Spotlight: The Wanton Callousness of Black Michael by J. H. M. Abbott

In the month of March, 1819, the first book published in Van Diemen’s Land was issued by Andrew Bent, editor and proprietor of ‘The Hobart Town Gazette,’ under the very hopeful and optimistic — but altogether futile — title of Michael Howe, the Last and Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land.’ It’s price was 5/-, and the first edition sold out by the middle of the year. Another was issued in July at 2/6, and of the two of them there survives but a single copy, which is in the British Museum.

BUT the original MS., or a copy of it, came to light in Tasmania in 1925. About the same time as the latter date there came into the hands of the present writer, through a descendant of the author, the original MS. of another account of the outlaw, entitled, also, ‘Michael Howe, the Last and Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s’ Land,’ which is dated ‘Hobart Town, December, 1818.’

It was written by Thomas E. Wells, and had never before seen the light of print until it was sold on behalf of the author to Angus and Robertson, Ltd, of Sydney, who produced an edition of 100 copies in 1926. T. E. Wells was a sort of secretary for a time in the office of Lieutenant Colonel Sorell. who succeeded Colonel Davey as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and ruled the island for seven years, between 1817 and 1824.

HIS NARRATIVE GIVES US AN ADEQUATE IDEA AS TO HOW BITTER AND BRUTAL THE WAR BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT AND THE RUNAWAY CONVICTS BECAME. THE PRISONERS MURDERED, RAPED AND PLUNDERED THROUGHOUT THE COLONY ; THE AUTHORITIES FLOGGED AND HANGED AND GIBBETED HEADLESS CORPSES IN HOBART TOWN, WHENEVER THEY COULD GET HOLD OF SUBJECTS FOR THE FLAGELLATOR AND THE HANGMAN.

Neither side showed a spark of mercy. It was a war that lacked both the giving of quarter to defeated opponents and the very elements of decency.
Michael Howe was born at Pontefract in Yorkshire, in 1787, and was bound as an apprentice to a merchant ship at Hull when a youngster in his ‘teens. He only served two years before he ran away from his ship and joined the Royal Navy.
When he was 24, in 1811, he was arrested for highway robbery, and put upon trial for his life at the York Assizes in the same year. An error in the indictment allowed him to escape the capital penalty, and he was sentenced to transportation for seven years.
Aboard the transport Indefatigable, he arrived in the Derwent in October, 1812, and was assigned to a settler, but soon absconded from his assigned service and joined the gang of bushrangers under John Whitehead, which had been plundering the country for more than two years.
His advent brought their number up to 29, and they must have been as sweet a crew of pirates as ever cut a throat or set fire to a house.

Then came Macquarie’s amnesty, by which his Excellency “was pleased to extend to them the Royal clemency for all offences committed during their unlawful absence (the crime of wilful murder excepted); provided they should return to their lawful occupations by the first day of December following; denouncing all who should neglect to do so as outlaws.”

The robbers betook themselves to Hobart Town and promised to be good boys in the future.
The proclamation had been made in May, 1814 — by the following August Whitehead and Howe, together with most of their following, were back on the warpath. They looted and robbed, carrying off provisions and taking all the arms and ammunition they could lay their hands upon.
In the middle of 1815 Whitehead was killed during the attack on Mr. McCarty’s farm, when they were warmly received by a detachment of the 46th Regiment.
Whilst Colonel Davey’s proclamation of martial law — afterwards disowned by Macquarie— was in force, a party of soldiers who were looking for what Mr. Wells generally alludes to as “the Banditti,” with a capital B, came across their hiding-place in a dense tea-tree’ scrub.

Close by a primitive sort of hut were two of the bushrangers named McGuire and Burne, who immediately took to the scrub and were no more seen. Inside the hut were found many articles which had been stolen from the raided farms, besides a goodly store of ammunition, muskets, and two or three kangaroo dogs.

Messrs. Burne and McGuire had no luck. They were separated from the rest of Howe’s gang, and, after wandering several days in the woods they applied to a settler near Kangaroo Point to procure them a boat for the purpose of proceeding to Bass’s Straits; for which service they promised the reward of a watch.

CAPTURED BOTH

“The settler pretended to come into their views, and left them with, the assurance of going in search of the boat; but he privately repaired to Hobart Town and informed the Lieut. Governor of their intentions.
“A party of the 46th Regt. was immediately dispatched, who surrounded the place of their concealment and captured both. Burne was the most aired of the gang, and was severely wounded in endeavoring to escape from the party.
“They were brought before a General Court-martial, charged with being two of the ‘Banditti’ who murdered the unfortunate Carlisle, were convicted and received sentence of death. They were accordingly executed and their bodies gibbeted on Hunter’s Island, near to that of Whitehead, their leader, when that murder was committed.”
The gang was now reduced to Howe, Septon, Jones, Geary and Collier, and were continually chased and harried until they were in such a condition as to be quite unable to carry on their side of the war.

One of them having been taken prisoner turned King’s evidence, and ‘put away’ some of the people who had helped the bushrangers.

So a man named William Stevens, a prisoner of the Crown, and two youths who had come with their parents from Norfolk Island, in whose possession some of the stolen property was found, were all apprehended. They were found guilty by a court-martial and sentenced to death.

Martial law was repealed in October, 1815, and the bushrangers carried on for some time in a lively fashion, before betaking themselves to their mountain fastnesses to lie low and rest from their labors.

EVERY WANTON ATROCITY

On November 7 they broke out again, and were heard of as having attacked the house of Mr. David Rose at Port Dalrymple (Launceston) ‘ where, says Mr. Wells, “their conduct while plundering here was aggravated, as on other occasions, by every wanton atrocity.”

They turned up next near Bagdad, about 100 miles away, ten days later, and raided the farm of Mr. T. Hayes.
Here they found an itinerant trader named Stocker with a cart-load of valuable goods, to the whole of which they helped themselves.
Howe’s early training in the Navy induced him to impose upon his companions the discipline of a man-o’-war.
It was even said that he administered to all who joined him an oath of obedience taken on a prayer-book — but this is most likely a misunderstanding of what one of their captives saw when, before sending to the Lieutenant-Governor a letter signed by eleven of the bushrangers, Howe swore them to abide by its terms.

In the following year he was signing himself in his letters to Davey, ‘Lieutenant-Governor of the Woods,’ and in 1817, ‘Governor of the Ranges,’ and he communicated with both Davey and Sorell quite as an equal.
A sworn statement referring to the letter sent to Colonel Davey is of interest. Made by John Tooke, it tells how he fell in with a party of bushrangers on November 27.

“I observed a thick man writing, as I suppose to the Lieutenant-Governor — Geary was the man who administered the oath on a prayer book, calling each man for the purpose regularly; they did not inform me the contents of the letter,” runs the statement.

“Michael Howe and Geary directed me to state when I came to town the whole I had seen and to inform Mr. Humphrey and Mr. Wade to take care of themselves, as they were resolved to take their lives, and to prevent them from keeping stock or grain, unless there was something done for them.”

In the following February, the Commandant at Launceston sent out a party of the 46th Regiment under Ensign Mahon, and after a hunt through the bush of two or three weeks they came across Chapman, Parker, and Elliott, members of Howe’s gang, at York Plains. Mahon called on them to surrender, but the bushrangers fired and made off.
The soldiers returned’the fire, and Chapman was fatally wounded, whilst Parker was slightly wounded and managed to escape into the dense scrub. Ensign Mahon shot Elliott dead.
The heads were taken from the corpses and sent into Launceston, and the bodies buried on the spot. Parker was caught later on, and dealt with in the usual fashion.

Mr. Wells chronicles what was probably Howes’ basest action — one that puts him outside the pale of the commonest decency.

“In the early part of March it appears that some jealousy of Howe began to manifest itself in the old Gang — they conceived, from the circumstances of his being absent at intervals without their knowledge or assigning any reason, that he meditated betraying the rest. Howe was aware of their suspicions, and, feeling no longer secure among them, suddenly eloped, taking with him the native girl before mentioned.
“In April, 1817, Lt.-Governor Sorell arrived, and assumed the government of the settlement oh Van Diemen’s Land; and about this period Howe and the native girl were pursued in the neighborhood of Jericho by a small party of, the 46th Regiment.

“HIS WANTONLY CRUEL DISPOSITION WAS STRONGLY MANIFESTED ON THIS OCCASION; FOR. BEING HARD PRESSED, IN ORDER TO FACILITATE HIS OWN ESCAPE, HE FIRED AT THIS POOR FEMALE COMPANION, WHO FROM FATIGUE WAS UNABLE TO KEEP PACE WITH HIM; SHE RECEIVED, HOWEVER, LITTLE INJURY, AND, TOGETHER WITH HIS BLUNDERBUSS, KNAPSACK AND DOGS, FELL INTO THE HANDS OF THE PURSUERS.”

It was a bad day’s work for Howe when he treated the black gin so villainously, for she turned against him with hatred as natural as it was bitter, and became of the greatest use to those who were on his trail In following up the hunted man’s tracks.

NEXT WEEK: HUNTING A WILD BEAST.

wanton callousness
Source: “BUSHRANGERS—NOTED AND NOTORIOUS” Truth (Brisbane, Qld. : 1900 – 1954) 18 November 1934: 22.

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