Some great stories, and some of them new to me…

Some think I am a left-wing type of person, and at times I can be. For example, on the whole I think trade unions have been and are rather a good and necessary thing, and I am all for  “socialist” medical care as we have had it in Australia, and so on. But on the other hand few things make my eyes glaze over more quickly than Marxism. It doesn’t help that the Communist Manifesto started with a resounding clanger of an insupportable generalisation:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Only if you are terminally Eurocentric – and even Engels added a footnote later on:

That is, all written history. In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organisation existing previous to recorded history, all but unknown. Since then, August von Haxthausen (1792-1866) discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Georg Ludwig von Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and, by and by, village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organisation of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1818-1861) crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this dissolution in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, second edition, Stuttgart, 1886. [Engels, 1888 English Edition and 1890 German Edition (with the last sentence omitted)]


Not part of “all hitherto existing society”? I guess we can’t be too hard

on Engels even if his revised footnote looks a lot like

special pleading: “Well, we of course have to except MOST human history…”

So far as Tony Moore’s Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia – 1788-1868 (Sydney, Murdoch Books/Pier 9, 2010) draws on some admittedly excellent Marxist historians so far did it at times have me nodding off, but that is probably my fault. There are some great stories in the book and it seriously broadens our understanding of this country’s history in relation to others and to the “big events” of England, Scotland, Ireland, Europe and North America. I was drawn in immediately by this local connection noted in 2011 in The Illawarra Mercury.

death-or-liberty-9781741961409_300THEY SPENT MOST OF THEIR LIVES AS upstanding citizens of Dapto in the 1800s but farmers Joseph Marceau and Ira Polley had pasts so colourful they trump any convict tale.

Both were exiled political prisoners, condemned to the end of the earth for a lifetime of slavery. Their crime – fighting for a cause they believed in.

Marceau, a French Canadian and Polley, from New York State were part of a revolutionary secret society fighting for democracy and a responsible government against the British Empire in Lower Canada, which is now Quebec.

Considered heroes today in Canada, Marceau’s story is the first of many political activists that cultural historian Dr Tony Moore highlights in his book Death or Liberty – Rebels and Radicals transported to Australia 1788 – 1868.

Unlike hundreds of other rebels Marceau, one of the leaders in what is now known as the Patriots’ War, did not continue to agitate for better conditions in colonial Australia. Instead he led a quiet farming existence and was reluctant to talk about his past life as a dissident. Moore chooses to single him out in the introduction of his book for personal reasons having grown up in the Illawarra during the ’70s.

He laments that history lessons back then were dull and did nothing but incite frustration in the future historian. All of the exciting events of the past, it seemed to him as a kid, had happened elsewhere in the world.

“Little did I know then that in an old cemetery in the Dapto bush where I had skylarked as a teenager lay Marceau,” he says. “Why don’t we learn about such people at school or in our civic remembering. Few Australians realise their homeland was once the British Empire’s Guantanamo Bay.”

The British used transportation as a tool for political suppression. While the exiled rebels and troublemakers, who were considered terrorists by the Empire, were out of mind and sight, it meant that the colony was vitally connected through these convicts to the revolutions sweeping the world.

It’s the reason Moore believes why Australia became a working man’s paradise and why trade unionism is so advanced here. Their influence paved the way for a more liberal and democratic society at a time when Britain was “seething with reform and social change”.

His book explores the lives of some of the 3600 social protesters, freedom fighters and political rebels who were transported to Australia over 82 years.

Unlike Marceau and Polley who were farmers, many of the political rebels were intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, orators, publicists and medical doctors and they came from Scotland, Ireland, England, Canada and the United States.

Moore says they are part of Australia’s forgotten history and there is little to commemorate their time on Australian soil or their contribution to the rights we take for granted today, like freedom of speech.

After being pardoned many of the rebels returned home, but some stayed enjoying a better standard of living than in their home countries.

“These political prisoners are now revered in their homelands as freedom fighters,” says Moore. “Yet in Australia, the land of their exile, memory of these martyrs has dimmed.”

Death or Liberty he hopes will challenge the way history is taught in schools having been written in a narrative form for upper high school students and the general public. Moore wants their stories to be included in a new national history curriculum and further he says there should be monuments to honour the political convicts.

What has been lost he says is a recognition that the colonial era of this country was essentially the birth of modern Australia.

“Instead we tend to think of our roots as being the birth of the Labor Party in the 1890s, of Federation and conservative nationalism, of Gallipoli and onwards to Phar Lap and Don Bradman,” says Moore. “But this country was a place of great movement and ideas. Some of the rebels left and some stayed. But they all added to our political enlightenment.”

The severest punishment of the time he says could not halt change and Australia led the world in democratic reform.

While most of the American and French Canadian rebels couldn’t wait to return home after their pardon, Marceau, Polley and a third man Hiram Sharpe stayed behind to build a new life in Australia.

Marceau, named as a captain of one of the patriot armies, had been condemned to death for treason in February 1839. Those captured in the war were given showcase trials and 12 leaders were hanged. Marceau, a farmer and weaver, believed he too would receive the same fate. But on September 25 he was told to prepare to set sail the following day.

So began the horrendous five month journey to Sydney Cove on the HMS Buffalo. Aboard were 58 French Canadians and 92 American patriots, including Polley, 23 and Sharpe, 24.

When they reached Australian shores, Polley and Sharpe, along with the other Americans, disembarked at Van Diemen’s Land. Of all the political prisoners, they fared the worst and 14 Americans were to perish under the severe penal conditions.

Polley’s great granddaughter Maureen Polley, of Mangerton, has spent years researching his life.

“His ancestors had been American pioneers in the 1600s and we believe that Ira was just a young fellow who goes off in search of adventure to fight in a war against the British,” she says. “He ends up in a skirmish in Lower Canada and was captured at Windmill Point.”

Once in Van Diemen’s Land she says Polley and the others were transported 36km inland and set to hard labour working in a rock quarry.

She assumes that Polley at one stage was hired out to farmers because he had enough money to pay for the funeral of one of his comrades.

“He received the man’s boots and his jacket in return for paying for the funeral,” she says.

After the exiles were transported there was international condemnation which Maureen says eventually pressured the British Government into releasing them.

“They were really prisoners of war and there was an uproar about the fact that these Americans had been sent out as convicts,” she says. “They hadn’t done anything other than participate in a rebellion.”

They were granted a pardon by Queen Victoria in January 1844. After their release many of the American rebels, Polley and Sharpe included, jumped on board a whaling ship bound for Hawaii. But once they reached Honolulu the pair decided to return to Sydney where they met up with Marceau, who had also been pardoned.

“We don’t know how they get back to Australia,” says Maureen. “But once they reach Sydney Cove they hook up with Marceau and come down to the Illawarra. Marceau and Polley then began working at Mt Kembla and Avondale clearing bush and cutting cedar trees with American axes. They then tried to grow crops of tobacco without success.”

Sharpe, who was born in New York State, is believed to have travelled further south. He died in 1859 at Bombala after an accidental fall from a dray. He was 44.

Polley and Marceau stayed in the Illawarra for the rest of their lives.

Polley married Elizabeth Moon and had seven children. After her death he married her half sister Harriet Ralf and they had a further eight children. He died in Wollongong in 1898.

A death notice in the Mercury at the time says he was “a hard-working, upstanding long-time member of the district”.

Marceau, who was 34 when he first arrived in NSW, became the cook and servant to a mean, corrupt and drunken superintendent at Longbottom, on the banks of the Parramatta River, in an area now known as the suburb Canada Bay.

After he was pardoned he asked for a 12-month delay to his departure because he could not afford his return passage. During that time he fell in love with and married Mary Barrett, of Dapto. They had 11 children. In 1850 he received a land grant of 25 acres for #50 and later received 97 acres at West Dapto from a bequest by Mary’s father. Together the couple led a quiet farming life selling eggs and vegetables in the Wollongong market place where he was nicknamed ‘honest Joe’.

So yes, I am learning a lot and enjoying most of it.  Here is a nice quibble though from someone who likes the book:

But one thing has bothered me, which is perhaps why my promised book review is late.  Moore begins the book with the story of a group of Edinburgh radicals who became known as the ‘Scottish martyrs’.  The French Revolution had begun in 1789, and by the early 1790s, everyone was edgy.  Louis XVI was executed in January 1793.  In this heightened atmosphere, the group were tried for sedition.  The judge who sentenced them to transportation was a man whom Moore calls ‘Lord Henry Dundas’.  In fact, the name of the judge was Henry Dundas, Lord Melville.

As it happens, I’ve worked a bit in late 18th century Scottish history, so I’m one of the very few historians of Australia who would either know or care that there was no Lord Henry Dundas.  It’s an utterly trivial mistake, especially as Death or Liberty is about Australia, not Scotland.  In fact I’m a bit worried about why I am worried.  Getting preoccupied by it feels a bit like entering Gulliver’s Travels, where a Lilliputian war broke out between the big-endians and the little-endians over which way to crack open their boiled eggs.

Perhaps it’s because Lord Monckton, ‘climate change sceptic’, is in the country at the moment, that I’m preoccupied by titles.  Lord Monckton has been his usual controversial self, and the media has lapped it up, with serious articles about whether he is a ‘real’ Lord (yes), whether he sits in the House of Lords (no), if not, why not (see below), and how he should be addressed (not Lord Christopher Monckton, see below)…

Tony Moore got Lord Melville’s name wrong, and for me this diminishes his authority as an expert.  But we all get things wrong occasionally.  In one of my books, I typed the ‘Indo-Pacific’ railway (across the Nullarbor) when I meant the ‘Union Pacific’ railroad (across America).  The mistake got through, and to my chagrin all the reviewers mentioned it, although it was only a slip of the fingers on the keyboard.

It looks as if I’ll have to read the whole of Liberty or Death and make the effort to understand the whole argument – not write my review based on the first 17 pages…

And do read Tony Moore Answers Ten Terrifying Questions.

Now here is an iconic image, though already a “history painting” when Tom Roberts painted it.


And there is one of my favourite poems by one of the best 20th century English language poets, Judith Wright. See my 2007 post Friday Australian poem #4: Judith Wright.

… Or driving for Cobb’s on the run
up from Tamworth — Thunderbolt at the top of Hungry Hill,
and I give him a wink. I wouldn’t wait long, Fred,
not if I was you. The troopers are just behind,
coming for that job at the Hillgrove. He went like a luny,
him on his big black horse.

                                          Oh, they slide and they vanish
as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror’s cards.
True or not, it’s all the same; and the frost on the roof
cracks like a whip, and the back-log breaks into ash.
Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.
No-one is listening…

5337558So I have read Carol Baxter’s Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady: the true tale of bushrangers Frederick Ward and Mary Ann Bugg (Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2011) with considerable pleasure. Jim Belshaw anticipated its publication in July 2011.

The Armidale Express carried a story on 15 July, sadly not on line, that further extended the ever growing saga of bushranger Captain Thunderbolt (Frederick Ward).

For the last few years Carol Baxter ( a well known genealogist and a fellow adjunct of UNE’s history department) has been tracing the story of part Aboriginal woman Mary Ann Bugg. Born at Berrico outstation on the Gloucester River in 1834, Mary Anne became involved with Frederick Ward, living in the bush with him, helping him to evade the police and bearing him three or four children, including Frederick Jnr.

It was widely believed that  Mary Anne died in 1867. However, Carol’s work has established that the woman who died then, Louisa Mason, was not in fact Marry Ann Bugg as commonly believed, but another women who also became involved with Ward. It appears that Mary Anne died as Mary Anne Burrows at Mudgee in 1905 having borne at least 15 children!

Carol’s book, Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady will be published by Allen & Unwin in September. The book is expected to reveal startling new information about the lives of both Mary Ann and Frederick Ward, thus adding to the continuing controversy. 

The Herald reviewer was not all that impressed:

Baxter, on the other hand, zeroes in on one bushranger, Frederick Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt, and his partner, part-Aborigine Mary Ann Bugg, with whom he had several children. Thunderbolt, having ranged over parts of the Hunter Valley and west and north of the region, died in his mid-30s in 1870. Bugg, 28, had died three years earlier.

But in the telling, history has become hostage to fancy. Baxter states: ”In my style of writing history – which falls under the umbrella of narrative non-fiction or creative non-fiction – I let the participants live their own stories, wherever possible, by having the narrator step into their shoes and experience what they experienced as recounted in their statements.

”This offers the immediacy of fiction without fictionalising the narrative … With the addition of a dash of atmosphere and a pinch of imagination, and the use of structural and literary techniques that novelists also use, history comes alive for the reader. So alive, in fact, that some readers [and reviewers, even] have mistakenly thought I was writing fiction.”

With some good reason. Here, she is writing of Mary Ann Bugg: ”Her deep-set brown eyes flicker this way and that, then pause and focus on something: a moment of alert stillness as her mind seemingly gathers information. Then she glances away and her eyes flicker around again, all seeing, all knowing.”

This is perhaps just a little too much all seeing, all knowing.

I can see why some would think that, but I found it such an intriguing yarn and apparently so well researched that I didn’t really care about niceties of genre. In fact when I return this to the Library I will see what else of Carol Baxter’s work I can borrow!

There is a supplementary web site that is well worth visiting.


One small aspect that amazed me was how young Fred Ward was when already a bushman of repute:

1847 early Fred was employed as a ‘generally useful hand’ by the new owners of Aberbaldie station near Walcha and escorted the party, including the new resident manager Mr Wilson and Frederick Milford, from Morpeth to Aberbaldie (NB. Milford’s memoir provided no date for this journey however it mentioned that the party included Wilson, his wife and twelve-month-old son; newspapers reports and church records reveal that Thomas George Wilson and his wife Ellen had a son born in Sydney on 25 Jan 1846 and a daughter born at Aberbaldie on 10 May 1847 indicating that the journey must have taken place early in 1847). Fred remained at Aberbaldie for some time – perhaps as long as a year, the duration of most station-hands’ contracts – before leaving their employ during a journey with Frederick Milford to Barraba to purchase cattle.

Yes, 11 or 12 years old then!


2 thoughts on “Some great stories, and some of them new to me…

  1. I’ve just a little quibble with the quibble. When the Scottish martyrs were tried in 1793-4, Viscount Melville had not yet been given that title. He got that in around 1802. As his name was Henry Dundas all through his life in the 18th Century, and as he was a senior judge, the grandson and great-grandson of lord (the first and second Lords Arniston Dundas) and a recent holder of the title Lord Advocate himself, it may be that by virtue of those facts, at the time of the trials, he was entitled to the title of at least Lord Dundas if not Lord Henry Dundas. He certainly was not yet Lord Melville.

    • Titles are designed to confuse the unwary peasant, I suspect.

      I should also acknowledge verbally and not merely by a link back the author of the quibble: “Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Marion Diamond and Historians are Past Caring with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.” Marion Diamond, retired, is now an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and the University of Queensland.

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