Spotlight: EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS by J. E. Calder (Pt. 6)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Tuesday 25 November 1873, page 2


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.]

Without noticing in this place the destinies of his old companions in crime, who fell one by one into the hands of the military or others, I shall hasten on with Howe’s own history. It is a bloody one; but we could expect no other of such a man, now made doubly desperate by bitter disappointment.

That he still went on committing robberies (Sorell says chiefly of stockmen’s huts) is certain, for he soon contrived to possess himself of a musket, pistols, ammunition, and dogs again, which, now that he had broken with all his confederates, and quarrelled with his old mates, he could scarcely have got except by robbery.

Being now unaccompanied by any one, his solitary life in the woods must have been wearisome and wretched beyond expression; and to add to the miseries of his situation, he was now often chased for his life by the black natives, as was proved by a kind of journal he kept, that was found in his knapsack afterwards, which was taken from him in one of his hard conflicts with his white pursuers. His nights were even worse than his days, for it is recorded by himself that he never closed his eyes, but he dreamed he was pursued, one moment by the blacks and the next by the whites; and if it were possible that a man so degraded and lost to human sensations as this unhappy wretch could have felt as others feel, he might have exclaimed with Manfred,

“My slumbers – if I slumber – are not sleep,

But a continuance of enduring thought.”

and the reflection that all this unhappiness was self-inflicted, must have been, even to such a mind as his, in the last degree embittering.

About ten weeks after his flight from Hobart Town, his career of guilt and suffering was all but ended (10th of October, 1817), and but for his dog-like resolution, and determination never to be taken alive, nothing could have prevented him wearing the executioner’s cap in reality; but his time was not yet come.

Howe’s escape from Hobart Town was notified in the newspaper portion of the Gazette, just after it took place; but forty days elapsed before it was officially announced. There is no accounting for this delay now. But on the 6th of September, there appeared a Proclamation, offering a reward of one hundred guineas for his capture. The same proclamation included the names of two other great offenders, of whom one was George Watts, for whom eighty guineas each were offered.

This man Watts had been in the bush, but more as a robber of flocks than a bushranger, ever since 1807, but followed both callings indifferently. He must have been quite an extraordinary person, and an unusually shrewd one also. Having none of the coarse manners of an ordinary robber, his usual deportment, when not engaged in bushranging practices, was that of a man of the world, that is polished, affable, and quite the reverse of a low offensive fellow. Sorell describes him as having connections nearly everywhere, even in circles from which it might have been thought he would have been excluded – having the command of plenty of money, at a time when there was not much of that commodity in the colony, and possessed of such ascendency over his accomplices, as to have lived quite without fear of molestation from them. This influence, however, never reached the military portion of the community, who more than once gave the wealthy robber such a run for his life as he never had from any others; and the only time that this really sharp fellow was ever known to make a simpleton of himself, was in trying to make his old leader, Howe, a prisoner.

Watts began to think that it was time to give up his dangerous mode of life; and the Governor’s proclamation, though it included himself, seemed to present a fine opportunity for escaping military surveillance, and of removing from his own person the tempting reward offered for his own capture; and in an evil moment (under the persuasion of others more timid than himself) he resolved to “do the State some service,” by engaging in the dangerous adventure of bringing to justice a man who it was most unsafe to encounter at any time; and he set out for Howe’s retreat at New Norfolk, in good hope of bringing him to his last account.

Hunting about the place, and knowing many, he was soon on Howe’s track, and learned that he was in the habit of visiting the stock-hut of a settler named Williams, better known as “Coachy Williams,” which was on the Sorell Creek, about half-a-mile from its junction with the Derwent. The hut was in charge of a convict named William Drew, with the soubriquet of Slambo, by which he is best known in the early annals of the colony. Watts seems to have had no difficulty in involving this man in his plans for the capture of Howe.

I am informed by a young friend at New Norfolk, to whom I am indebted for some of the details of this narrative, that this Coachy Williams was one of those who planned the attack on Howe, though he took no part in it personally, and I derive some of the following account of an assault on Howe from him, who got it from a very old resident of that district, who saw the bushranger attacked, and his temporary capture by Watts and Slambo; and who also saw him marched off between them, after they had mustered and secured the solitary, but most determined robber, who ever disturbed the peace of Tasmania.

Slambo at parting from Watts, on the 9th of October, indicated the place where they should meet next day at early dawn, to proceed to Howe’s hiding place, namely, a point on some obscure path, that was well known to both, and they parted for the night, Watts going into Elizabeth Town, as New Norfolk was then called, with all the coolness of one who has nothing to fear.

But during the night he returned to the bush, and took up his sleeping quarters at the appointed spot, and lay there till daybreak. His friend Slambo was true to his time, and joined him very early, and led the way to a place called Long Bottom, where he expected Howe.

By the advice of Watts, Slambo left his gun behind him, so as not to awaken Howe’s suspicions, but the former took his own. Upon arriving at Long Bottom, Slambo called out two or three times, which Howe replied to from his concealment in or near to a creek. He then presented himself; but being a watchful man and suspicious from habit, and seeing also that Slambo had a companion with him, he would not approach, until Watts reassured him, by proposing that both should knock the priming out of their guns, which was agreed to and done, and the two outlaws met again. They then walked on a few yards together, when all stopped to light a fire and have breakfast. But this was only a ruse of Watts, and their apparent friendliness seems for once to have thrown the suspicious Howe off his guard; and he proceeded, but with some difficulty, to disengage himself of the knapsack he carried, the arm-slings of which were too tight for his great breadth of shoulder, whereupon his officiously obliging companions, most good-naturedly offered any assistance they could give to relieve him of his load, and when once behind for this purpose, both arms were secured, and he was thrown on the ground, before he knew what they were about with him. His hands were next tied in front by Slambo, and thus Howe for once was taken.

Having secured their prisoner, they next searched him for any weapons that he might have about him, but found only some ammunition and two knives, which they took from him. Slambo then returned to his master’s premises, which were some way off, carrying Howe’s gun along with him, and leaving the prisoner in charge of Watts. Whether any conversation passed between these latter has not been recorded; but doubtless the time that these two men, formerly associates, but now foes, passed by themselves, was not of a pleasurable nature to either.

When Slambo reached the homestead, he found his master much alarmed at his protracted absence, four hours. The former told Williams of the adventure of the morning, and of their intention of taking Howe to Hobart Town. Williams then offered his services to aid in removing the bushranger to gaol, but, luckily for him perhaps, they were declined, and he passed the rest of the day in the not very lively occupation of shearing sheep by himself.

Slambo then ran off, and in due course reached the scene of the capture of the vanquished bushranger, and they now went to breakfast in earnest, of which they invited the prisoner to partake, but he, being in no humour to accept any of their civilities, indignantly refused to eat with them.

They next took the road for Hobart Town, then a mere bush track, Watts being armed with his own gun, and his companion with the musket (as it is described) that they took from Howe, and which must have remained unprimed; and they jogged onwards for Hobart Town as fast as Howe chose to walk, Watts marching a little in advance of the prisoner, and the other guarding him behind, both of them doubtlessly speculating on the hero-like reception they would have on reaching town with their too well-known captive. But the adventures of the day were not half over yet; for Howe never gave up a game as lost, until it was lost beyond hope; and as he walked on sullenly between his captors, he was revolving in his mind his possible chances of escape, and of mastering both of them, which he had no doubt of being able to do, armed as they both were with guns and himself without, if his hands were only once more free.

The road from New Norfolk to Hobart Town was not the same at the time I am writing of as the present one. It was much shorter and more hilly, being directed over the inferior slopes of the Black Snake and Mount Fawkner ranges, instead of near the Derwent River, as it is now.

When they had got over about eight miles of their journey, and were pretty nearly abreast of, but not near to, Austin’s, and at a place then called Miller’s Brush, Slambo, who was still marching behind, saw with horror that the un-capturable Howe had somehow managed to disengage his hands from the cord that bound them, and stood between them ready for instant action. On seeing this, Slambo screamed out so loudly, that he might have been heard half a mile off. Watts started at the cry, and turned round to learn what was the matter just in time to see Howe dashing savagely at him at his best speed, and before he had time to level his piece for defence, Howe was upon him, and with the rapidity of thought, sent the broken blade of a pair of sheep sheers*, that he carried concealed in his coat-sleeve unknown to his captors, far into his stomach, and he fell with a piercing cry to die a lingering death. The gun he carried dropped from his hands of course, which Howe picked up in a moment, and said “he would settle Slambo’s business for him,” and turning on him with unerring aim, shot him dead on the spot, for he never spoke or moved a muscle afterwards; “The ball” says the surgeon, Dr. Hood, of the 46th Regt.,) who examined him after death “passing through the thorax by entering the back, a little below the right shoulder, and shattering the breast-bone in its passage,” so that Slambo must have turned round, probably to fly, when Howe shot him through-and-through.

Watts then enquired of Howe, if Slambo were dead? “Yes” shouted Howe, scowling on him with the look of a tiger, “and I’ll shoot you too as soon as I can load this piece.” But it took time to reload, as he had to get ammunition, which he probably did from the dead body of Slambo, and while this was going on, Watts knowing that Howe would keep his word, rose up with great difficulty and staggered on for about two hundred yards, and then lay down or fell into a thicket, exhausted through cold, pain, and loss of blood, and the furious freebooter failed to find him. But he knew he was done for; and time being just now more precious than abridging the brief remainder of Watts’ days, he sped from the spot – Heaven only knows where.

Watts rose again presently, and by great efforts succeeded in crawling to the cottage of a person named Burne, who, assisted by his wife, tended him till a cart could be obtained to convey him to town, which was not however till next day.

The body of Slambo was found soon afterwards, and was also brought to town, where an inquest was held on it on the 13th, and a verdict given that “William Drew was murdered by Michael Howe.” (Gazette, 17th October, 1817.)

Watts was soon afterwards sent up to Sydney, from which place he was an absconder, but not to be rewarded for his action against Howe, but to stand his trial for his own offences. Strangely enough it was reported to Sorell, that the mortal thrust of Howe had only wounded him slightly. But it was far otherwise, and he died three days after landing; and in this way ended for the present, the most terrible event in Howe’s life of guilt.

Colonel Sorell went nearly as mad as Davey, when the news of these desperate murders reached him. He wrote by the earliest opportunity to his chief in Sydney, reporting the deplorable calamity. He had before this entreated him to rescind the promise he had made in Howe’s favour, i.e., soon after his escape from gaol, saying he had “forfeited all claim to consideration; and will, if taken, afford a most proper example to this colony of Capital Punishment.” (Despatch, 13th Sept., 1817.) So he could do no more now than use his best efforts to bring him to justice as soon as possible, but notwithstanding this, the wary Howe eluded successful pursuit for another twelvemonth.

It is not quite easy to understand the reason of this sudden change of sentiment which took place several weeks before these murders were effected toward even such an offender as Howe was. If he were at all worthy of pardon for the past, as Sorell believed him to be, assuredly the circumstance of his absconding was not a sufficient reason for now considering him unfit for anything but capital punishment. But errors like other matters, seem to repeat themselves, or at least to multiply. It was certainly one to negotiate with Howe as he did for his surrender; it was undoubtedly another to promise such an offender pardon for the past; and this denunciation of him, before he had done any thing more to deserve death than running away, seems very like a third instance of hastiness, which is quite inconsistent with the general tenor of Sorell’s useful life.

With the view of securing Howe, Sorell fulminated a Proclamation, adding to the money reward for his capture, an offer of a free pardon and passage home, to any convict who should bring this great criminal to justice.

After the commission of these tragedies, Howe was more often heard of than seen, except at remote stock huts, and reports of his attacks on these exposed places, reached the authorities from many quarters of the Hamilton and New Norfolk districts, which he still continued to haunt, but he managed to keep out of danger, though the pursuit after him now by the military, and also by the wild native tribes, was hotter than ever.

Amongst others whose stockmen suffered by him at this time, were those of the late G. W. Evans, then Deputy Surveyor General of the colony, at whose establishment at Blinkworth’s Hunting Ground he suddenly presented himself, some time in June of 1818, from which he not only helped himself to as much provisions as he chose to carry off, but also made prize of two noble kangaroo dogs. It seems to have been believed at this time, that he was destitute of all means of defence, and the Gazette of the time speaking of this affair says, “What is astonishing, he had plenty of ammunition, and was well armed. His beard is of great length; and his appearance, connected with the idea of his horrid crimes, is altogether terrific” But this seems something like painting the devil blacker than he really was; for I am told that Howe was a passable looking man.

The rewards now offered for Howe, of money, freedom, and a passage to the dear old country of Englishmen, stimulated others besides the military, to “try a fall” with Howe. But like Balfour of Burley, he was “a desperate fighting fellow,” full of expedients, and never to be rashly handled; and one who as Sorell says, few would care to try a hand-to-hand encounter with. But the love of liberty is one of the strongest sentiments of the human heart, and the formidable character of the man, did not deter others from volunteering to do their best to pursue, take or kill this arch-offender.

There was at this time in the service of the Government, as guide to the military, a man named James McGill, who from his stature and strength, passed by the enviable nom de guerre of “Big McGill.” He had once been a bushranger himself, but now followed the more captivating occupation of pursuing them instead.

He was a rough fighting fellow, fearing neither man or devil, and was always ready for a stand-up with anybody or everybody, whenever they liked to come on; and however hungry “a customer” might be at setting-to, he always went home with a belly-full, when Mr. McGill had done with him.

This pleasant follow, was either selected or volunteered to bring Howe in; and he started off jollily on the exciting service. He wanted no assistant, being quite confident in his own powers to bring Howe to reason any day single-handed. Still it was thought best to give him a companion, in case of matters not going on quite so smoothly as he expected; and an active man of one of the native tribes of New South Wales, called Mosquito, an old enemy of the bushrangers, accompanied him as tracker, and to give such assistance as he could, which was not exactly nothing, for Mosquito was not deficient in daring, as he often proved in after times when leading the East Coast tribes of natives against our own people. The black soon got on Howe’s tracks, and the two followed him, and came up with him somewhere on the Clyde, then called the Fat Doe River, and there was warm work between them when this took place.

Howe had been often heard to say he never would be taken alive; and in the struggle that took place, this determination appears to have work with its full force. He was overmatched it is true, but this did not shake his resolution in any degree. He was now in the very best years of his life, about thirty-one, when the powers of endurance are greatest, and he used them to the uttermost. He fought like a fiend for life, hitting out right and left as hard as he could, till his opponents closed in upon him for the death struggle, but even then he shewed them he was not half done for, and they could not throw him down, do as they would, for he continued to kick and fight as vigorously as ever, and in a manner that astonished even the resolute McGill, who was himself almost a match for a wild beast. At length, making an effort of his strength more violent than any he had yet put forth, he tore himself from the vice-like grasp of his gigantic opponent, and dashed away with such speed that it was useless to pursue him.

I had most of these particulars from an old companion of Howe’s, at whose hut I stayed for several weeks whilst surveying the shores of the Great Lake in 1847. The Gazette notice of Howe’s escape from his powerful antagonists merely mentions the affray in a slight and incidental manner, too usual with newspaper reports fifty or sixty years ago, saying only that Howe was pursued, after robbing a hut, and that he lost “his dogs, knapsack, and all that he had,” it then says, “from a paper found in his knapsack, it appears that he has been much harrassed by the natives, and has been very nearly cut off by them several times.” (Gazette, September 19th, 1818.)

From this place Howe must have gone to the neighbourhood of York Plains, where he committed what was probably his last robbery, as I gather from a letter of Colonel Sorell’s, addressed to the Commandant of Launceston, dated 17th of October, 1818, in which he says, “It is stated that a soldier from York Plains, was at Captain Blyth’s at the Rope Walk, about seven miles from there, a few days ago, when Michael Howe, the bushranger, came down and robbed the house… It appears that Howe succeeded in robbing the house and getting off, though three men besides the soldier were there.”

[To be continued.]

*Watts, in his evidence touching this event, said Howe’s weapon was a knife.

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