Mistaken Identity, Not Aboriginal Heroes

watson4The Melbourne City Council has decided to erect a memorial to commemorate the two Tasmanian Aborigines who were hanged in Melbourne on January 20, 1842, in the first public executions at Port Phillip. The decision coincided with its publication of a thirty-nine-page booklet by Clare Land entitled Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner: The Involvement of Aboriginal People from Tasmania in Key Events of Early Melbourne (2014). It is a beautiful booklet, in full colour with numerous illustrations, on glossy paper, obtainable from the Melbourne City Council and available, free, online. If the intent was to pay respects to the two executed Tasmanians, then it is successful.

Our problem with it is that it is history-lite, based mainly on secondary sources, with little primary research. It reads as an argument that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were resistance fighters deserving of memorialisation. Our research, based only on primary sources, demonstrates conclusively that they were not resistance fighters: on their own personal testimony, they shot and killed two whalers by mistake.


In the late 1830s and 1840s, these two Tasmanians were known to society in Melbourne, and recorded in contemporary accounts, as Bob and Jack, so, without intending any disrespect, we follow the usage by which they were recorded in the primary sources at the time, and use their European names in this account. On the same principle, we sometimes use the term “blacks” because that was the language of record. “Blacks” is not a pejorative term, but today’s more respectful consciousness usually uses “the Aboriginal people”. But to apply today’s heightened sensitivity to the records of a distant past amounts in our view to a distortion.


  • Bob and Jack, Trucaninni, Fanny and Matilda were among sixteen Tasmanian Aborigines brought to Port Phillip by George Augustus Robinson in 1839.
  • Robinson was the newly appointed Chief Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip, on the strength of his reputation as a conciliator, having enticed in to Wybalenna on Flinders Island the remnant Tasmanian Aboriginal population.
  • William Thomas was an Assistant Protector, responsible for the Melbourne tribes, whose descendants are the present Wurrundjeri and Boon-wurrung peoples.
  • Bob and Jack shot two whalers at Cape Paterson, twenty miles south of Western Port on the Bass Strait coast.
  • Bob and Jack said it was a mistake—they meant to shoot Watson, and the women expressed their sorrow at the mistake, and described how one of the deaths was a mercy killing, at the whaler’s own request.
  • Watson was a coal miner, living with his family on the job at Cape Paterson.
  • The booklet’s argument is that Bob and Jack were heroic figures of resistance to white colonisation, worthy of a memorial.
  • Our evidence demonstrates that the shooting was indeed a mistake, that it was personal.
  • It was probably payback, because Bob and Jack had reason to believe that Watson had previously shot Isaac, who was Matilda’s husband.
  • We suggest that this is not a matter for a public memorial.
  • We suggest that the person we should be memorialising is the local hero Winberri.

The impetus to memorialise

At least since 2009, in Melbourne, the Age has been giving oxygen to the view that Bob and Jack were “freedom fighters resisting white settlement”[1]. The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, learned of the story when, on the campaign trail for the mayoralty, he met another candidate, the self-described anarchist Dr Joseph Toscano[2], whom Land acknowledges together with a Working Group as key adviser for the Melbourne City Council’s book[3]. Surprisingly, the Age has not published a single comment on the various news items—no letters to the editor, no brief comments, nor could it find space in 2012 for an opinion piece which Fels wrote[4]; this was subsequently published by the independent local newspaper on the Mornington Peninsula, the Western Port News, under the editor’s title of “Hanged Aborigines not freedom fighters”[5].

There was resistance to the European takeover of the land out in the regions, and plenty of it, and there was as well another equally intelligent response to the Europeans—that of traditional owners who took Europeans to their own country and pointed out good runs for their sheep. George Augustus Robinson, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District from 1839 to 1849, believed that 50 per cent of runs were pointed out to squatters by Aboriginal men. Maybe he was correct, maybe not. But this is not appeasement or rolling over or lack of spirit or anything for contemporary Indigenous people to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it was an intelligent response to the facts before the eyes of the traditional owners. They wanted the goods that Europeans had, and they sat down on their country a tame squatter with whom they cultivated good relationships and obtained what they wanted. Not one traditional owner could have foreseen, from the evidence before his eyes, the long-term unintended consequences—fencing, especially around water, and the phenomenal increase in stock numbers (200,000 sheep in May 1838 with a further 50,000 in transit from Yass)[6] with the loss of traditional foods. So the history of resistance needs to account for two phases—those who initially resisted, and those who resisted after the awful consequences of their choice became apparent to them. It also needs to list the known squatters who were taken by the hand so to speak to their runs, and name, as well, the known vicious Europeans.

But the Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmanian) Aborigines do not belong in this resistance history. The country around Melbourne was not a locus of resistance, probably because of Batman’s treaty. This piece of paper was certainly a flawed document, and it was never taken seriously by European authorities, but the understanding between its signatories did determine the nature of peaceful relationships because the Aboriginal people kept to its terms, and a good number of Europeans understood it enough to meet expectations: they paid the rent. No Europeans were killed within the country covered by the treaty except Franks and Flinders at Mt Cotterill, and the Europeans agreed that they were killed because they were mean with the food owed to the traditional owners: they didn’t pay the rent. Billibolary himself, the most authoritative of the clan-heads, proudly boasted that no Europeans had been killed, in the context of complaining about European behaviour which was not in the spirit of the treaty[7]. There was no resistance around Melbourne: in the outlying country, yes, but not around Melbourne.

The event

On October 6, 1841, Bob (Maulboyheenner) and Jack (Tunnerminnerwait, also known as Pevay) shot two whalers named William Cook and Yankee on sand dunes near the coal mine worked by the Watson family at Cape Paterson on the Bass Strait coast about twenty miles south of Phillip Island. The whalers belonged to a party of six[8] making their way along the coast to Melbourne from their whaling station, Lady Bay, at Wilson’s Promontory, because they had run out of provisions. Bob and Jack each shot one whaler, one died, one was mortally wounded then killed, mercifully and at his own request by blows to the back of his head[9].

Robinson’s and La Trobe’s opinions of the Tasmanians

Robinson thought well of all of the Tasmanian Aborigines and described them as civilised, like white people. He recorded that since they had been in Port Phillip:

they had been quiet and orderly, and have been employed as messengers and constables on Government duty, and successfully protected not only my son but the property of the Crown.[10]

In this context, the beautiful portraits of them reproduced on the front page of the Age are misleading—in Port Phillip they all dressed as Europeans, and they all spoke good English. La Trobe had nothing but praise for them. Once they came off the public purse Robinson found it too expensive to keep them; he proposed to send them back to Flinders Island and they knew it.[11].

Spoke to His Honor [La Trobe] about the VDL natives and begged that they might be sent back to VDL or Flinders Island. His Honor said … he had written in favour of the VDL natives and had spoken highly of their general good conduct, and that he had had not a single complaint against them. I said I had made up my mind to have the VDL natives removed from me.[12]


Bob and Jack had accompanied George Augustus Robinson since 1830 on his Friendly Mission. Bob was a native of Nalebunner in the north-east of Tasmania, and Jack was a native of Robins Island in the Cape Grim area of the north-west: in 1841, Bob was about twenty-seven years old and Jack was about twenty-nine[13]. In Port Phillip they were rationed on the public purse till the New South Wales government got into financial strife. Assistant Protector William Thomas managed to find jobs for some of them, for which he drew up work agreements.

watson quoteBob specialised in the cattle industry, accompanying Alfred Langhorne on an overland drive to Adelaide in 1839 (saving Langhorne’s life along the way) and subsequently made several trips to Sydney[14]. In June 1840 he was living with the Protectorate at Tubbarrubbabel, and food being short, he and a number of Melbourne and Mount Macedon blacks moved to Mr Hyatt’s station at Mount Eliza where Surveyor Smythe was encamped.[15]. In July 1840, the Protectorate blacks moved camp to a new spot near Tuerong because there were no kangaroos to be found near Tubbarrubbabel. William Thomas followed, and an argument developed about working for rations. (This was a sore point—Thomas’s view was that as Europeans had taken the people’s land, the very least the government should do was feed the people, but Robinson’s policy was that only the old, the sick and the very young should be fed, and everyone else had to work for rations. Robinson’s views prevailed and Thomas was severely reprimanded for feeding his people.)

On this particular day, the blacks downed tools, and in order to shame them, Thomas took up the crosscut saw with his daughter on the other end, and began cutting down trees. This made Bob so uncomfortable that he took the saw out of the girl’s hands and worked it with Thomas. This ended the fit of pique and everyone went back to work.[16]. Bob and Trucaninni worked for several months for Thomas’s son, William Jackson Thomas, on his station at Tuerong on the Mornington Peninsula.[17]. He is recorded as looking after Robinson’s mare at Narre Warren while Robinson went to Melbourne in September 1840[18], and again in November, then working for Mr Horsfall at his station Ballymerang[19]near Carrum Swamp in May 1841[20]. He is very visible in the records and there appears to be nothing negative said about him.

Trucaninni needs no introduction, and we have no new information about Jack’s wife Fanny (named Martha in some of the records), but Matilda is extremely interesting. She was the VDL woman on board George Meredith’s vessel, who co-operated with him in his kidnapping of the Bonurong women and children off the beach near the heads of Port Phillip, a few years before Batman and Fawkner took possession of Melbourne. She actually pointed out the place of the kidnapping to Robinson as the ship that brought him and his family from VDL to Port Phillip passed the spot—near Point King at Portsea at the end of the Mornington Peninsula[21]. Matilda was not one of those rescued by Robinson—on the contrary, she made a choice, being landed on Flinders Island by the sealers and walking to Wybalenna to join her fellow countrymen[22]. In the records, she and Trucaninni are always together. Matilda was the wife of Isaac, whose alleged killing by the miner Watson was the root cause of the shootings. Wooreddy, whose name appears once in this account, was Trucaninni’s husband

Jack seems to have been a horseman. But while working in October 1840 at Messrs Coats and Hill’s station in Western Port he was accused of being responsible for the death of a horse. Assistant Protector Thomas visited the station and made inquiries but could find no evidence that implicated Jack[23]. Nevertheless Jack absconded. He subsequently accompanied Robinson on a five-month journey to the Western District in 1841.

In October 1841, out of the blue, or so it seems, a year after Robinson tried unsuccessfully to send them back to Tasmania or Flinders Island, five of the Tasmanians—Bob and Jack, Matilda, Trucaninni and Fanny—killed the two whalers and commenced a spree of robbery and shooting on the eastern side of Western Port.

When Bob and Jack were captured they said only one thing—“We thought it was Watson”, then remained silent. Throughout the committal process and the subsequent trial, Bob is recorded as speaking only once, and this too was about Watson. Bob interrupted the Supreme Court proceedings and directed a question at Watson, and it is clear that Watson lied. After the trial, while in jail awaiting confirmation of sentence from Sydney, Bob is recorded yet again speaking about Watson, this time to Robinson and the Reverend Joseph Orton, explaining that Mr Horsefall had told him (Bob) that Watson had killed Isaac and he (Bob) meant to shoot Watson. Yet again, on the afternoon of the executions on January 21, 1842, when Orton went back to Robinson’s house to comfort the VDL women, they confirmed the intent:

their shooting the whalers, on account of which they were tried, was a mistake, conceiving them to be Watson and another—and that after they discovered their mistake they expressed their sorrow, that one of the whalers who was still alive when the blacks came up beg’d them to kill him, as he could not survive, and that it served him right for he had killed many blacks[24].

It is overwhelmingly clear that it was personal—that Bob and Jack shot the whalers by mistake, thinking it was Watson. These repeated references to Watson have never been rigorously examined, never taken seriously as first-person participant testimony, the most credible explanation of the Tasmanians’ actions, out of their own mouths. We ask: What kind of historiography is being done here, that does not take first-person participant testimony seriously? And we answer: History written with an agenda.

Introducing Watson

William Langlands Watson was the person in charge of the coalmine at Cape Paterson: with him down there in 1841 were his wife Mary, his married daughter Elizabeth aged twenty-two years, and his son-in-law William Ginman/Jinmen. Watson and his wife were from Northumberland, and he was described as a shoemaker on the baptismal record of one of his children in England[25]. He was fifty years old when he got the job at the coalmine.

William Langlands Watson and wife and two daughters arrived in Hobart Town on June 6, 1829, aboard the Triton out of Leith. The Watsons are listed on the manifest as en route to New South Wales[26], and named in the Hobart Town Courier as passengers for New South Wales[27]. The Triton departed Hobart Town on July 11 and arrived at Port Jackson on July 16 but the name Watson is missing from the manifest. The last two entries of steerage passenger names are Wilson, and the professional researcher who searched for Watson in Tasmania for us believes that the name Watson may have been written so badly as to have been interpreted as Wilson. Our researcher checked all available records in Tasmania for the period 1829 to 1840 searching for Watson without success, and believes that they did not remain in Tasmania. So there is a gap in the record of his life from 1829 to 1840. It does not seem however, that he had an opportunity to come across the five Aborigines in VDL as they were already with Robinson before Watson. William Langlands Watson is next picked up in Corio, part of Geelong, in 1840, via the marriage record of his daughter Elizabeth to William Ginman[28]. Watson died in 1875 and is buried in the Geelong cemetery, his death certificate describing his occupation as labourer. A researcher working on our behalf has been unable to find him in municipal or property records in Geelong before the marriage of his daughter.

Watson and the coalmine

The surveyor Robert Hoddle confirmed the presence of coal in Western Port in 1839[29]. The seam at the mouth of the Bass River was commercially worthless, but an extensive field was found some eighteen miles east of the eastern entrance to Western Port, Cape Paterson. A feasibility report was completed by the engineer Mr Cameron in October 1840[30], and La Trobe and the treasurer William Lonsdale made an excursion to inspect the coal[31]. By March 1841 at a public meeting a coal mining committee headed by Major Mercer and Messrs Yaldwyn and Gardiner envisaged an international company with paid-up capital of 100,000 pounds sterling. But they needed to employ a mining engineer to bore samples to send to England to tempt British investors[32].

They chose Watson and they chose badly. According to his written deposition, Watson arrived at Cape Paterson on May 14 or 15, 1841[33]. He returned to Melbourne at the end of June with a sample of coal and was promptly arrested on a warrant and forwarded to Corio where his trial commenced in the Supreme Court on July 6, 1841, Judge Willis presiding[34]. The newspaper account was merciless:

In reporting this case, we do not know whether to laugh or look grave—whether to sift the real merits of the case, or to describe the forensic eloquence of the counsel, the judicial acumen of the bench or the idiotic stolidity of the defendant. We must abandon the task of describing the scene however from inability to paint it in colours sufficiently vivid. It appeared that Mr Fenwick had entered into an agreement with Mr Marr to erect a certain building for the sum of 70 pounds; Watson, the defendant in the present case, was hired by Marr, who soon after abandoned the building, and Mr Marr then made a verbal agreement (or rather an implied agreement) with Watson for the completion of the work in consideration of receiving the balance of the amount which would have been due to Marr—the sum now due being under 30 pounds. Watson subsequently absconded, hired himself to the Coal Mining Committee, proceeded to Western Port, and on his return from thence with the first sample of coal, was apprehended on warrant, and forwarded to Corio. Such are the facts of the case as far as we could make them out; but the plaintiff seemed utterly incapable of expressing himself in an intelligible manner; for one question was put to him some twenty times running, and each time he returned an unsatisfactory answer, although an explanation was almost put in his mouth by a brother magistrate. From the ambiguity of Mr Fenwick’s evidence, and for want of any other proof of the agreement, case was dismissed, whereupon Mr Carrington gave notice that he intended to institute an action for false imprisonment … although Watson was dismissed his character as an honest man stands in a very equivocal position.

Watson must have taken the thirty pounds and run. Had he merely had a verbal agreement with no money changing hands, a magistrate could not have granted a warrant for his arrest. From this account, Watson appears dishonest and stupid and self-serving.

Things got worse for Watson. Two members of the coal committee went down to the mine to inspect for themselves and the report in the Port Phillip Herald called him a liar:

By the report of Messers Morris and Kirsopp, the coal expedition has turned out a failure. Plenty of coal it is true, and of the best quality has been discovered but not available as no vessel can approach nearer to the spot where the shaft has been sunk than 18 miles, and to bring the coal to the water-edge would require a railroad 18 miles long which of course is not likely to be constructed. Watson the miner who went down to superintend the arrangements of the company, and who, as our readers will recollect returned with a cock and bull story about having discovered a splendid coal pit, close to water carriage, it turns out has discovered nothing at all, but had actually pitched upon the identical spot originally discovered by Mr Cameron who preceded him. Watson, it is quite evident, only wanted to secure the one hundred pounds which had been offered by the company as a reward to the first person who should find coal in any available situation, but in this he has happily failed. The whole affair on the part of this man has been nothing better than downright shuffling[35] and we trust the company will not pay him a farthing for his trouble, if it be only to deter others from gulling the public[36].

The following mention of the Watson family in newspapers has no apparent connection with Bob and Jack, but it serves to illustrate an unusual degree of notoriety—three newspaper articles devoted to the family in three months, when most residents in Port Phillip probably never made the newspapers at all. On May 1, 1841, just before Watson went down to Cape Paterson, his daughter Elizabeth Ginman was the “prosecutrix” in a case in the Supreme Court, again before Judge Willis. According to the newspaper, she had been sitting on a bank somewhere in Geelong, waiting for her mother on March 1. She was accosted by one William Alexander Whallen, who came up to her and made

some infamous proposals which were resisted, on which prisoner pulled out a pistol which was subsequently found to be loaded, and threatened to blow out her brains, but she could not swear that he had pointed it at her. The prisoner was found guilty, and sentenced to be imprisoned in Her Majesty’s gaol at Melbourne for twelve months and kept to hard labour[37].

This family was trouble. And venal beyond words. After the execution of Bob and Jack, Watson and his wife approached Robinson at the graveside and asked if they would get compensation for the loss of all of their possessions. However, the stolen items used as evidence would have been returned at the conclusion of the trial, and the court testimony states that the whalers helped to transport goods from Watson’s hut on October 7, the day after the killings. Not only was Watson crass, he was on the make, and quite prepared to lie.

The Melbourne City Council’s booklet states that the motive of the five Tasmanians may never be known. Yet in spite of offering the reader no evidence of motive, the author concludes that the group was part of widespread armed resistance to colonisation of the day, for two reasons, as she writes—there was a prevailing war over land which threatened the complete extermination of the Aboriginal people, and “Second is their friendship with many local Aboriginal people and the group’s presumed solidarity with their situation.”[38]

The “prevailing war” is speculation so absurd that it can be dealt with summarily here and dismissed. There was no war between the Melbourne tribes and the usurpers of their land. On the contrary, there were surprisingly amiable relationships with squatters around Melbourne, on the one hand, together with profoundly wounded feelings on the part of the Melbourne tribes about being forbidden by La Trobe to congregate in their traditional places—Botanical Gardens, Eastern Hill, Emerald Hill, Merri Creek, North Melbourne swamp—and above all kept out of Melbourne’s grid. They are on record as relating over and over again all their “good services” to the Europeans, only to be banished from Melbourne and lose their country. Thomas did us a marvellous service in the abundance of his direct quotes of their statements of opinion, logic and feelings.[39]. There is no doubt about where they stood. Even to mention “war” in relation to the Melbourne tribes is to demonstrate adherence to ideology in the face of evidence. The overall Melbourne story is one of shameful betrayal, not war. So there is no need to consider Bob and Jack’s story in the context of war.

watson2Leonie Stevens entitled her article on Bob and Jack “The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait”. We can only say that all the Tasmanians behaved in a cavalier way in their initial exploits, and the Europeans don’t appear to have been concerned at all. It was not until they killed the whalers that alarm was reported by the newspapers. We are not looking initially at a sudden outbreak of mayhem and violence but rather an audacious and overt taking of whatever belongings of specifically friendly settlers that they wanted, over a period of time. We are reminded here of the Melbourne Aboriginal man Winberri’s evidence quoted in the trial of ten Aborigines accused of an attack on the station of Mr Snodgrass on the Goulburn River. Winberri was the leader of the group. These men were captured by Major Lettsom in the infamous and illegal chase along the Heidelberg road on October 11, 1840. Though he was dead, having been shot in the roundup, his unassailable logic was quoted by the hut keeper who was robbed: “[Winberri] said that the sheep eat the grass belonging to his kangaroo, and white fellow took kangaroo and what for no give him sheep?”[40]

We are reminded too of the aggrieved Melbourne chief Billibolary, who complained to Europeans, we’ve done all these good services for you and now you tell us we can’t congregate in Melbourne. We think we are in the presence of a similar mindset—a feeling that one was owed—the age-old cardinal principle of reciprocity. If we are correct in this analogy, it might be a mistake to use European legal terminology to label the initial taking of goods as theft or robbery. From the Tasmanians’ point of view it might simply be reciprocity, favours called in.

The cool exploits that raised no apparent concern

The first cool exploit seems to have been Isaac’s robbing of Hyatt’s station. Thomas reported to Robinson in May 1840 that Isaac had recently turned up on the Mornington Peninsula with a large musket, visiting the stations and warning the settlers that the Two Fold Bay blacks (Gippsland blacks) were coming down, and that they had better prepare by getting plenty of guns ready. The settlers entertained him “hospitably”, then Isaac simply decamped from Hyatt’s, taking with him food, blankets, clothing, pannikins and about ten pounds of buckshot. In conversations with the settlers Isaac had spoken disparagingly and critically of Robinson in relation to food provided[41]. Then he disappeared.

Isaac was proved right in his prediction that the Two Fold Bay blacks were coming down, though they didn’t get as far as the Mornington Peninsula. In October 1840, ninety-seven Gippsland blacks (a huge number, verified by Thomas’s blacks’ counting of the tiny fires at which they slept close to Jamieson’s the night before the dawn raid), the so-called Two Fold Bay blacks, raided Mr Jamieson’s station near present-day Lang Lang. They trashed the station and carried off vast amounts of plunder[42].

Two possible explanations for Isaac’s disappearance

Isaac drowned, according to information given to Thomas by one of Anderson’s employees on October 12, 1840, when Thomas was at Kunnung investigating the raid on Jamieson’s station by the Gippsland blacks[43]. Thomas has made a marginal note in his journal: “The fate of Isaac supposed”. Thomas must have had doubts. The story he heard was that Isaac was a passenger on a boat of ten tons captained by a seaman, with various other named individuals, when it capsized in a squall in Western Port and there were no survivors. If this account is true, Isaac drowned between May and October 1840.

But this record can’t be accepted at face value, as Robinson recorded an alternative version: he wrote that when he and the Rev. Joseph Orton visited the Tasmanians in jail, Bob himself told them that Watson shot Isaac, and that Bob heard this from Mr Horsfall[44].

The next lifting of property was by Jack, Trucaninni and Charlotte, and Peter Brune, a youngster, one of the original sixteen from Tasmania. They took a rifle from O’Connor at Cardinia Creek station (a little south of Dandenong, on the north side of the Dandenong road) but left it at Ruffy’s station Mayune, near Cranbourne, and one of Ruffy’s men returned it. This was in December 1840.[45] It needs to be said that O’Connor was a genuine friend of the Melbourne tribes—his place was on their regular route around their country and they worked for him seasonally. O’Connor had already demonstrated his goodwill when it mattered; he and three other squatters from this district—Dr Bathe (Dandenong), Christiaan de Villiers (No Good Damper Inn) and one of the Ruffy brothers—had travelled to Melbourne a month earlier to provide alibis for some Melbourne blacks among the 200 incarcerated by Lettson[46] [47].

Six months later the next overt purloining of property occurred. On June 26, 1841, Thomas was called to Dr Allen’s station, presumably Balla Balla at Tooradin, two miles east of Walpole’s, on a report of four sheep killed, but when he spoke to Allen, all Allen would acknowledge was that a VDL black had cut out a ewe and a lamb from the flock, with no attempt at concealment. Wooraddy was the perpetrator, and Thomas knew it, but Allen refused to name him to Thomas[48]. Allen protected him and Thomas accepted it. Again, this behaviour of Allen must be considered as that of friend or ally (though doubtless the authorities and the newspapers would disapprove).

For two weeks till the end of September 1841, as Robert Massie wrote to Superintendent La Trobe, the Tasmanians—Bob and Jack and Trucaninni, Fanny and Matilda—were at his station. They had arrived with tea and sugar, so he deduced that they had robbed someone else’s station before arriving on his[49]. His partner was Samuel Anderson, and their head station was on the Bass River about four miles upriver from the coast. The run itself extended from Griffiths Point (San Remo) to the Old Settlement site of 1826, present-day Corinella. They specialised in highly profitable wheat growing, and had a flourmill, salt works and an orchard. It was Samuel Anderson who originally discovered the coal seam at Cape Paterson. If the VDL party stayed for a fortnight, and he had nothing negative to say about them, even when reporting the subsequent killings, the presumption has to be that their stay was unremarkable.

Massie was correct—they had already robbed a station. Assistant Protector William Thomas had recorded in his journal on September 6, 1841, that his son told him that Robert and “Lalarook” (Trucaninni) had left their employment with him and robbed the station of a gun, powder, shot and sundry clothes. As with Isaac and Wooraddy, there was no effort at concealment—on departing, they simply took what they fancied[50]. They were nowhere more integrated into European society than at Tuerong, William Jackson Thomas’s run. The Assistant Protector’s wife lived there with her children, and she shared family food with the blacks when the Assistant Protector’s cupboard was bare owing to failure of supply from Melbourne: what’s more she did it behind Thomas’s back. Billibolary’s youngest child Suzannah was named after Mrs Thomas. Old Maria and Mrs Thomas seem to have had a close relationship as both are on record as weeping when they parted, and as looking after each other when they were sick. Taking a gun and clothes from William Jackson Thomas was like taking from family.

It seems worthwhile, in this context of close personal cross-cultural relationships, to call to mind Judge Willis’s remarks in his summing up: he seems to be saying that some Europeans spoiled the blacks and thus it was the Europeans’ fault when it all went wrong:

I am convinced that, until the natives become more civilized, the tacit permission and frequently direct encouragement [51] given to the wandering tribes to reside upon the stations of the settlers, is, generally speaking, under all circumstances, specious humanity; it places temptation in their way, and leads to aggressions which otherwise might never occur[52].

One wonders whether the “specious humanity” is in fact the “peculiar circumstance” which later impelled the jury to recommend mercy—whether the tacit permission and frequently direct encouragement was seen to lead to the phenomenon once known in another country as “uppity niggers”. There is no evidence at all of European disquiet about the activities of the VDL Aborigines, before the news became known that they had killed the two whalers at the coalmine at Cape Paterson on October 6, 1841[53].

The cool exploits though, are of quite a different nature to the forty-five-day spree in Western Port which started with Watson, resulted in Bob and Jack killing two whalers, and ended with execution.

A brief note on guns

It has been suggested that the VDL five were amassing guns for an insurrection. This is fanciful: the reason for stealing guns and ammunition is far more prosaic. In Port Phillip, most Aboriginal men had guns as proud possessions. Squatters gave them to the Aborigines—Thomas made a list of the men who had guns and the Europeans who gave them to the Aborigines[54]. As Thomas said in his petition to the Governor in Sydney[55], they needed guns for getting a living, as kangaroos were scarce, having been displaced by sheep and cattle. And further, they didn’t use guns against Europeans (in thirty years of research I have not come across one instance of an Aboriginal person shooting a European person in the Melbourne district—bailing up, yes, but not actually shooting) nor against each other. An Act of the colonial legislation prohibited guns for Aboriginal people. The problem for them in general was ammunition. The major merchants in Melbourne were the two firms of George Lilley, and the Manton brothers, Charles and Frederick. These firms held the contracts for provisions and other supplies for the whole Protectorate system. So these firms could not sell ammunition to Aborigines. Thomas recorded that it was their women who obtained powder and shot from the settlers and conveyed it to their men[56].

So the problem for the VDL men was to get enough ammunition of the right kind for the guns they already had: doubtless it made sense to take both guns and ammunition as a set of tools. That they were pressed for equipment is evidenced by the fact that when their cache of firearms was found, one of their guns was loaded with stones, and they had a stolen bullet-making mould[57]. In short, there is nothing dramatic in the theft of guns and ammunition. It was practical common sense.

The decidedly uncool exploit: the reckless shooting on the east coast of Western Port[58]

The following summary is constructed solely from first-person participant witness accounts reported by the three Port Phillip newspapers, first from the committal proceedings, then from the trial, and from Judge Willis’s papers sent on to Sydney, published subsequently in British Parliamentary Papers. There are the usual discrepancies and disagreements in detail, but our focus is on the relationship between Watson and the Tasmanians, and on this matter there is no substantial disagreement among witnesses.

After their unremarkable two weeks with Robert Massie and Samuel Anderson in September 1841, the VDL group of five camped “in the most friendly manner” next to William Watson for four days from Wednesday September 29 till Saturday October 2[59]. Mrs Watson lent them a kettle, and gave them tea and sugar. At 6 a.m. on Saturday October 2, Watson and Ginman departed for their upper hut for supplies, and the Tasmanian women began packing up. Bob and Jack returned the kettle, then forced the Watson women at gunpoint out of their hut. Trucaninni and Matilda carried them on their backs across the river and let them go, and they navigated by the sound of the surf to Massie and Anderson’s station on the Bass River.

On their way back home in the evening, Watson and Ginman were fired upon and slightly wounded, and being unarmed made for their hut only to find to their “inexpressible horror” that the hut had been burned down, the whole of their property carried off or destroyed and the women gone. It could only have been the Tasmanians who fired on them. They then made for Massie and Anderson’s and found that their wives were safe.

There is no evidence relating to the period October 2 to 6. In the early hours of the morning of October 6, there were three parties out and about on that coast, two of which were armed—the five Tasmanians were one, and Watson with two of Massie’s men was the other. The third party, unarmed, was the group of six whalers who arrived at the coalmine on the beach, found no one around, went inside the hut and rested for a while. The whalers saw several people 200 or 300 yards away and thought they were miners. Then two of them, Yankee and William Cook, went outside to scout around for the hut’s owners. Within five minutes, the four whalers inside the hut heard two shots but thought nothing of it: Samuel Evans went outside and saw four or five persons with dogs heading for the beach, and thought they were hunting kangaroos or birds. He then went to sleep for an hour, and when he woke and discovered that Cook and Yankee had not returned, he went to search for them. About 250 yards from the hut he met up with Watson and Massie’s two servants, one of whom was named Patrick, who bailed him up. After they sorted out their identities, Samuel Evans asked Watson if he had fired his gun, and Watson replied, “Certainly not, it was the blacks who fired.” These four returned to the hut, and with the other three whalers began a search for Yankee and Cook. Patrick found the bodies about 200 yards from the coalmine hut, Cook shot through the body, Yankee through the head, and both heads “dreadfully disfigured” but facial features untouched. The whole party buried the whalers, and noticed that the Tasmanians watched them from about a quarter of a mile away.

Mr Jamieson’s squatting partner, Ensign Samuel Rawson, took the news to Melbourne, arriving on October 13. The whalers and the Watsons travelled to Melbourne, and the five Tasmanians embarked on their forty-five-day spree of shooting and robbing. They wounded two men seriously, and they robbed seven stations along the east side of Western Port. They made no attempt at concealment; in fact they seem to have acted as though nothing mattered any more.

Armed parties of civilians hunted them unsuccessfully, as did Commissioner of Crown Lands Frederick Armand Powlett’s party of police and soldiers. Capture was swift once Assistant Protector William Thomas joined the search parties with seven men of the Melbourne tribes named Warwordor (also known as Lively), Buller Bullet (Mr Macarthur), Poky Poky/Pereuk, Warangitalong, Beruke (Gellibrand), Nunuptune (Mr Langhorne) and Buckup (Budgery Tom’s son). As a reward for service, these men asked for clothing and guns, and as a direct consequence of their successful tracking of the VDL five, a formal Native Police Corps was established at Nerre Nerre Warren under Commandant Henry E.P. Dana in February 1842. There are three participant accounts of the capture, by Commissioner Powlett in his deposition[60] and in the Port Phillip Gazette[61], another by Ensign Samuel Rawson[62], and another, the lengthiest and most detailed, by Assistant Protector Thomas[63].

When they were caught the Tasmanians said only one thing: “We thought it was Watson.”

At their trial in the Supreme Court the Tasmanians were defended by Redmond Barry, but found guilty by a jury who made a strong recommendation for mercy because of the “peculiar circumstances” of the case. The fact that a jury of European settlers made a recommendation for mercy raises reasonable doubt that Bob and Jack were engaged in resistance—these events followed just three years after the massacre at Myall Creek and the subsequent trials and execution of some of the European perpetrators. Add to that the baffling reference to “peculiar circumstances” and we have a serious historical problem.

The problems with Watson’s committal and trial evidence and written deposition

Given that Watson was a liar, and stupid as well, his three sets of testimony—the written deposition in the judge’s documents, and the journalists’ reports of his oral evidence in two court appearances, require scrutiny. Bearing in mind that the Tasmanians remained silent by choice, could not give evidence in court anyway, and that Redmond Barry made a general defence but at no stage referred to any evidence or instructions from them, the intervention by Bob in the committal hearing is indeed remarkable. The reporter recorded it as follows:

The prisoner Bob here made something of a defence. He said he met the two whalers and asked if they had shot the night before. They said not. Bob said he thought it was them and said the ball passed through his jacket. Next time he saw them he thought it was Watson, that was the reason why he shot them[64].

Watson lied by omission, never once mentioning that he had shot at the Tasmanians before the killing of the whalers. He testified that he was unarmed when Bob and Jack shot at him and Ginman four days earlier: he may have been hunting them ever since. But Bob didn’t lie—Watson, armed, was out and about in the dark and shot at Bob, not wounding him, but making a hole in his coat (Trucaninni said three holes).

Then there is the question of why Watson was so vehement that he had not seen any other blacks since he went down to the coalfield in mid-May. He makes this statement in both the written deposition in British Parliamentary Papers—“I never saw any other blacks but those I saw that evening”—and in his court evidence as recorded in the newspaper—“I arrived at Cape Paterson about 15th or 16th May last: I was in town twice since; I never saw any blacks there but those I saw that evening.”

Judge Willis was suspicious. He added to Watson’s deposition that on cross-examination Watson said, “I swear I never saw any other blacks.” It is a lot of denial of an event that supposedly never happened, an accusation that was never made publicly: one wonders if Judge Willis had heard of Isaac. We know that Isaac was over at Western Port at some stage from a memo, regrettably undated, which Thomas wrote: “I am informed by the blacks who in general are correct in reports of this kind, that the two VD Land women are gone to Western Port after Isaac[65].” So Isaac was in Western Port at some stage.

We think the five Tasmanians were over on the east side of Western Port gathering intelligence about the fate of Isaac. We suspect that Watson did come in contact with Isaac, and that the Tasmanians discovered this during their four days’ camp next to the Watsons, but for some reason Watson was chary of acknowledging it. We suspect also that another witness, John Langham, assigned convict servant of settler John Hawdon, possessed information about Isaac. He testified that a few days before his hut was robbed in mid-October, he had a “long conversation” with Bob and Jack[66]. This is the same area in which Thomas recorded the story that Isaac drowned.

Why has the evidence for motive not been taken seriously?

Bob and Jack acknowledged that they had each shot one whaler, and there is first-person testimony from those present at the capture that when Powlett asked Bob and Jack why they did it, Bob said, “We thought it was Watson,” and then shut up. He spoke only twice more in the whole lengthy saga. He intervened in the court case to accuse Watson of shooting at him, and he told Robinson and the Rev. Joseph Orton that Mr Horsfall told him (Bob) that Watson shot Isaac, and that is why they shot the whalers, mistaking them for Watson. After the executions on January 20, 1842, the VDL women confirmed to Orton that the shooting of the whalers was a mistake which they regretted—Bob and Jack meant to shoot Watson:

One of the women told me that Watson who had given evidence against them had previously shot at one of the blacks the ball passing thro’ his garment in three places. That their shooting the whalers, on account of which they were tried was a mistake conceiving them to be Watson and another—That after they discovered their mistake they expressed their sorrow—That one of the whalers who was still alive when the blacks came up beg’d them to kill him, as he could not survive, and that it served him right for he had killed many blacks[67].

So how can this evidence be glossed over or airbrushed out of history? Only, it seems, if ideology triumphs over evidence. It is laudable to wish to put the indigenous back into historiography—there can be no doubt that the Melbourne City Council is well-intentioned—but on his own testimony Bob is not a resistance fighter, and neither is Jack. They meant to shoot Watson, probably in the belief that Watson shot Isaac. This is not the stuff of public memorials.

The person whom all Victorians could benefit from memorialising is Winberri, of the Melbourne tribe, twenty-three years old when he was shot in 1840, the man whose unassailable logic was quoted above—the sheep eat the grass belonging to his kangaroo, and white fellow took kangaroo, and what for no give him sheep? He was probably one of the Jacky Jackys, a signatory to Batman’s treaty, a man of high degree, a famous songwriter, son of Old Ningolobin, and brother of Nerimbinek, a man very visible in the records. He was certainly a taker of sheep, a serial offender, but the offence for which they were after him this time was merely that of shoving aside a friendly hut keeper and taking food (mutton) from inside the hut: he was probably taking it in payment for services rendered the day before by one of the women. Winberri was shot by one of Major Lettson’s troopers in the act of raising his waddy, in the infamous and illegal chase of 200 men, women and children along the Heidelberg road. Winberri is a Melbourne hero: he is the one who merits a memorial.

[1] The Age, 25 April 2014; 21 January 2009; 8 June 2012; 20 January 2014; 21 January 2014; 5 February 2014.

[2] The Age, 21 January 2009

[3] Back page, Land, C. Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner: The involvement of Aboriginal people from Tasmania in key events of early Melbourne (2014).

[4] Paul Austin 24 June 2012

[5] Fels, MH in The Western Port News, 17-23 July 2012. This newspaper is owned and produced by three journalists, unaligned to the major media.

[6] We are grateful to Dr Penny Pemberton for this, Swanston to Deas Thompson, enc. No. 1 [CO201/273, f 219] to Governor’s Despatch 84, JCP.


[7] Fels, MH I succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, ANUP, 2011: 24-8.

[8] Eight whalers started out, but only six reached the coalmine, two man being too weak to swim a river crossing. Curiously no source mentions whether these two were rescued.

[9] Evidence of Trucaninni, Fanny and Matilda to Rev Joseph Orton, 21 February 1842, A 1715, ML.

[10] Coutts and Wesson, 1984: 18, quoting Robinson’s Letterbook in ML.

[11] Coutts and Wesson believe that they knew Robinson had jettisoned them by January 1841 if not before (1984: 21).

[12] Clark Ian D. Journals of George Augustus Robinson, 22 August 1840, Heritage Matters, 1998, vol. 1: 363. Our emphasis.

[13] Coutts, Peter and Wesson, Jane. Bob and Jack, unpublished Ms, 1984, AIAATSIS. As Coutts and Wesson had the benefit of having their Ms vetted by Brian Plomley (see their preface), I take these facts to be accurate.

[14] Coutts, Peter and Wesson, Jane. Bob and Jack, unpublished Ms, 1984, AIAATSIS : 18

[15] Thomas Journal, 25 June 1840 in Fels, MH I succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, ANUP, 2011: 154.

[16] Thomas Journal, 23 July 1840 in Fels, MH I succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, ANUP, 2011: 102.

[17] Thomas Journal, 2 July 1841, reel CY 2605, frame 306, ML

[18] Clark Ian D. Journals of George Augustus Robinson, 12 September 1840, Heritage Matters, 1998, vol. 1: 372.

[19] Horsfall’s station is located on Thomas’ map between the Carrum swamp and the Dandenong road. It is mentioned frequently in Thomas’ journal and was a regular stopping place for his blacks. Its waterhole was said never to have run dry. Horsfall is listed in Billis and Kenyon as managing Balnarring for HG Ashhurst for the period 1841—April 1844, but at the time of these events he was definitely at Ballymerang.

[20] Thomas Journal, 27 May 1841, reel CY 2605, frame 279, ML

[21] Fels, MH I succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, ANUP, 2011: 333.

[22] Fels, MH I succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, ANUP, 2011: 331.

[23] Thomas Journal, reel CY 2605, frame 167, ML

[24] Joseph Orton Journal, entry for Thursday 20 January 1842, ML, quoted in Stephens, vol.1: 424, 2014.

[25] We are grateful to Toni Munday of HMAS Cerberus Museum for these facts.

[26] MB 2/ 39/1/1: 15, Archives Office of Tasmania

[27] 13 June 1829: 2.

[28] We are indebted to Dr Penny Pemberton, ACT, whose PhD was on the Australian Agricultural Company, including its coal interests. She too searched for Watson for us and picked him up in Geelong in 1840.

[29] Massie to La Trobe, 11 January 1840 in Port Phillip Herald, 14 January 1840.

[30] Port Phillip Gazette 24 February 1841. Cameron’s full report was published in the S.A newspaper, the Southern Australian, Friday 1 January 1841: 5.

[31] Sydney Herald & September 1840.

[32] Supplement to the Port Phillip Gazette 13 March 1841.

[33] Enclosure A 5 to minute No 1 of 1842, Proceeding of the Executive Council of NSW, in British Parliamentary Papers, 1844, Aborigines

[34] Geelong Advertiser 10 July 1841

[35] 19th century word meaning deceitful (OED).

[36] Port Phillip Herald, 10 August 1841.

[37] Geelong Advertizer, 1 May 1841.

[38] Land, 2014, page 21.

[39] These direct quotes from the earliest period are listed in Fels, MH I succeeded once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, Aboriginal History Monograph 22, ANU, 2011, chapter 2. Now that Thomas’ journals are published, see Stephens, Marguerita The Journal of William Thomas, Assistant Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip and Guardian of the Aborigines of Victoria, 1839-1867, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, 2014, there should be no need to assert this point; it is so self evident in his quoted statements of their opinions, now freely available.

[40] Port Phillip Gazette, 9 January 1841

[41] Thomas to Robinson, 14 May 1840, VPRS 11, unit7/ 308, PROV.

[42] Fels, MH I succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, ANUP, 2011: 266.

[43] Thomas Journal, 12 October 1840, reel CY 2605, frame 153, ML.

[44] Clark Ian D. Journals of George Augustus Robinson, 2 December 1841, Heritage Matters, 1998, vol. 3: 25. Reverend Joseph Orton’s Journal of this date does not mention the visit to gaol, being totally devoted to an account of the Bolden case.

[45]Clark Ian D. Journals of George Augustus Robinson, 24 December 1840, Heritage Matters, 1998, vol. 2: 44.

[46] Assistant Protector William Thomas’ original report of this event is reproduced in full in Fels, Marie H I succeeded once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, Aboriginal History Monograph 22, ANU, 2011, pp. 241-244.

[47] Robinson to Thomas, 10 November 1840, Ms 14624, Box B, vol 2, SLV.

[48] Thomas Journal, 22 June 1841, reel CY 2605, frame 294, ML.

[49] Document 2 in Macfarlane, Ian 1842 The Public Executions at Melbourne, PROV, 1984: 78

[50] Thomas Papers, reel CY 2605, frame 344, ML.

[51] Our emphasis.

[52] Enclosure A 9 to minute No 1 of 1842, Proceeding of the Executive Council of NSW, in British Parliamentary Papers, 1844, Aborigines

[53] I was wrong in an earlier publication, believing at the time that they were marauding for six moths or more.

[54] Fels, Marie H I succeeded once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840, Aboriginal History Monograph 22, ANU, 2011, p 84.

[55] 22 June 1841, in VPRS 10, unit 3, 1841/ 909, PROV.

[56] Thomas to Robinson, 17 July 1840, VPRS 11, unit 7/ 317, PROV.

[57] Charles Bennett’s evidence in Port Phillip Gazette, 1 December 1841.

[58] In passing, it needs to be pointed out that there was no activity on the Mornington Peninsula itself that caused disquiet. This false claim is due to a misidentification of Mr Horsfall as manager of Balnarring station, whereas he is shown on Thomas’ maps as located at Ballymarang, between Carrum swamp and Dandenong. This was an important place (permanent water) and seemingly some Aborigines lived there permanently. Thomas records elderly Aboriginess dying there, presumably on their own country.

[59]Enclosure A 5 to minute No 1 of 1842, Proceeding of the Executive Council of NSW, in British Parliamentary Papers, 1844, Aborigines.

[60]Enclosure A 7 to minute No 1 of 1842, Proceeding of the Executive Council of NSW, in British Parliamentary Papers, 1844, Aborigines.

[61] 1 December 1841.

[62] “Journal of an expedition after some VDL blacks”, Ms 204/ 1, NLA.

[63] “Hunt for VDL Aborigines October 1841”, transcription by Pauline Byrt, from mf CY 2605, commencing frame 368, originals in ML.

[64]Port Phillip Gazette, 1 December 1841.


[65] VPRS 11, unit7/ 291, PROV.

[66] Port Phillip Gazette, 1 December 1841.

[67] Papers of the Reverend Joseph Orton, Thursday 20 January 1842, A 1715, ML. We are indebted to Jim White for obtaining a copy of this from the ML.

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