wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Keith Windschuttle

Van Diemen's Land

There was only one killing by the Aborigines that may be plausibly attributed to the Big River tribe in the winter of 1824. In early August, two stock-keepers employed by James Hobbs on his cattle run at the Eastern Marshes, near Oatlands, arrived at Hobart with the news that one of their fellow servants, James Doyle, had been speared to death. A tribe the stock-keepers estimated at 'no less than two hundred' were responsible. According to the Hobart Town Gazette this incident had begun with the unexpected appearance of the tribe on the property. The stock-keepers were alarmed. To deter the tribe from approaching the house they fired at them. However, 'owing to the fire-arms being improperly discharged all at once, and not having time to charge again, the Natives one and all suddenly advanced, thereby compelling the men instantly to retreat, leaving their fallen companion on the ground.' The size of this group, which was much bigger than Musquito's gang, indicates it was probably the Big River tribe, thought to be the largest in the colony at the time. The story also shows that the Aborigines were not the initiators of this violence, so their assault on the men does not lend any obvious support to the guerilla warfare thesis.

In fact, this account portrays a credible explanation for the escalation of hostilities in the southern midlands at the time. The series of murders committed by Musquito's gang had left convict servants in the affected districts alarmed by the appearance of any blacks. The stockmen sought to defend themselves from what they imagined to be the hostile intent of tribal Aborigines. So when these blacks appeared on their run, the stockmen fired at them first, thereby causing an understandably violent response. As part of this process of settling of scores, the same tribe made two more attacks, both non-fatal, on Hobbs's men at the Eastern Marshes property between August and October. But there were no reports that this tribe harassed any other settlers that year. In other words, rather than guerilla warfare in defence of their country, the Big River tribe were simply engaged in retaliation for an unprovoked attack by convict stock-keepers upon themselves.

Instead of warrior patriots, their record makes it clear that Musquito, Black Jack and Black Tom were simply outlaws. They were bushrangers who happened to be black. They were no more nationalistic than the white convict who was accessory to their murder of Matthew Osborne in March 1824. As such, they were among a number of like-minded criminals who took to the bush at roughly the same time and lived by pillaging the property of outlying settlers. Van Diemen's Land from 1824 to 1826 experienced a renewed bout of bushranging. The most notorious of Musquito's white counterparts was Matthew Brady, one of nine convicts who escaped from Macquarie Harbour on 9 June 1824 and who committed murder, armed robbery and other crimes against both settlers and the military for the next two years. In response, the new Lieutenant-Governor, George Arthur, set up a number of military posts throughout the settled districts and established his own field headquarters at Jericho at the head of the 40th Regiment. He offered rewards for any accomplices who informed on the bushrangers or for settlers who assisted in their capture.

Musquito was one of those with a price on his head. As a result, the settler Gotfried Hanskey and a Tasmanian Aboriginal youth named Teague tracked Musquito to Grindstone Bay on the east coast where they found him camped on his own with two women. Teague shot and wounded him. He was taken to Hobart on 12 August 1824. Black Jack was arrested about the same time. Both were tried and found guilty of murder, Musquito for the two killings at Grindstone Bay in 1823, Black Jack for killing the stock-keeper Patrick McCarthy at Sorell Plains. Both were executed on 24 February 1825.

While these two were awaiting the hangman, a group from the Oyster Bay tribe decided to 'come in' to the white settlement. This was a completely unexpected development. 'We announce with the most cordial satisfaction,' wrote the Hobart Town Gazette on 5 November 1824, 'from some cause unknown, no fewer than sixty-four Aborigines came into town on Wednesday, of their own accord, and in a pacific manner well calculated to conciliate even those who had been most prejudiced against them.' This was by far the largest number of Aborigines to come as a body into any township on the island. Lieutenant-Governor Arthur saw the visit as an opportunity to display the goodwill and generosity of his government. He offered the natives the Hobart market house as temporary accommodation, had three large fires kindled for them, provided them with food and clothing from the convict stores, and posted four constables 'to guard their repose from interruption.' The day after their arrival, Arthur issued a general order:
A body of the Natives having come into Hobart Town, the Lieutenant-Governor begs to request that the utmost kindness may be manifested towards them, until some arrangement can be made by the government for providing for their accommodation, and removing them to some proper establishment. It is in particular very earnestly desired that no spirits or other intoxicating liquor may be given them.
The Aborigines were subsequently moved across the river to Kangaroo Point (Bellerive) where huts were erected for them and they were regularly supplied with fresh food and clothing. Arthur gave them 'the strongest assurances of protection.' For the next two years, this community was supplied by the government, leaving the natives 'in the habit of departing and returning as often as their own convenience dictated.' At this stage, Arthur did not believe he was facing any kind of general hostilities. He hoped that Kangaroo Point might be the first stage in a process that would establish a native institution, as Governor Macquarie had done at Parramatta in 1815, and would eventually lead to the civilization of the Aborigines.

Over the next two years, Arthur made benevolent gestures to other gatherings of Aborigines, such as the body of 160 who met at Birch's Bay in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel in April 1825, to whom he sent a supply of rugs, blankets and bread. His hopes, however, were to be disappointed. Instead of his hospitality and goodwill generating peace between natives and colonists, Arthur eventually came to believe that the growth of contact between the two races was the very cause of the conflict he was trying to avoid.

After the execution of Musquito and Black Jack, the year 1825 was comparatively less violent, even though assaults by Aborigines did continue. In March, a group of eighty Aborigines killed two stock-keepers employed by Jonathan Kinsey on the upper Macquarie River. In April, James Hobbs's property near the Eastern Marshes again came und€er attack and one stockman was killed. In the same district that year, the Oatlands police magistrate, Thomas Anstey, reported another stockman went missing, presumed killed, after an attack by Aborigines. In September, a sawyer was speared to death near Green Ponds. Anstey reported a further attack in early 1825, but did not specify what month. Aborigines had held siege to the settler Robert Jones, of Four Square Gallows in the Oatlands district. Black Tom was identified as leader of this mob who surrounded the hut 'daring Jones to fire at them, threatening to put his wife into the bloody river.' Nonetheless, the five deaths recorded here were the only credibly reported killings of whites by blacks that year. This compared to eight white deaths the year before. Moreover, in 1825, the assaults that did occur were concentrated largely in the one region, the southern midlands.