Spotlight: Death of “Black” Mary Cockerill

Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter (Tas. : 1816 – 1821), Saturday 3 July 1819, page 1


On Tuesday died in the Colonial Hospital, the native woman usually called Black Mary, particularly known as having been at one time the partner of Michael Howe, and subsequently a guide to the parties of troops which were   employed successfully in subduing the gang of bush-rangers; in which her knowledge of the country and of their haunts, and especially her instinctive quickness in tracking foot-steps, rendered her a main instrument of the success which attended their exertions. She had been victualled from His Majesty’s Store, and had received other indulgences in clothing, &c.; but a complication of disorders, which had been long gaining ground upon her, terminating at last in pulmonic affection, put an end to her life.


Mary Cockerill is a somewhat enigmatic figure. Most people know her as Michael Howe’s paramour, the Aboriginal girl he impregnated then shot to create a distraction and bring about his escape. The reality is far different. There is very little that we do know about her, and most of that demonstrates that what is generally accepted as the truth is little more than a fanciful romance.

What we can say about her, definitively, is that she was one of two Aboriginal girls that were members of Michael Howe’s gang, the other’s name having been long lost to the sands of time. She was with the gang when they were engaged in a gunfight by Dennis McCarty and his men, and was noted by witnesses on other occasions as well but only insofar as her presence was notable. Her capture came when she and Michael Howe were ambushed by a detachment of soldiers, during which it was perceived that Howe shot at her before ditching his gear and bolting. Mary then directed the soldiers to one of the camps the gang used, where Howe and two of his gang were spotted, though they easily evaded capture.

Mary was kept on by the government as a tracker, and she was employed in trying to capture the banditti that had once been her colleagues. Eventually she accompanied a group of officials on a ship bound for Port Jackson that was transporting some of Howe’s gang members for trial, (in those days capital offences were tried in New South Wales, even if the crimes were not from that colony). She was given clothes and food from the commissariat store in Hobart and generally treated well. Her death seems to have been from either a chronic heart ailment or something very sudden.

Claims that Mary was pregnant cannot be backed up by contemporary records, and the notion that she was Howe’s lover may be misconstrued from the description of her having “co-habited” with him, which could simply mean they lived together. Indeed, the only thing that suggests that there was anything more to their relationship than being colleagues is the fact they were alone together when ambushed, which is a fairly long bow to draw from such a limited amount of information.

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