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New Evidence on the Authorship of "Jack Bushman's" Narrative

Ian Duffield

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The proposition that Passages from the Life of a "Lifer" draws on the life experiences of an historically existent transported convict, Thomas Brooks, is not open to challenge. Likewise, the view that the text of that narrative is unlikely to have been written down by Brooks himself, who was probably either illiterate, or at least insufficiently literate to have written such a self-consciously literary work, is not being questioned here; nor have reviewers questioned this point. Neither have reviewers queried the proposition that Brooks's own oral account (or orature) was reshaped and transformed by a highly literate person who wrote it down for publication and who had a patron-client relationship with Brooks himself. 1 Patronage by its nature constitutes subordination of clients, although in practice some space will often exist for negotiation and confrontation concerning the exact boundaries of these kind of power relations.

A somewhat startling new possibility, however, has emerged, concerning the identity of the person who wrote down Brooks's story and turned it into a printed publication. This comes from evidence not in Duffield's possession when the final version of his 'Problematic Passages' was produced in 1996, the version duly published in print in Representing Convicts in 1997. In 1996, Duffield saw Theophilus Pugh, editor of the Brisbane newspaper the Moreton Bay Courier, in which the narrative was serialised in 1859, as 'a suspect' for the patron who transformed Brooks's raw oral tale into a printed and published text acceptable to the respectable smaller free settlers who were that newspaper's core subscribers and readers.

During 1997, a more likely 'suspect' emerged - a former convict, William Wilkes (1816? - 1873). Wilkes is believed to have had middle class parents and was a clerk when sentenced to transportation for life at the Old Bailey in 1832. He came to the future Queensland (then still the Northern Districts of New South Wales), assigned to Burnett's 1841 exploring expedition. Normally, convicts in exploring parties were volunteers and could expect grant of a ticket-of-leave as a reward. In 1843 Wilkes was duly granted a ticket-of-leave. This gave him liberty to seek his own paid employment within the district specified by authority, subject to actually obtaining such employment and his continuing good conduct. Eventually, after working on a pastoral station, he became editor of the Moreton Bay Courier in 1848, holding this post till 1856. As editor his platform was exactly designed to appeal to the growing number of respectable free settlers of the lesser sort. He vehemently opposed the big pastoralists' clamour for renewed convict labour supply; called for improved public education; and supported separation of the Northern Districts from New South Wales, to form a new British colony. This programme coincided with that of the newspaper's proprietor, James Swan, a successful free immigrant. More unusually, having witnessed pastoralist reprisals against an Aboriginal raid, Wilkes had satirised the northern pastoralists in a poem entitled 'The Raid of the Aborigines; A Heroic Poem', written under the pen-name James Arrowsmith Cordwainer. He also had the reputation of being over-fond of the bottle. From Sydney, where he worked as a journalist after 1856, his interest in the Northern Districts continued. 2

The crucial albeit circumstantial evidence concerning Wilkes comes from the work of a private Queensland scholar, John Michael Moran. 3 Between 20 November 1858 and 25 February 1860, no less than nine short stories written by 'Jack Bushman' appeared in the Moreton Bay Courier . We may reasonably assume that this author and the person who wrote down Passages from the Life of a "Lifer" for publication, were one and the same. The nine stories combine the fictional and imaginative with the kind of colourful detail concerning life in the Northern Districts of New South Wales / Queensland that indicate the author had spent a considerable time there and was fully conversant with both its 1850s society and its older history as the Moreton Bay penal station. Moran, like Duffield, has no doubt that 'Jack Bushman' is a pen name. As Moran puts it;

Whoever Bushman was, he had to be a liberal journalist with an extensive knowledge of the Moreton Bay District - a supporter of separation, sympathetic to convicts, ticket-of-leavers, Aboriginals and someone who enjoyed a drink. Wilkes has all these characteristics. 4

This position is well backed up by Moran with more circumstantial details. In 1859, Wilkes commenced editing a Sydney journal called the Empire, after what was probably a rather cliff-hanging existence since 1856, contributing to or editing a number of other Sydney press titles. His linkages with the Moreton Bay Courier, however, remained strong until his friend and patron James Swan sold the paper to Thomas Stephens in 1861. Theophilus Pugh, Wilkes's successor as editor of the Courier, contributed Queensland news items to the Empire; Wilkes contributed a weekly column, 'News and Notes of a Literary Man' and literary material under the title 'Bush Life in Australia' to the Courier. These all appeared under his own name. Then, there was a break from February to November 1859 during which no items appeared in the Courier under the name William Wilkes's. 5

April 1859, however, was the month in which "Jack Bushman's" Passages from the Life of a "Lifer" appeared in the Courier. Not long before then, a 'Jack Bushman' short story entitled The Lash appeared in the Courier on 12 February 1859. It exhibits a hatred of flogging entirely consistent with Passages from the Life of a "Lifer". Go back to the "Jack Bushman" story preceding that one, My Siesta Disturbed by Justicia (Courier, 25 December 1858) and one finds another theme that occurs in Passages from the Life of a "Lifer" and which also chimes with Wilkes's poem, The Raid of the Aborigines. That theme is the gross lack of justice in settler treatment of Aboriginals. Duffield has argued that Passages from the Life of a "Lifer" pulls its punches somewhat in this respect, off-setting sympathetic treatment of Aboriginals with an ultimate consignment of them to imminent extinction 'dying race', alongside such old lags as the narrative portrays. Both elements are represented as part of the past, not the future of Queensland - and a best-is-soonest-forgotten past at that. 6 In My Siesta Disturbed by Justicia, the 'Justicia' of the title - justice itself - is a 'little fair-haired maiden' whom Jack Bushman platonically befriends. She is also, somewhat to his horror, the friend of a tribe of Aborigines who have bitterness and bloody revenge in their hearts for the dreadful wrongs done them by whites. The outcome of the story is the utter disappearance of the maiden, which is to say justice itself, from the land, which can be read as a damning comment on white Queenslanders. However, in symbolically locating justice in a white maiden, the story stops far short of that. The implication seems to be that whatever crimes have been committed in the course of dispossessing the Aboriginals, in the last resort justice is, or at least ought to be, a property of British and British settler) culture, not that of 'savages', however deeply wronged. By contrast, the 'great warrior' Ning-a-ning proclaims 'I have sworn enmity to your race. Black Hate curdles in my heart'. He boasts that he and his people have drunk the blood and eaten the flesh of their enemies. 7 Whilst such savagery might be mitigated by the circumstances, the story also contributes to the racist myth of Murri 8 cannibalism. In colonial discourse, cannibalism was the ultimate indication of the degraded nature of 'savages'. 9

While none of what has been said so far adds up to absolute proof that Wilkes was the author of Passages from the Life of a "Lifer", a position Moran is sensibly careful to avoid, it is all very suggestive.

If, as thus seems likely, Wilkes rather than Pugh was the man who had listened to Thomas Brooks's oral account and subsequently transformed it into the text we now have, then this is a relatively rare instance of the oral narrative of one 'unfree' person being reshaped for publication by another. 10 Why should this matter? The obvious answer is that Wilkes had himself been a convict and arguably retained a natural sympathy for Thomas Brooks's sufferings, perhaps even for Brooks's many acts of resistance. However, this is not to say that these two should be regarded as having an identical consciousness or having undergone the same experiences at the hands of the convict management system. The convicts were not a homogenous group and the way they were administered was carefully designed to emphasise this and so minimise the risk that they would take united action against those in authority. 11 Brooks was in all likelihood an illiterate man, a plebeian who spent an extremely long time at the sharp end of the convict system, repeatedly suffering its harshest punishments, short of being hanged. When a convict at the Port Macquarie penal station in New South Wales in 1825, he had even been a leading participant in a group escape which briefly turned into a convict uprising. Wilkes, by contrast, was highly literate, probably came from a middle class family, 'worked his ticket' relatively early and went on to a successful and influential (if not very lucrative) career as a journalist, which brought him the gratitude of free white Queenslanders for having been such a doughty champion of separation from New South Wales and other causes dear to their hearts.

It would not have been in Wilkes's interest to write a narrative which was an unequivocal defence of Thomas Brooks and, by the same token, an unequivocal condemnation of the system that had maltreated Brooks so brutally. The cultural, social and political agendas of the Courier's free immigrant readers, which required an 'authentic' seeming convict narrative on the one hand but one which ultimately supported their own interests on the other, remain in place, whether Wilkes, Pugh or anyone else reshaped the story. Indeed, it might be argued that Wilkes would have been under even more pressure in this respect than Pugh. For Wilkes to be too closely and openly reconnected to the despised convict past would have threatened his personal escape from it, into a position of some influence and at least semi-respectability. The worst possible option would have been to publish a narrative of his own convict past under his own name. It could be that through writing another convict's story, under the concealment of a pen-name, he felt able to sail a little closer to the wind in some sensitive respects than would otherwise have been prudent. Another speculative point is that by ushering into print a reshaped version of Brooks's story, Wilkes was able to obtain some psychological relief from his own painful memories. Although Wilkes's convict experiences were evidently mild compared to those of Brooks, he had undergone the traumas of a criminal trial, a death sentence commuted to transportation for life, 12 degradation to the status of a transported felon and, lifelong separation from homeland, family and friends. That may well have generated an inwardly disturbing mixture of guilt and resentment. One also guesses that Wilkes's own inner conflicts and tensions would have contributed powerfully to the contradictions and tensions within Passages from the Life of a "Lifer", which are such a strong feature of that narrative and make it so well worth the trouble of careful study.

So Wilkes is the filter between Thomas Brooks and ourselves then? While feeling some sympathy for the irritation students often feel when historians refuse to give categorical answers of 'yes' or 'no' - answers which would certainly simplify their own tasks of writing essays and examination answers and contributing to tutorials - I cannot conceal a certain glee that in 1998, yet another possible writer-down and editor of Brooks's oral story has emerged. 13 This is entirely the kind of outcome that the editors and authors of Representing Convicts were hoping for; to flush out new information and interpretations, even where these clashed with or corrected their own. As Raymond Evans has perceptively responded; 'The mystery deepens and prospects remain open-ended - part of that rich, shifting terrain of convict research'. 14 Without entirely deleting Wilkes from consideration (now the fate of Pugh), Evans asks:

why not Thomas Dowse, himself sentenced to New South Wales for life in 1828? Dowse became Moreton Bay's first literary correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald and later wrote for the Moreton Bay Courier under the suggestive pseudonym of 'Old Tom".

When you read 'Jack Bushman's' narrative, you will find that the text playfully juxtaposes 'Jack Bushman' and 'Old Tom' as the narrative voice - 'Old Tom' hinting at Thomas Brooks. We hope that problems surrounding the authorship of this text and how all that affects our understanding of its meaning, will serve as an encouragement rather than being off-putting. That certainly is the effect on myself and two other scholars, who are currently working together in an attempt further to illuminate this mysterious topic. 15

Dr Ian Duffield, Department of History, University of Edinburgh, 12 September 1999. The Jack Bushman Narrative has been broken into 6 sections: chapters: I/II/ III/ IV /V/ VI.

1 See Ian Duffield, ‘Problematic Passages; “Jack Bushman’s” Convict Narrative’, in Ian Duffield & James Bradley, Representing Convicts; New Perspectives on Convict Forced Labour Migration (London, Leicester University Press, a Cassell Imprint, 1997), pp. 24-7.

2 Information on Wilkes is from Ian Duffield, ‘Where did “Old Tom” Belong? Imagined Homelands in “Jack Bushman’s” Convict Narrative’. paper presented at Imaginary Homelands, Second Biennnial Australian Studies Travelling Conference, Brisbane-Longreach-Brisbane, 13-20 June 1997.

3 John Michael Moran (ed.), Jack Bushman’s Short Stories. Queensland Literary History (Ashgrove, Queensland, Preferential Publications, 1990). I am grateful to Tamsin O’Connor for making me aware of John Moran’s work and to Mr Moran for his subsequent friendly co-operation.

4 Moran, Jack Bushman’s Short Stories, introduction, p. 5.

5 Ibid., pp. 3-5, provides the factual material in this paragraph to this point.

6 Duffield, ‘Problematic Passages’, in Representing Convicts, pp. 27-32.

7 “Jack Bushman”, My Siesta Disturbed by Justicia, reprinted in Moran, Jack Bushman’s Short Stories, pp. 23-29; the quoted passage is on p. 26.

8 Murri - the collective term indigenous Queenslanders now use to refer to themselves.

9 For an exploration of the attribution by Europeans of cannibalism to many colonial indigenous peoples, see W. Arens, The Man-Eating Myth; Anthropology and Anthropophagy, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979).

10 Another instance is perhaps the 18th-century self-emancipated slave, Olaudah Equiano. Equiano, who has been the subject of much scholarly attention, is above all famous for his book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The Africa. Written by Himself (London, printed for and sold by the author, 2 Volumes, 1789). It has been suggested that Equiano may have ghosted another anti-slave trade work by an African contemporary living in England; Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (London, 1787). For the question of Equiano’s possible input into this text, see Paul Edwards (ed.), Equiano’s Travels (Oxford, Heinemann Educational, African Writers Series, 1996 edition), editor’s introduction, p. xv & p. xxvi, note 1.

11 Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, ‘Convict Workers, “penal labour” and Sarah Island: Life at Macquarie Harbour, 1822-1834’, in Representing Convicts, pp. 142-63, makes clear that even within penal settlements, there were a wide variety of degrees of relative privilege and harshness experienced by the inmates. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and James Bradley, ‘Behold the Man; Power, Observation and the Tattooed Convict’, Australian Studies 12, 1 (Summer 1997), p. 73, provides a useful diagram indicating the systematic compartmentalisation of convicts in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), p. 71.

12 Transportation for life was normally reserved for those who had been convicted of capital offences and whose death sentences were then commuted but without any question of a pardon.

13 This is in Raymond Evans’s review of Representing Convicts, in Journal of Australian Studies, no. 58 (1998), pp. 191-2. Other reviews of Representing are: by A.G.L. Shaw, in Australian Historical Studies, No. 112 (1999), pp. 181-2; by Alan Atkinson in Times Literary Supplement, no. 4946, 16 January 1998, pp. 29-30; by Peter Rushton in Immigrants & Minorities, 17, 3 (November 1998), pp. 95-6; by Kay Daniels in Labour History; A Journal of Social and Labour History, no. 75 (November 1998), pp. 220-22; by Michael Sturma in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 26, 3 (Sept. 1998), pp. 118-9.

14 Evans, review of Representing Convicts, forthcoming in Australian Historical Studies. I am most grateful to him for courteously providing me with a copy of his review in advance of publication and so allowing a further update of my introduction to Passages from the Life of a “Lifer” .

15 The other two scholars are Raymond Evans of the University of Queensland and William Thyorpe of the University of South Australia. Evans, Thorpe and Duffield are co-writing a chapter entitled ‘Convict lives, captured narratives; In Search of "Jack Bushman’, for Lucy Frost & Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (eds.), Chain Letters, a book about convict narratives and related texts.

The Jack Bushman Narrative has been broken into 6 sections: chapters: I/II/ III/ IV /V/ VI.

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