside but did so with a pistol drawn. Once his eyes had adjusted to the gloom he baulked at the door like a frightened dog. Howe growled “So that’s your game is it?” and fired a shot as Pugh knocked the gun from his hand. Howe ran off as fast as his feet would take him, musket balls whizzing past him. The bounty hunters chased Howe down to a muddy inlet. Howe tumbled down an embankment but stood soon enough to present a second pistol. He brandished it and noting the whiskers of his opponent stated “Black beard against grey beard for a million!”, cast aside his cloak and let off a shot. The pair wrestled before Pugh caught up and with the butt of his firelock proceeded to bash Howe’s head in. With Howe’s life now ended in a suitably brutal fashion, his broken head was cut off and displayed in Hobart town as a warning to other would-be bushrangers of the wages of sin.
Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Bush-Rangers of Van Dieman’s Land by Thomas E. Wells
History of the Australian Bushrangers by George E. Boxall
History of Australian Bushranging Volume I by Charles White
The Outlaw Michael Howe: Director – Brendan Cowell