William Westwood has gone down in history as one of the most significant bushrangers and convicts in no small part due to the effect his letter to the reverend at Port Arthur had on activists petitioning for an end to transportation of convicts and sweeping reforms to the penal system. He gained a reputation as a gentleman bushranger, sweeping through the Monaro atop fine race horses and bailing up travellers from Goulburn to Sydney. Adopting the sobriquet of Jackey Jackey he was always polite to his victims (insofar as one could be considered to be polite when ordering people to turn out their pockets at gunpoint) and was famously captured by a waitress as he napped on a sofa in the Black Horse Inn. Westwood became a massive headache to the authorities due to his proficiency as an escape artist. Having escaped from Cockatoo Island and Port Arthur, among others, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Norfolk Island. When the new administration of the penal colony under Major Joseph Childs eliminated the prisoners’ veggie patches and cooking privileges, reinstated flogging, and increased work hours the convicts snapped. For his part in leading the resulting “Cooking Pot Riot” wherein an unusually savage Westwood personally murdered four staff and almost killed the commandant with an axe, he was sentenced to execution by hanging along with about a dozen others. On the morning of his execution, Westwood dictated his renowned letter. It is herein reproduced in its entirety:
H. M. Gaol, Norfolk Island,
Condemned Cells, 1846, Oct. 3
REVEREND SIR, — As in duty bound to you for the kindness you have shewn to me, and the interest I have always seen you take in those that have ever been under your spiritual care, whatever may be their fate, I have been induced to write to you, hoping this may find you in good health, and in the enjoyment of all God’s choicest blessings. I have to inform you that long before this letter reaches your hands, the hand that wrote this will be cold in death. I do not grieve that the hour is fast approaching that is to end my earthly career. I welcome death as a friend; — the world, or what I have seen of it, has no allurements in it for me. ‘Tis not for me to boast; but yet, Sir, allow a dying man to speak a few words to one who has always shewn a sympathy for the wretched outcasts of society, and ever, with a Christian charity, strove to recall the wretched wanderer to a sense of his lost condition. I started in life with a good feeling for my fellow-man. Before I well knew the responsibility of my station in my life, I had forfeited my birthright. I became a slave, and was sent far from my dear native country, my parents, my brothers, and sisters — torn from all that was dear to me, and that for a trifling offence. Since then I have been treated more like a beast than a man, until nature could bear no more. I was, like many others, driven to despair by the oppresive and tyrannical conduct of those whose duty it was to prevent us from being treated in this way. Yet these men are courted by society ; and the British Government deceived by the interested representations of those men, continue to carry on a system that has and still continues to ruin the prospects of the souls and bodies of thousands of British subjects. I have not the ability to represent what I feel on the subject, yet I know from my own feelings that it will never carry out the wishes of the British people! The spirit of the British law is reformation. Now, years of sad experience should have told them, that instead of reforming the wretched man, under the present system, led by example on the one hand, and driven by despair and tyranny on the other, goes on from bad to worse; till at length he is ruined body and soul.
Experience, dear-bought experience has taught me this. In all my career, I never was cruel – I always felt keenly for the miseries of my fellow creatures, and was ever ready to do all in my power to assist them to the utmost, yet my name will be handed down to posperity [sic] branded with the most opprobrious epithet that man can bestow. But ’tis little matter now. I have thus given vent to my feelings, knowing that you will bear with me, and I know that you have and will exert yourself for the welfare of wretched men. It is on this account that I have strove, though in but a feeble manner, to express my feelings. The crime for which I am to suffer is murder. Revd. Sir, you will shudder at my cruelty, but I only took life — those that I deprived of life, tho’ they did not in a moment send a man to his last account, inflicted on many a lingering death – for years they have tortured men’s minds as well as their bodies, and after years of mortal and bodily torture sent them to a premature grave. This is what I call refined cruelty, and it is carried on, and I blush to own it, by Englishmen, and under the enlightened British Government. Will it be believed hereafter, that this was allowed to be carried on in the nineteenth century?
I will now proceed to inform you what has happened to me since I left Port Arthur. I was sent to Glenorchy probation station. I was then determined if possible to regain my freedom, and visit my dear native country, and see my parents and friends again. I took the bush, with two men; one of them said that he knew the bush well, but he deceived me and himself too. Our intention was to take a craft from Brown’s River ; we were disappointed — there was no craft there. We then turned to go to Launceston, thinking to get one there, and to cross to the Sydney main. But after leaving New Norfolk, I lost one of my mates, and the same night the other left me at the Green Ponds. I was soon after taken and sent to Hobart Town. I was tried, and sent to Norfolk Island, and this place is now worse than I can describe. Every species of petty tyranny that long experience has taught some of these tyrants, is put in force by the authorities. The men are half-starved, hard-worked, and cruelly flogged.
These things brought on the affair of the first of July, of which you have no doubt heard. I would send you the whole account, but that I know you will have it from better hands than mine. I am sorry that this will give you great pain, as there are several of the men that have been under your charge at Port Arthur concerned in this affair. Sir, on the 21st of September, 1846, Mr. Brown arrived in the Island with a commission to form a Court, and try the men. On the 23rd of September he opened the Court, fourteen men were then arraigned for the murder of John Morris, that was formerly gate keeper at Port Arthur. This trial occupied the Court nine days. The jury retired, and returned a verdict, and found twelve out of fourteen guilty of murder. On the 5th of October the sentence of death was then passed on us, and to be carried into effect on the 13th of October, 1846. Sir, the strong ties of earth will soon be wrenched, and the burning fever of this life will soon be quenched, and my grave will be a haven — a resting place for me, William Westwood. Sir, out of the bitter cup of misery, I have drank from my sixteenth year — ten long years, — and the sweetest draught is that which takes away the misery of living death; it is the friend that deceives no man ; all will then be quiet — no tyrant will then disturb my repose, I hope, William Westwood.
Sir, I now bid the world adieu, and all it contains,
WM. WESTWOOD, his writing.
THE DYING DECLARATION OF WILLIAM WESTWOOD
alias ” JACKEY JACKEY.”
” I, William Westwood, wish to die in the Communion of Christ’s Holy Church, seeking mercy of God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. — Amen.
Source: Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW : 1845 – 1860), Saturday 28 November 1846
2 thoughts on “Spotlight: “I Welcome Death as a Friend” – The Last Letter of William Westwood”
Appears to have been an intelligent individual. Obviously made a minor mistake, driven to exasperation and finally welcoming death after losing control or care. An extremely difficult and tortured existence. And that would be only one story.
The phrase “give me liberty or give me death” comes to mind.