So let’s go back to a time when bushranger meant bolter, bandit, runaway convict; and those that made the news were described with words like murderous, atrocious, vicious — no outlaw heroes here — and Mick Howe was the king of them all. Or should that be the governor of them all? Back to 1817, which is a long time ago in Australian terms. British settlement was in its early stages. Other than Sydney, the mainland capitals were ideas, at best. Down in VDL, William Sorell had just arrived to try and make order from chaos, and the big growth in settlement that exacerbated relations between settlers and natives hadn’t taken place. Not that there wasn’t conflict, just not on the scale that was to come.
There aren’t many primary sources from this time so we’re mostly relying on folklore and oral tradition. So, to start with I’ll pull out three paragraphs from James Bonwick’s book (The bushrangers: illustrating the early days of Van Diemen’s Land, which I’m just going to refer to by the author’s name from now on.)
Howe was now the captain of the gang. In his marauding expeditions he was attended by a faithful native girl called Black Mary. Their head quarters were near a marsh about fifteen miles west of Oatlands still known as Michael Howe’s Marsh. There was little romance and less sentiment in this connexion. It was not exactly a parallel with Byron’s hero and Haidee in the Grecian Isle ; nor was it like the pure and beautiful life of Seeward and his wife, with their dog Fido, on the island of their shipwreck, Black Mary was useful she brought tidings of scouts collected provisions and watched while Howe slept.
Separated from his mates, but accompanied by the faithful Black Mary, Howe was hotly pursued. The soldiers were gaining upon them as the strength of the native girl diminished. From caprice, vexation, or fear, the Bushranger turned upon his lagging fellow fugitive, raised his musket, fired, and severely her; she was immediately seized. Howe casting aside his gun, and flinging off his knapsack, rushed into the scrub and was quickly out of sight.
Black Mary was highly incensed at the treatment she had experienced from her paramour, whom she had loved so well, and served so long. The instinctive feeling of the savage arose within her breast–she would be revenged. Healed of her wounds, she led the bloodhounds from haunt to haunt, from the cave in the mountains to the hollow tree of the lonely gully. As a scout, her natural subtlety, her experience with the banditti, and her lust for vengeance made her a most formidable foe. So pertinacious was the persecution, so determined the pursuit, so successful the harassment that the chased lion was compelled to come to terms. (By writing a letter to the governor to organise a conditional surrender, only to runaway again later.)
To flesh out the story a bit more, I’d use newspaper accounts, but the earliest existing newspaper issues for VDL are for the Hobart Town Gazette, in 1816. Fortunately, the story I want is 1817 so we’re in luck.
On Thursday returned to Town a small party of Capt. NAIRN’S Company of the 46th Regt, who were lately sent in quest of the Bush Rangers; the following particulars of their pursuit we lay before our Readers:-
After a diligent search in the woods the party at Jericho perceived Michael Howe, accompanied with a Native Black Girl, named Mary Cockerill, with whom Howe cohabited. On the approach of the party Howe darted into a thicket, and effected his escape, after firing at the native girl, who, from fatigue, was unable to keep pace with him in his flight, and was taken. Howe being so closely pursued, threw away his blunderbuss and knapsack. The native girl then led the party to the Shannon River, a distance of 11 miles from Jericho, where they found four huts, which they burnt. While thus employed, they perceived three of the bushrangers (Howe, Septon, & Geary) at the side of a high hill, contiguous to the river. On the appearance of the party, they were not in the least alarmed, for being in an advantageous position on the other side of the river, they by their gesticulations put them at defiance, and afterwards made off. The party then forded the river, and for two days, continued eagerly their pursuit, accompanied by their native guide, till all traces of them were lost; still their exertions were not in vain, for she led them to the discovery of 56 sheep, the property of different individuals which had been driven into the woods by the runaways. From the severe hardships endured by the party in this arduous pursuit, their provisions being all expended, they were compelled to kill two of the sheep for their present sustenance, & the remainder with difficulty they brought with them to town; part of which have been since claimed by the owners.
The native girl has since been repeatedly examined; and we have no doubt, some important information may be derived regarding the numerous depredations of the bush-rangers.
(Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, 12 April 1817)
Then a few months later:
The Bush-rangers committed a robbery at Clarence Plains on Sunday evening last ; after which they became so excessively intoxicated by spirits (a part of their plunder), as to quarrel amongst themselves Hollands, who was taken and brought in by Mr. Maum and other settlers on Monday morning, had been dreadfully beaten and bruised by his companions. White was brought in on the following morning, and Johnson on Thursday evening–both taken by the party of the 46th regt, under Lance Serjt. M’CARTHY, who, with Black Mary and another Native Girl, pursued and tracked them.
Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, 16 August 1817
You’ll note it’s actually the members of the gang she helps track down, not Howe himself as some accounts put it. It would also seem she went to Sydney give evidence against them:
On Wednesday sailed the ship Pilot, Captain PEXTON, for Port Jackson, having on board Colonel DAVEY, late Lieutenant Governor of the Colony, Mr. O’CONNOR, Lieut, STEWART, and Mrs WINDER. The following prisoners, lately committed to take their trial before the Criminal Court at Sydney, were sent up in this Vessel:- Collier, Hillier and Watts, the bushrangers; Clarke, Scott and two Crahans, for sheep stealing. A number of evidences on behalf of the Crown also went up in this vessel, amongst whom is Black Mary, a native of this Colony, who some time back was an active guide to the military parties in quest of the bush-rangers.
Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, 18th October 1817
What is known of her outside of that? Not a lot I don’t think. IIRC she lived as a servant with a family by the name of Cockerall in New Town, hence her Anglicised name.
On Tuesday died in the Colonial Hospital, the native woman usually called Black Mary, particularly known as having been at one time the partner of Michael Howe, and subsequently a guide to the parties of troops which were employed successfully in subduing the gang of bush-rangers; in which her knowledge of the country and of their haunts, and especially her instinctive quickness in tracking foot-steps, rendered her a main instrument of the success which attended their exertions. She had been victualled from His Majesty’s Store, and had received other indulgences in clothing, &c.; but a complication of disorders, which had been long gaining ground upon her, terminating at last in pulmonic affection, put an end to her life.
Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter 3 July 1819