Spotlight: A Bushranger’s Autobiography (part one)

In 1879, the Australasian newspaper published a series of articles that transcribed a handwritten manuscript. This manuscript contained the memoirs of William Westwood, alias Jackey Jackey. These rushed memories covered his early life, his time as a convict, and his bushranging career. Here on A Guide to Australian Bushranging, we will publish the installments weekly, just as they were when first published over 140 years ago.

This first installment covers how the author of the articles came by such a unique and precious document. It give a powerful insight into Westwood’s last hours and a rare glimpse at the man himself.

~AP


Australasian (Melbourne), Saturday 1 February 1879, page 8


The narrative, to which these remarks are introductory, which has been handed to us by a contributor, is of interest as presenting the incidents and motives of a bushranger’s life from a point of view from which it is seldom seen. It is unnecessary to point out the “personal equation” which has to be allowed for in the writer’s statement of his actions, resulting partly from that desire to put forward a justification of some sort or other which is shown by the greatest criminals, and partly from the vanity and mock-heroism which seem usually to be conspicuous elements in the characters of highwaymen of all times. These allowances we may safely leave to the reader. We wish here merely to mention that we have satisfied ourselves of the perfect authenticity of the narrative, and now leave our contributor to explain how the document came into his hands. He gives the following account “How I Came By It”:—

I do not believe there is a word of fiction in the following narrative. It is no made-up story, fancifully exaggerated, but a very unadorned, and straightforward tale of audacious bushranger adventure and privation, in which a young outlaw relates in his own way the incidents of his brigand career in two colonies. These incidents he describes without bravado or self-glorification, and with slight excuses for his lawless exploits. His rustic habits and limited education did not qualify him to write with any view to stage effect; yet the scenes he delineates, and in which he was a chief actor, are full of wild robber – daring and dramatic pose, and have all the interest that attaches to bold and reckless deeds of actual occurrence. The recent tragic events near Mansfield will serve to show with what fatal facility such deeds may be done in half-reclaimed woodland regions, and how a few desperadoes like the Kellys can terrify a whole district for many months together, and plunder or destroy life with impunity, even in times when mounted police and well-made roads are by no means so few and far between as in the dark ages of Australia five and thirty years ago, and before Victoria was born. In those dark and less settled times, the “Bolters” were a very dangerous substitute in the bush for royal Bengal tigers, though the thirst of blood in these human beasts of prey does not seem to have much abated since the convict era; for what Siberian wolf could ravin for and lap up gore with keener appetite than Morgan, or what old Sydney “cockatoo” or Port Arthur “canary ” could more treacherously assassinate than the gang which has now so long baffled the whole gendarmerie of this country? Unlike so many of the class, the hero of this present bush romance had few of the exterior marks and tokens about him of the brutal and ferocious marauder. He was a young man of six and twenty, of good stature, broad-chested, and muscular in limb, though not of brawny build, but lithe and agile as a leopard. He was of a fair complexion, regular features, and a good humoured expression of countenance, to which a broad forehead gave an air of intelligence. This broad forehead was overhung with a profusion of straw-coloured hair of a dark shade. He had a pleasant smile, which disclosed two rows of small white teeth, so small and so white as to give him a somewhat feminine appearance, which was made more feminine by thin red lips, small mouth, and well-shaped chin. But the most noticeable of all his features were his eyes, which were deep set and of a rich violet blue. I never saw eyes more “deeply, darkly, beautifully blue,” that is, in his ordinary and placid mood; but when roused to anger their mild soft violet hue wholly vanished, and in its place came something that flushed and glowed like two red coals. I first discovered this ocular transformation by coming one day unexpectedly to his cell in the new gaol at Norfolk Island when he was having a verbal altercation with the turnkeys who had annoyed him. I scarcely recognised him. The usual smile had given way to a frightful scowling frown, and his eyes seemed literally turned into two balls of fire, reminding me of Sir Walter Scott’s description in lvanhoe of Richard Coeur-de-lion’s eyes when that warrior king was pleased to lash himself up to a frenzy of rage. Our outlaw, however, was not of a peevish or quarrelsome temper, and took no delight in giving his officers trouble, as others often did, in neglecting his work, nor did he mix himself up with the common squabbles of the Lumber-yard. His demeanour at Norfolk Island was inoffensive until the unlucky morning of the July riot, in which several of the civil officers were injured and four constables killed — three of them by the hand of our outlaw, Westwood. A long series of disciplinary severities, and some vexatious alterations and reductions in the legal allowance of food, had produced extreme discontent amongst the prisoners, especially on the Settlement Station, where they numbered about 800. The Government store was sometimes nearly bankrupt in flour, meal, beef, sugar, and potatoes; and the dietary of “the men” was regulated according to the state of the store. Sundry refusals of the gangs to go to work half-fed were only succeeded by more stringent measures of coercion, until the prisoners were galled and exasperated beyond their bearing. The last ounce of sand that broke the camel’s back was laid on by an order to take away from the mess-sheds some 40 or 50 old kettles in which “the men” had for several years been permitted to boil water, and make maize corn coffee after coming in from the fields and quarries, A mutiny and a murderous attack on the constables resulted, in which our outlaw took the lead, and for this he was tried and sentenced to death at a special Norfolk Island assizes, held by a judge sent down from Hobart Town, assisted by five military officers of the garrison, who sat with the judge as assessors. This autobiography was chiefly written by our outlaw while awaiting trial; a page or two were added after his condemnation, and all of it, except in the spelling, remains as he penned it. I passed the last night of his mortal life with him in his cell, in which two other men, also under sentence, were present. It was a night to be remembered. Sleep came not to the eyelids which were so soon to close for ever; nor drowsiness to men whose wakeful hearts were pondering on the dread mysterious secrete which the grave would unfold to them upon the morrow. Yet, although subdued, they were not dejected. They were even cheerful, and disposed for conversation, and I think if any one had been with them who would have spoken to them of a plan for getting off the island they would have eagerly discussed it for half the night; for the first and last thought of a prison is liberty — escape. When the cell door was bolted on us, and the gaol-yard locked for the night, a painful stillness seemed to come down and gather round us with a stifling oppressiveness, and for a few minutes we all sat silent, as if listening for some sound or voice that might assure us of our proximity to living beings. We seemed as though entombed in a charnel-house. But the only sound that came was the booming roar of the South Pacific Ocean hurling its massy waves upon the coral reefs, over which they tumbled and fell with a foaming crash along the narrow beach close by the prison walls, which vibrated with the concussion. From this short stupor the chaplain gently recalled the men, inviting them to religious discourse and to acts of devotion until midnight. Free and friendly converse then ensued for a while, and the three doomed ones spoke of various passages in their penal life, mingling frequent, though not boisterous, laughter with many quaint and witty comments on their own and others’ doings or misdoings. About an hour after midnight our candles had burned low, and the task of lighting fresh ones was undertaken by Truelock, the oldest of the three men. In performing this task some burning wick fell on the back of his hand, and the grimaces he made in his hurried efforts to dislodge it were so comical his companions laughed merrily at them, and their laughter was increased by the grave tone and solemn shake of his head with which he reproved their mirth. “Men,” he said,” you should remember this is no time for grinning, at a fellow-creature’s sufferings, when you are to be hanged at 8 o’clock this very morning.” After this the chaplain, who was one of the highest of high church-men, addressed some words of exhortation to his small flock assembled in that cell on the duty of confessing their sins. Westwood, he found, was of the Church of England; another was a Wesleyan; and the third a Baptist; after half-an-hour’s explanation, the chaplain entreated of them to review their lives and confess all their sins penitently to God, and then he would “give them absolution.” The men then bowed their heads upon their knees as they sat in heavy chains, and in perfect silence so continued for a quarter of an hour. Then the chaplain rose up, and laying his hands on the head of the Baptist youth, Henry Whiting, he pronounced the absolution formula as given in the Anglican Prayer Book for the sick or dying; next he bestowed the same benefit on the Wesleyan, and, lastly, on Westwood, who seemed very devout. Another hour was then employed in prayers, and as these were ended Whiting, who was only 22 years of age, looked sharply up to the little grating over the cell door. We all turned our eyes in the same direction, and lo, the dull grey glimmer of the wintry dawn was faintly visible. It seemed to me as the eye of the angel of death grimly looking in upon his victims. They gazed upon it long and silently, and at last he whose quick eye first detected it turned to me, and with a smile so sad, so wistful, and so pensive that it has never left my mind, he said, “Mr. Peutetre, it is the last!” Our outlaw continued to watch the slowly growing light, as if his thoughts were faraway in his native home, among his kindred, beneath his father’s roof, with sisters and brothers who knew not that he was going forth that selfsame day to a death of infamy. While Westwood was still gazing upwards at the light, the garrison bugles sounded the reveille, which led the chaplain to speak of the judgment trumpet, and then engaged once more in prayer. As this prayer ended the bell of the prisoners’ barracks hard by began to ring. They all adverted to the well-known summons which had so often called them forth to their daily toil.

“It is tolling for our funeral,” said Truelock. “Aye,” responded Whiting; “it’s our death knell!”

Shortly after the barrack bell had ceased its harsh jangle the footsteps of the turnkey were heard approaching. The bolt of our cell door was withdrawn, and a welcome sea breeze came whirling in upon us with its saline odours and refreshing dullness. But something still more welcome soon entered. The chaplain’s wife and other ladies had sent down a basket well filled with cold fowl and ham and eggs, and well-buttered bread, and a can of coffee for the dying men’s last breakfast. Plates and mugs were soon filled and handed round to those for whom they were provided. Did not the thought of the ropes dangling from the gallows erected within 20 yards of them spoil their appetite? Apparently it did not. In spite of rope, and heavy chains, and coarse white cap, they ate with seeming relish, and even with jocularity. While I was handing an additional slice of ham to Whiting, whose pathetic exclamation, “it is the last,” had so touched me, he said, What a pity it is, men, that we arn’t to be hanged every morning, if the ladies would only send us such jolly fine breakfasts,” at which the “men” laughed heartily, as they did at one or two other ludicrous trifles that occurred while eating their last meal on earth. Shortly after the repast was finished the sheriff came and ordered their chains to the struck off, so that they might ascend the ladder to the platform. Whiting and then Truelock had been led out for this purpose, and as I stood alone with Westwood in the cell, who was waiting for his turn, he drew a roll of paper from his breast, and said “Mr. Peutetre, I give you this — all I have to give. If ever you go back to old England, give the letters and the hair inside to my father and mother. God bless you and farewell.” He was then called to have his chains struck off. This was how I came by his autobiography; and this is why I think it no fiction. Almost every statement made in it was proved on his trials; and many persons must still be living who will remember Jacky Jacky, which, perhaps, is a corruption of Jika Jika. I forgot to ask him how and why he got or took his bushranger title.

As an instance of the perils to which peaceful households were exposed, and also as a sample of the highly melodramatic situations to which the inburst of bushrangers sometimes gave rise, I would mention the following:— Jacky Jacky (Westwood) states that he and Gilling and Allom bailed up a station a few miles above New Norfolk, in Tasmania. After I left Norfolk Island I was on duty for some time at New Norfolk. One day riding with the police magistrate, we were invited to luncheon at Mr. H.’s, J.P., when his wife asked me about Jacky Jacky, saying she had once had the pleasure of being bailed up by him. It was in the Christmas holidays and her brother, Mr. Stanley J., of Hobart Town, and two other gentlemen, had come to stay a few days with her husband. On the first day of their visit, after dinner, some of the gentlemen went upstairs to have a nap until tea-time. She had retired to the drawingroom, and was employing herself at her workbox. By and bye her brother came into the room, and sat down in the rocking — “the chair you are now sitting in, Mr. Peutetre,” said the lady. Leaning back in the chair, he said to her, “Well, I declare to you, Bessy, I never spent a happier day than this. I really never was so happy in all my life; nev—.” Here he paused abruptly, and Mrs. H. turned her head to see what had cut his rocking and his enthusiastic speech so short, and found him staring in mute amazement towards the drawingroom door. Glancing in the same direction, to her astonishment and terror she beheld a tall young man, with sunburnt face, standing in the doorway with a double-barrelled gun in his hands, levelled point blank at the body of the happy brother, Mr. S. J., in the happiest moment of his whole life; the said tall sunburnt young man (Westwood) being prepared to fire on the happy gentleman, if he attempted to stand up. No sensational play could arrange a more theatrical scene than this startling impromptu reality in Mrs. H’s drawingroom.

PEUTETRE.

Melbourne. Jan. 25.

[The commencement of the autobiography will appear in our next issue.]

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