Indigenous readers are advised that the following discusses the history of first nations people and contains the names and likenesses of deceased persons.
Aboriginal bushrangers of the early colonial period tend to be somewhat difficult to define. Given that many were not from within the colonial society, and the few that were often did not behave like most bushrangers when that took to the bush, they tend to almost require a separate definition. In fact, there’s a definite overlap where the Aboriginal bushrangers and resistance fighters are concerned. None exemplify this conundrum better than the man known as Musquito.
Born in the early to mid 1780s in New South Wales, Musquito is believed to have grown up around Broken Bay (though some sources state he was from Port Jackson) as a Gai-mariagal man, probably by the name Y-erran-gou-la-ga. At some point he seems to have picked up at least a moderate amount of English, and he had a brother known to the whites as Phillip. The rest of his early life is a mystery.
In 1805, Musquito became a wanted man. His actions around the Hawkesbury River were a cause for concern — so much so that his own people turned on him. When Musquito murdered a woman (almost certainly an Aboriginal woman), the people he been raised amongst turned him in with another man named Toulgra (called “Bulldog” by the whites) in exchange for another of their nation who was wrongfully imprisoned. Musquito never stood trial for the murder, nor was he formally charged. Instead, he and Bulldog were sent to Norfolk Island after threatening to start a fire where they were lodged at Parramatta Gaol.
Musquito remained on Norfolk Island for eight years, where he was expected to perform labour in order to earn his rations and was employed as a lime-burner. When he was removed from the island in 1817, he was sent to Port Dalrymple, Van Diemen’s Land, on the Minstrel. He was eventually employed by Edward Lord, the wealthiest man in Van Diemen’s Land. Here he worked as a stockman, but when Lord left the colony for Mauritius in February 1818, Musquito remained.
In September 1818, Musquito was told by Governor Sorell that if he assisted in the tracking down and capture of Michael Howe he would be rewarded with free passage back to New South Wales. By this time his brother Phillip had written to Governor Macquarie to ask for Musquito’s return to his ancestral home. Sorell had even tried to get Macquarie on board, recommending that Musquito, “Big Jack” McGill, and “Black” Mary Cockerill be acquired by New South Wales for their superior tracking abilities, but nothing was ever followed up. For unknown reasons, Macquarie seemed to want Musquito kept away from his homeland.
When Musquito, accompanied by McGill, found Howe camped by the Shannon River, they pounced upon the bushranger and after a violent struggle Howe escaped without his kit bag and supplies. In the bag was Howe’s famous kangaroo skin journal, in which he described his dreams, memories, desires and fear of the Aboriginals, who had recently been engaged in attacks on white farmers (at least one of these attacks resulted in a death that Howe was accused of).
Musquito had been looking forward to returning to New South Wales as per the agreement struck with the government, but when he heard nothing from Macquarie or Sorell he decided he had copped all he was willing to from the white man. Musquito went bush and found his way to Oyster Bay. If the government had treated Musquito less like merely some troublesome Aboriginal they could afford to ignore, they were about to be proved terribly wrong.
Musquito managed to find his way to a sort of commune of Aboriginal men and women that had, for various reasons, found themselves expelled from their own people; many had transgressed tribal laws making them outlaws from both colonial and indigenous societies. This community would come to be known as the “Tame Mob”. When Musquito joined them he remained somewhat on the outer, but his knowledge of English language, farming practices and firearms saw him quickly rise through the ranks to become their leader. In fact, he became so highly regarded amongst the mob that, by some accounts, he was given a wife (known as “Gooseberry”) who was said to have been the most beautiful woman in the tribe. He was later described as having three wives by Thomas Anstey, the magistrate at Oatlands, who also described Musquito prostituting some of the women, including his wives, to white men in exchange for goods. That Anstey was not speaking from experience, but rather repeating rumours, is telling.
Soon the Tame Mob grew to encompass dozens of men and women, and they were even alleged to have fallen in briefly with some white bushrangers in the Oyster Bay region. As time wound on, this seemingly harmless group of outcasts became motivated to push back against the colonists. Adding coal to the furnace was Musquito, whose first hand experience of the colonisation of New South Wales had instilled in him a fierce distrust and hatred of white men, and the irreversible damage their ways were inflicting on Van Diemen’s Land and its peoples, just as they had done to his homeland.
There were many rumours that circulated about Musquito, including that he had murdered Gooseberry in a rage on the government paddock in 1821. He was said to have had a taste for mutton, which the other Aboriginals refused to eat, and he was described as a great drunkard who would trade rations for rum.
The Tame Mob, now estimated to be 75 strong, began to engage in acts that are better described as acts of war, rather than bushranging. Thefts and brutal murders were coupled with arson in an effort to stamp out the influence of whites in their region, which essentially sprouted from Oyster Bay and encompassed Pittwater (Sorell), Orielton, Risdon and even reached as far as Jericho and Oatlands. A reward of £100 was offered for Musquito – dead or alive – and he was given the nickname “The Black Napoleon”.
From November 1823 to 1824 the Tame Mob, led by Musquito, performed a series of violent and deadly raids along the Tasmanian east coast, targeting white farms, gangs of bushrangers and rival mobs that stood in their way. Prominent in the mob alongside Musquito were “Black Jack” (Jack Roberts) and “Black Tom” (Kickerterpoller), the latter of which would go on to leave his own mark as a bushranger.
On 15 November, 1823, the Tame Mob attacked a hut at the property of George Gatehouse at Grindstone Bay. For several days before they had begged food from John Radford, the stock-keeper, engaged themselves in fishing and held a corroboree nearby. They returned to the hut on the fateful day armed with spears. In the ensuing assault two people were murdered – a Tahitian man named Mammoa, and a 19 year-old assigned servant named William Hollyoak. The lone survivor, John Radford, pinned the murders on Musquito and Black Jack. Hollyoak had been staying at Gatehouse’s on his way back to his employer, George Meredith, having just come out of hospital. The three men had been lured out by Musquito and speared as they retreated after sensing an ambush. Radford was speared through the side by Black Jack, and after stopping to pull a spear out of Hollyoak’s back, was speared in the thigh. The last Radford saw of Hollyoak was the boy being swarmed by Aboriginal men, with five or six spears sticking out of him. Radford managed to make it to Prosser’s Plains to raise the alarm. When they recovered the body of Mammoa, he has been speared almost 40 times.
A posse was formed by George Meredith to find the Tame Mob and seek retribution. By Meredith’s account, the Aboriginals all escaped unharmed when the posse found them in the bush, though other accounts claim they found them all asleep and slaughtered as many as they could, with very few escaping. In response to this turn of events, Musquito was severely beaten by members of the Tame Mob who were obviously angry about the messy encounter he had led them into.
The following raids mostly involved arson – burning houses and crops. These were clearly attacks designed to flush the colonists out of the area. Despite being assaulted by his own tribe, Musquito still enjoyed some seniority and helped the Tame Mob develop strategies for battle. He educated them on firearms, noting that the firearms could only fire once before needing to be reloaded; thus in battle the mob would wait until a shot had been fired then swarm on their attacker with spears while he reloaded. Often one of the English speakers, usually Musquito, would lure the occupants of a house to the door. From his use of English they would mistake him for a “tame black” (one raised by whites, or at least employed by them), and this would distract them while the rest of the party surrounded the house before attacking.
On 16 June 1824, Musquito joined the Tame Mob in four attacks. They struck the farm of a man named Oakes at Murderers Plains (Abyssinia), where two men were murdered; Triffitt’s at Big River (Ouse) where another man was murdered; and two of Captain Wood’s properties at the Clyde River (near Hamilton) and Lake Sorell where a hut was destroyed without fatalities.
In July, the mob killed a man named Patrick McCarthy at Sorell Plains near New Norfolk. On the 23rd of the same month, Robert Gay, a servant of George Meredith, was killed and mutilated. The murder was attributed to Musquito and his followers.
In August, Lieutenant William Gunn went in pursuit of Musquito after having been given the slip by Matthew Brady’s gang. He would have no satisfaction in this pursuit either. Meanwhile, the Aboriginal group that was attacking farms was now estimated to have 200 or more members, indicating that some form of merger had been struck between the Tame Mob, the Oyster Bay tribe and the Big River tribe. The little rebellion was now a full scale war.
In late August 1824 Musquito and Black Jack were finally brought to heel. For three days two men named Hanskey and Marshall trekked through the wilds with a seventeen year-old, half-Aboriginal boy named Teague (or Tegg) acting as their guide after a purported tip-off from some of Musquito’s female followers. Teague had been promised a boat as his reward for helping to capture Musquito. Their perseverance paid off and they intercepted Musquito near Oyster Bay with Black Jack and two Aboriginal women. Teague opened fire and shot Musquito twice in the thigh and once through the body. Though he attempted to shelter, Musquito’s injuries were severe and he was captured.
After recuperating in the Colonial Hospital in Hobart, Musquito and Black Jack were tried for murder. They were denied legal counsel and could not give evidence as they were not Christians, thus unable to swear on a Bible. Musquito was found guilty of the murder of Hollyoak, and Black Jack was found guilty of murdering Patrick McCarthy. Naturally, the two were sentenced to death.
On 24 February 1825, Musquito was hanged in the Murray Street Gaol, Hobart, along with Black Jack and six whites. Prior to his execution Musquito was said to have confided in his gaoler, John Bisdee:
Hanging no good for black fellow… Very good for white fellow, for he used to it.Musquito
Teague never received the boat he was promised, and therefore turned bushranger himself and swore to kill any white man he encountered. Two murders were attributed to him, but he avoided any punishment for them, if indeed he was guilty. He was found by his master Dr. Edward Luttrell, and spent the rest of his life in Luttrell’s employ. He died in 1831.
The amalgamated Aboriginal forces that had begun their reprisals on the whites under Musquito continued for six more years, with the conflict being referred to as the “Black Wars”. Musquito’s off-sider Black Tom became a prominent figure during this time, picking up where Musquito left off.
No doubt the life of Musquito is shrouded in misinformation and outright lies, just as many of his bushranging and Aboriginal contemporaries alike have endured, due to the concerted vilification by colonial historians and others who felt they had something to gain by portraying this Aboriginal man as a mindless, violent monster. Many of the crimes attributed to him were likely not committed by him, if they even happened at all. Certainly, the outcome of his trial had been determined before it began.
Many of the colonists described the first nations of Van Diemen’s Land as peaceful until Musquito came onto the scene. Many laid the blame for the Aboriginal retaliation attacks squarely at his feet, others admitting that his treatment by the authorities was to blame for his rebellion.
Musquito left an indelible mark on Tasmanian history and many of the beats of his story would be repeated in decades to come by other Aboriginal bushrangers, in one way or another. It seems the lessons that could have been learned from Musquito’s life were ignored or dismissed by the people who most needed to heed the warnings.
Recommended reading: Steps to the Scaffold by Robert Cox [Cornhill Publishing, 2004].