The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter: A Review

I recently had the pleasure of firstly hearing a talk by Sydney-based writer and journalist, Adam Courtenay, about his latest book The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter, and then of reading it myself. This is a true story from colonial Australia relating to the birth of the city of Melbourne.

The Ghost and Bounty Hunter

The Ghost in the story is convict William Buckley, who having escaped from the short-lived penal colony near Sorrento at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay in 1803, spent some 32 years living with the Wadawurrung clan of the Kulin nation. During that time he had no contact with Europeans and was considered by the local indigenous people to be a reincarnated family member and was treated as such.

The Bounty Hunter was Tasmanian John Batman, who earned that description by his pursuit of bush rangers, and had “long held dreams of being a large landowner.” He saw that ambition being realised in the grazing land across Bass Strait around Port Phillip, and in 1835 organised the first free settlement in the area of what was to become the city of Melbourne.

The third “protagonist” in the story is the Kulin nation. Courtenay describes in some detail the life and customs of these people, the relationships developed with the settlers and the ultimate dispossession of their lands as the white population increased and hundreds of thousands of sheep are introduced.

In this era of “truth-telling” about Australian history, for me Courtenay’s book has made a real contribution to my understanding of how European settlement affected indigenous peoples. The story shows how the clash of cultures would inevitably lead to the “theft of Kulin country” and which was the case throughout Australia.

I would recommend The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter to anyone interested in Australia history.

Thomas Dyball, Convict (1809-1905)

On the 30 July 1905 one of New South Wales’ longest lived transported convicts, Thomas Dyball, breathed his last at Port Macquarie having, it is believed, lived a full and healthy life of 96 years.

The Dyball name is most commonly associated with the Norfolk area of England. If his age at death is correct this Thomas Dyball was likely born on 30 January 1809 in the parish of Burgh St. Margaret (Yarmouth) in Norfolk to parents Robert Dyball and Ann Dyball (nee Copping). However, there were other Thomas Dyballs born in Norfolk around that time so we may never know the truth.

On 8 April 1829 the Bury and Norwich Post recorded the proceedings of the Norfolk Lent Assizes as follows:

… John Browne aged 17 and Thomas Dyball pleaded guilty to, and John Felmingham, aged 21, was charged with having feloniously broken into the dwelling-house of Thomas Willis, of Acle, shop-keeper, and stolen twenty yards of cotton cord, twelve pair of worstead stockings, and other articles, his property on the 21st of February last, and Thomas Benstead was charged with having received the same, knowing it to have been stolen. – Benstead was acquitted, and Felmingham found guilty, and judgment of Death recorded against him.

Thomas was sentenced to transportation for life in New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney on the “Sarah” on 6 December 1829 and was later transferred to the Port Macquarie convict establishment where he was granted a ticket of leave. There he met Catherine Calnan, another convict who had been sentenced to transportation for seven years for picking pockets. Catherine had arrived in Sydney of the “Elizabeth” on 17 December 1836.

Being convicts the couple had to seek permission to marry, and this was given by Rev. John Croos who married them on 18 July 1841. Catherine  received a certificate of freedom in 1845 and Thomas a conditional pardon two years later in early 1847, and at that time with three children and Catherine again pregnant the family decided to stay at Port Macquarie initially. The pardon coincided with the closure of the convict establishment at Port Macquarie as the free settler population in Hastings River grew.

In 1850 the Dyballs moved to the Manning River and became some of the earliest settlers in that area. Thomas took up a selection at Taree Estate and there the couple eventually had nine children before Catherine died at the age of 52 years on 22 November 1870.

Thomas lived on his property for more than fifty years. Only his last eighteen months were spent in ill health when he lived firstly with his sons at Taree and then with his daughter Prudence Grace (Dyball) Beattie on Rawdon island in the Hastings River a little upstream of Port Macquarie where he died. He was buried at the Wauchope Cross Roads Cemetery.

His obituary published in the Manning River Times and Advocate on Saturday 5 August 1905 stated how he could recount many interesting reminiscences of the early days of settlement in this district. It tells of his birth in Norfolk, England and his “immigration” to New South Wales in 1829, but neglects to mention his convict past.

Cook and His Aborigines

I recently read an article in The Conversation by Alison Page, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney, about James Cook and his contact with Indigenous Australians when he sailed up the eastern coastline of what he named as ‘New South Wales’ 250 years ago. Page portrays the encounters from an indigenous historic perspective and includes a diary entry by James Cook that not only sheds light on the real Aborigines, before Europeans invaded [my word] and settled their land, but also gives an insight into Cook himself.

Cook wrote:

From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland, they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them.

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not Magnificent Houses, Houshold-stuff […]

[…] they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholsome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be fully sencible of, for many to whome we gave Cloth to, left it carlessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for.

In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this, in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no Superfluities —

This I fear will lead me to read more about James Cook, the man, and currently the obvious choice is probably Peter Fitzsimons’ latest book of the same name. I have read and enjoyed a number of Fitzsimons’ books and although he has attracted some criticism for his style and the fact that he employs a veritable army of researchers assisting him, it is the latter that holds promise that I might learn more about the man who was one of history’s greatest explorers.

Of course Cook and is not a complete stranger to me. His Australian landing place at Kurnell in Sydney has been visited on several occasions and we have “bumped into” him on our travels around the Pacific. We have seen him remembered in Fiji, Hawaii and far away Vancouver.

Getting back to the Aboriginal people, I can’t help but recall what I read not long ago and included in my post “Aboriginal Australians and Guns, Germs and Steel”:

“The reason we think of Aborigines as desert people is simply that Europeans killed or drove them out of the most desirable areas, leaving the last intact Aboriginal populations only in areas that Europeans didn’t want”

As a result it is probably fair to say that Indigenous Australians are generally no longer “far more happier than we Europeans,” as Cook described them. Understanding and accepting the importance of the ancient non-materialistic culture with its attachment to “Country” appears to be very difficult for many non-indigenous Australians.

Alison Page’s article certainly contributed to giving me a better knowledge of our history from a black as well as a white perspective. She ends her article with the following conclusion:

“Revealing our shared history is the only way to make peace with those ghostly visitors of the past. But we will only find that peace in the truth and it’s the truth of our history, which will be our new voyage of discovery.”