Spotlight: EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS by J. E. Calder (Pt. 2)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Thursday 20 November 1873, page 3


TASMANIAN HISTORY.

EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS,

Illustrated by a Sketch of the Career of Michael Howe, “The last and worst of the Bushrangers.”

Written by J. E. Calder.

[Continued.]

When Howe had grown well into boyhood, he was placed on board a merchant ship of Hull, to commence life on his own account; and he actually served two years of his apprenticeship without bolting; a thing so unusual in the life of this scapegrace and habitual runaway, that it must on no account be passed over without notice. He then deserted.

From this service he passed by an almost natural transition, into that of his King and country, that is to say he entered on board a man-of-war, but whether voluntarily or through the agency of the Press-gang, I have no information; nor do I know how long he remained in it, or whether he took any part in the stirring events of the time. But to a man so impatient of restraint as he, it is easy to understand, that the severe, and even cruel discipline of the Royal Navy in the beginning of this century, must have been quite unbearable, and not at all in accord with the free-and-easy notions of such a man as Howe; and the next thing we hear of him is, that he quitted it in the same way that he left the mercantile marine, that is he deserted again.

I have received from a private source, an incident of Howe’s early life, that I have not met with in any book; but of which there can be no doubt, namely that he was once a soldier. This was when he was eighteen years old. This information is derived from a very old hand, still in life, who knew Howe, and he received the account from himself. Howe occassionally came to the place he lived at, and used when in the humour, to recount the adventures of his past life; but of which my informant after a lapse of fifty-five years or more, remembered nothing but this. From this service he also deserted.

It is of course impossible to keep up a continuous narrative of the life of any one, where the thread of it is so often broken, as in Howe’s case, beyond the power of uniting it again; and after some one of his desertions there occurs a blank in it, that I am unable to fill up. Where he next betook himself to, or by what means he henceforward eked out a living, I cannot say; but as time passed on, he returned to Pontefract or its neighbourhood again, and commenced a new career, a desperate and dangerous one indeed, as a robber on the Highways, which in those days was one of the shortest of outs to the gallows. But I think it may be presumed that he never acquired such notoriety in England as he did in Tasmania, and that he had no great success in his new business, for he was soon convicted of robbing a traveller on the road, a Yorkshire miller. For this offence he was tried at York Assizes on the 31st July, 1811, and received a seven-years sentence of transportation. He was kept in the gaol or the hulks some months after this, when he was put on board the “Indefatigable” convict ship, which reached Hobart Town in November of 1812. At this time he was about twenty-five years of age.

Whether he made any attempt to escape from gaol or not, I cannot say; but as he was probably confined in the strong castle of York, he most likely never had a chance; but he was scarcely on the deck of the prison ship, before he tried his luck, and his attempt, which was within an ace of being successful, was as dangerous as well could be.

He had a good part of a mile to swim before he could land. But watching his opportunity, off went his clothes, and over he leaped into the sea. The splash was heard – the alarm given of a convict overboard and escaping, and a shot or two were fired after him by the sentries at the gangways, while the boats were lowered with the lightning-like quickness of English sailors in an emergency, and the chase began. Howe being a strong swimmer, struck out for land like a frog, whilst the men in the boats strained every muscle to come up with him before he could reach the shore. The race was a good one. Howe having a good start, kept his lead well, and struck out manfully for his liberty; but the others were equally determined that he should either lose it or his life. Poor wretch, it had been better for him, and far better for Tasmania, if he had gone to the bottom. But the ship’s boats overhauled and headed him at last; and though he dived and doubled like a hunted duck, they got hold of him and took him back to the ship, and kept a watchful eye on him until the ship put to sea, when all chance of a second venture of this kind, was impossible.

Arrived in Tasmania, Howe, with the rest of the ” Indefatigibles,” as his precious shipmates were called, was handed over to the care of one of the superintendents of convicts, Mr. Paterson, and before long was assigned to the service of Mr. John Ingle, a gentleman who I believe, had formerly been an assistant under Mr. Paterson; but who had some time before quitted the captivating service of the Crown, and opened a store in Hobart Town, and getting on well in the world, soon possessed himself of considerable property both in town and country which I hear his descendants continue to hold, he having died very recently in England, where, at one time at least, he accumulated vast wealth on change. He has been described to me as an irascible person, and therefore not likely to keep so restless a man as Howe, long in his service, one who could never take a wrong word, they soon fell out, and he took to the bush, joining himself with a party of twenty eight other vagabonds, which was only one of many gangs then in the woods, and thus he took to the highways again, that is, he became a bushranger. This was in the early part of 1813, and thus commenced his six year career of guilt in Tasmania, a period which he himself described as one of such painful anxiety and unutterable misery, as to have once extorted the statement that he “believed the life of the damned was nothing to it.” To comprehend such a state of being is impossible, but it must have been worse than that of a wild beast.

It is recorded by the Commissioner Bigge, that at no time in the history of this colony was bushranging carried on so methodically, successfully, or on so great a scale, as it was in the fist year of Colonel Davey’s Government in 1813, just after the rule, or rather misrule of the three commandants, Captain Murray, Colonel Geils, and Lieutenant Lord, who had administered the Government here, during the time that intervened between the death of Colonel Collins on the 24th March, 1810, and the arrival of Colonel Davey here, 4th of Februaiy, 1811.

The Commissioner, speaking of the state of the country dining this year (page 108 of his first report on New South Wales and this colony), says: “The excesses of the bushrangers in the neighbourhood of Port Dalrymple, and likewise near Hobart Town, had attained their utmost height, and most sanguinary character, it the latter end of the year, 1813” * * * and, he continues, “so great was the intimidation produced, that the inhabitants of several districts, abandoned then dwellings, and removed for safety to the towns.” Such was the insecure condition of the country when Howe’s six year career commenced.

Throughout this long period, Howe seems to have had a particular fondness for the district of New Norfolk, and in so far as the imperfect records of these old times enable us to judge, it was here that he began to disturb the peace of the community, though of this I am not quite sure He indeed committed many robberies in other quarters, but his chief place of resort was round the country of New Norfolk, and what Sherwood Forest was to Robin Hood, the woods of this place were to Michael Howe, that is a home and precarious refuge

At the time of his disappearance from Mr Ingle’s service, there were, as was said above, numerous bushrangers in the field and he joined with twenty eight others, who acted under the leadership of a man named John Whitehead. These fellows are all advertised in the very first numbers of the “Van Diemen’s Land Gazette, and General Advertiser,” June 1814. Whitehead is there called Edward, but this is a mistake. Howe’s name is amongst the number, and also that of a scamp named Edward Beagent, (of whom I shall hay o to say a little by-and-bye), which figures with Howe’s in this terrible list. This old bushranger Beagent, was afterwards the first, of one of the first land lords of one of the principal hotels in this city. Such are the vicissitudes of fortune.

The depredations of these men, were doubtlessly numerous enough, but as they have not attracted any very serious notice from the writers of the time, they were perhaps not very remarkable That they were not accompanied by murder, is certain; for when the Governor in Chief, Macquarie, published his ill advised Proclamation, offering pardon to the many outlaws then in the bush, not guilty of murder, the whole of this gang were able to avail themselves of the amnesty, and surrendered themselves before the 1st day of December of that year, to which time the amnesty extended

Several very grave mistakes were made by some of the Governors of these colonies, in the early years of the present century in their dealings with this class of men, whom they were often powerless to put down and this proclamation was one of them. Its intention was to recall these men from the bush, and a life of rapine; but its real effect was to authorise bushranging, during the whole of the time that it continued in force, namely six months and a half; and it was so viewed and acted on – and with legal impunity – by all the robbers then in the woods. The “Commissioner of Inquiry,” thus describes its results, (page 109) :-

“The effect of this proclamation was the reverse of that which was intended. It increased the crimes and audacity of the bushrangers, during the interval of six months that it allowed them for return; they profited by the pardon, by making a temporary surrender, and then resumed their habits of plunder,” &c. This was just the case with both Howe and Whitehead; they accepted pardon for past delinquencies, and took to the woods again soon afterwards.

How the members of this party were disposed of after their surrender, is not explained; but as I find Beagent afterwards in the service of the Judge Advocate, I presume they were sent into private service, or placed on the Government works. But whether or not, their condition seems to have satisfied neither Whitehead nor Howe, who soon threw the Governors pardon to the winds, and took to the bush and then old courses again. Whether any of their old companions followed their example or not, I do not know but if they did, none of them rejoined Whitehead or Howe.

The notoriety of these two men, soon attracted others to them, and shortly afterwards they were at the head of a party, less numerous indeed than they were used to, but far more daring than any known before. Their robberies were now nearly every day occurrences, and it is recorded of them, that scarcely a settler in the New Norfolk district escaped their visitations. It was their invariable custom so to clear out the settlers houses, that nothing was left behind that they could remove. Of these troublesome fellows, Whitehead was the leader.

Having made prize of nearly every thing they could lay hands on in New Norfolk, sheer necessity or restlessness drove them out of their favourite district at last, which they quitted about as reluctantly us the sloth does the tree he feeds on, when its last green leaf is devoured. Casting their eyes about them, like the wandering Israelites of old, thev decided on entering into the fertile and untouched lands of the Canaanites of Pittwater, where they made their undesired appearance about March 1815

This delightful district of the South East, was pretty well settled over even at this time. It was nevertheless about as dull and animated a place, as the Castle of Indolence or Sleepy Hollow ever were, the listless inhabitants dreaming away their lives in contented torpor and indifference about the things of this world or the next, till the intrusive Whitehead and his company put a little life into them They worked when they could not help it, and frittered away the rest of their time in happy idleness, and unconcern of the future. But this state of things was too pleasant to last for ever, and their now friends soon freshened them up a little, and before long, there was such bustle in the place, as was never known m Pittwater before.

No sooner had they taken possession of the promised land, than they set to work with customary activity, and speedily ransacked half the establishments in the place.

But there were two gentlemen who held property in this district, who in their official capacities, had continued to make themselves obnoxious to some of the gang, and on whom, they determined to take a full and deep revenge for past delinquencies, as they thought them. Their victims were the Police Magistrate of the territory, Mr Humphrey, and Mr. Reardon, the District Constable of Pittwater, both of whom had valuable estates there. Vengeance only, and not plunder, incited them to visit the homesteads of these settlers, which were pretty close together. The men who took part in the outrage that followed, where Whitehead and Garland only, the rest either refusing, or not caring to join them in their detestable adventure. So at least says Bent. But I believe that a man named Watts devised this mischief.

The night of the 10th March was fixed on for the execution of this malicious act. Proceeding as noiselessly as possible to the premises in the dark, they reached the rick-yards unperceived, where the harvest of the season was stacked. To strike a light and apply it to the ricks of both was the work of a minute only, and the long pent up vengeance of the incendiaries was appeased. They then decamped.

Howe and the rest of the party were long credited with having taken part in this malevolent enterprise, but they were guiltless of any thing more than knowing of it, and, perhaps, were not even guilty of that. By their absence from the scene, they may have discountenanced it, or rather, perhaps, thought it was no part of their business to address the injuries of others, whether fancied or real.

This transaction was probably the cause of their stay at Pittwater being brought to a close a little sooner than they intended; and as it now became necessary to sound the retreat, they fell back for a brief space on the already half-devastated district of New Norfolk, where their most unexpected re-appearance was about as unwelcome as snow in summer time. But there was no help for it, as after the recent outrage at Pittwater, the place was too dangerous for them, at any rate until the storm they had raised there had blown over, when they might renew their acquaintance with their new friends; and as there were still a few in New Norfolk who had suffered nothing at their hands yet, they decided on giving them a benefit before returning to Pittwater.

It was in April that the smoke of the bivouacs of these brigands, was once more seen in the glens of the New Norfolk ranges, and was viewed with general alarm, as the certain omen of the return of evil days.

The gang now consisted of eight, besides two camp followers, if they may be so styled, namely, two native girls, who were their constant attendants for a long time. One of these unfortunate creatures was known by the name of Black Mary, and lived for two or three years in a state of concubinage with Howe.

This companion remained with him till April of 1817, when they were separated in a sharp pursuit after them by soldiers, at Jericho, into whose hands she there fell. Henceforth she acted as bush guide to the military, and ultimately died in the hospital at Hobart Town, on the 29th June, 1819. Of this woman, I shall have a few words to say at the end of this paper.

The bushrangers now counted amongst themselves some of the most resolute men who ever took the bush. Their leader Whitehead, and James Geary, a deserter from a detachment of the 73rd regiment that was stationed here, were men whose audacity, Howe himself never surpassed; and if they were inferior to him in any thing, it was only in personal strength and activity, of which he had an uncommon share. To master him single handed in a struggle, or to run him down fairly, were things not to be done, or at least never were. But Geary was quite his equal in determination, and he has been described to me by the late Mr. Beamont (this gentleman was formerly Provost Marshal here), and several others, as a very fiend. The whole of this party and others also, who were drilled by Whitehead and Howe, possessed other qualities besides daring, that fitted them eminently for the dangerous calling they followed. Sorell writing of them says, “their perfect knowledge of the country, and habits of fatigue, temperance and caution, render them a difficult adversary,” and few knew them better than he, or wrote so much about them in official despatches. Such men as these, were not therefore to be easily beaten, unless when surprised or betrayed. Their habits of caution it is true, prompted them never to run unnecessary risks, or to fight for fighting’s sake only. But they were soon to give proof of what they could do in this line, when forced into it.

On the 25th of April, 1815, they robbed Mr. Carlisle, a settler of New Norfolk.

The free inhabitants of New Norfolk, many of whom were half ruined by the never ending pillagings of those bushrangers, and whom they hoped they had got rid of for ever when they quitted this district for Pittwater, were greatly excited when they learned that they had returned to it again, and had set up their tents amongst them once more; and as it was scarcely possible for things to be worse with them than they were, several of the most daring of them resolved to try the effects of hard blows on the hard heads of the robbers; in other words, to drive them out of the place by force. The task was a doubtful one, but something must be done to get rid of these obnoxious intruders, who kept the district in constant turmoil and disorder.

In a community like New Norfolk, where so many were already half ruined by the exactions of those fellows, some fightable men will always be found, ready to assail the common enemy; and this district was not at all deficient of the fighting element that was just now wanted to drive out, disperse, or destroy these freebooters. There was Mr. Dennis McCarthy, a most active and pugnacious poison. This gentleman was a merchant, a publican, and shipowner, and the brig Sophia and some smaller craft belonged to him, one of which latter was just now moored in the river at New Norfolk, too near to the bushrangers haunts to be either safe or pleasant, and as they had been known to say they would some day seize her, he, of course, had his misgivings about her safety. Mr. Jemott, too (the same I believe who was afterwards chief of police at Clarence), was luckily there at the moment, and he might be safely trusted to do his share in any fight, and was, of course, a ready volunteer. The master and mate of McCarthy’s schooner, the Geordie, Messieurs O’Birne and Hacking, to whom the loss of the vessel would have been as disastrous as to McCarthy, were also ready for a brush with the bushrangers; then there were five others, all of whom had a long account to settle with Whitehead’s people, whenever the day of reckoning came round. These were Messieurs Triffitt, Brown, Murphy, Toombs, and Carlisle. Mr. McCarthy took the command of the assailing party, and if he had only shown as much prudence as pluck, the encounter might not have ended as it did with him, that is in disaster only. But he was hot-headed, and had no other idea of fighting, but of coming to blows at once, not even using any accidental advantages of position, such as the cover of trees and the like.

But the tactics of the enemy whom he was now about to try his hand on, were just the reverse of all this. They threw no chances away when forced to stand up against any one. There were also old soldiers amongst them, who had seen a world of hard service against Napoleon’s soldiers in Spain, Calabria and elsewhere. Geary was one, and Septon too (who had been in the Rifles,) had carried a musket against the French. Howe was also a soldier and a man-of-warsman, and all these had gone through severe training in early life, which was most serviceable to them on an occasion like the present; so that any assailants who were led by so impulsive a person as McCarthy, stood only a sorry chance of coming out of such a fray as took place, with anything except hard blows and discomfiture for their pains.

Mayday morning of 1815, was one of unusual bustle and excitement in the districts near New Norfolk. The robbers, who had camped the night before on a small water-run, called a little too magniloquently the Back river, about three miles above Elizabeth Town, i.e. the present township of New Norfolk, were early at their mischievous work of plundering the various homesteads of the little settlement, long indeed before the sun had risen above the hills that enclose it; and there was some fighting between them and such of the settlers who did not choose to see their homes desolated without resistance, but I believe that nothing very damaging to either side took place. Tidings of those outrages reached McCarthy before nine o’clock of this morning, who at once put his own premises in a state of defence, for he was not one whom it was too safe to trifle with. But the march of the robbers was not in his direction, and on learning this, he at once beat up for volunteers to pursue the enemy, and the persons whom I have named above, joined him in the adventure, with whom he set off to drive them out of place. The pursuing party first called at the house of Mr. Robert Hays, which was amongst the first that had suffered this day, but the banditti had already quitted it, taking the direction of Mr. James Triffitt’s farm-house, which they also despoiled. From this place they struck off for the Macquarie Plains, and had proceeded about a mile on their way, when McCarthy’s party brought them to bay.

The bushrangers were generally very well informed of all that was passing around them, of which many instances are recorded. But of the expedition now coming against them, they had no intelligence. It was, as we have seen, a hurried affair, got up and executed so suddenly, as to be quite unexpected; and had the assailing party been cautiously led, the others might have been surprised. But on came McCarthy, without disguise, or even too much silence, and the cracking of dead sticks under the feet of the rapidly advancing force, warned the others of their approach, and they turned just in time to hear McCarthy challenge them to surrender themselves his prisoners. But Whitehead and his men did not understand this, and instead of heeding it, instantly placed themselves in cover of some hollow trees that stood near. A sharp firing now began on both sides, but the bullets of the assailants were of course only thrown away on men so well protected as the others, and as they stood themselves quite exposed like targets to the damaging fire of their opponents, (they having no experiences of bush fighting), five of their number were sent down in a very few minutes. The affair ended, in the complete discomfiture of the settlers, and the unwounded four were forced to retreat, but they gallantly carried four of the wounded well out of the fire, where for the present they left them. The bushrangers did not pursue the retreating party, or they might have shot them all. Poor Murphy remained in their hands, some one of whom it is said proposed to ill-treat the disabled man, but this their leaders would not hear of. The robbers then retired themselves; and as soon as possible after McCarthy reached his home, he sent out a conveyance and brought in all his disabled companions.

The wounds of Carlisle and O’Birne were mortal. The first named died very soon after the fight, in about an hour only it is reported. The other, who had received a charge of slugs in the face, lingered on to the 20th, when he also succumbed.

[To be continued.]

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