Alana Piper reviews Meg Foster’s Boundary Crossers: The Hidden History of Australia’s Other Bushrangers (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022). 9781742237527. 240pp. RRP $34.99.
Meg Foster’s intricately researched monograph, Boundary Crossers: The Hidden History of Australia’s Other Bushrangers, took me back to the childhood road trips my family would take along the east coast of Australia. Many of the regional towns we stopped at would have a display about bushrangers at the local museum. Sometimes they were portrayed as daring anti-heroes, sometimes as victims of circumstances, and occasionally as vicious criminals; however, they always had two things in common – they were white, and they were male. Foster’s book disrupts this narrative by presenting four case studies of individuals excluded from the traditional canon of bushranging folklore: African-American convict William Douglas; Chinese migrant Sam Poo; Worimi woman Mary Ann Bugg; and Aboriginal outlaw Jimmy Governor. In recounting their stories and how these were framed by the society of their day, Foster exposes the gender and racial hierarchies that have continued to shape bushranging legend and Australian nationalism down to today.
The book opens with two chapters on William ‘Black’ Douglas. The first deals with the legendary Douglas – described in contemporaneous media as the scourge of the Victorian goldfields, and leader of a gang of violent robbers. Stories of ‘Black Douglas’ were used to suggest that lynchings and vigilante justice on the diggings might not be a bad thing, especially after a report circulated in 1855 that Douglas had murdered a white woman at Avoca. Yet Foster’s forensic combing of archival evidence reveals that no such murder occurred, demonstrating that ‘fake news’ is far from a twenty-first century invention. Despite the brutal reputation ascribed to Douglas, the only violent crime that he was definitely known to have committed was an assault on a police officer to liberate an associate – a story that in tales of white bushrangers might have been celebrated as an act of mateship. In reality, Douglas’s criminal record consisted almost entirely of petty offences such as vagrancy and drunkenness. The second chapter looks behind the legend to map the details of Douglas’s life as he journeyed from Philadelphia to England to the convict colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land before finally emerging on the Victorian goldfields. Rather than being executed here for his supposed bloodthirsty crimes, the itinerant, impoverished Douglas ultimately died of old age in Bendigo Gaol in 1892.
Sam Poo’s story only receives one chapter. Foster notes that records about him concern only his crimes, with little to reveal his personal history beyond this – a contrast to white bushrangers whose life stories journalists and authorities usually sought to recover in detail. Poo’s criminal career was brief, lasting only 25 days in 1865, but it had a huge impact in exacerbating the sense that the New South Wales colony was facing a bushranging crisis. Whereas previously police had justified delays in capturing wanted men by blaming sympathetic communities that kept them concealed and informed of police movements, Poo was excluded from these white support networks yet still managed to evade capture for a fortnight after shooting a police officer. Within two months of his crimes, New South Wales passed the Felons Apprehension Act that allowed bushrangers who committed murder to be declared outlaws to be stopped by any means necessary, including shooting on sight. Poo’s activities also intensified the existing anti-Chinese sentiment; Chinese prisoners were made to witness his execution as a deterrent.
The fourth chapter examines Mary Ann Bugg, who between 1863 and 1867 was romantic partner and accomplice to Frederick Ward, alias Captain Thunderbolt, a staple of bushranging folklore who deliberately cultivated a ‘gentleman highwayman’ persona. Bugg herself played into this narrative when she faced court on vagrancy charges in 1866, challenging derisive depictions of her as ‘Thunderbolt’s gin’ to position herself instead as the ‘Captain’s lady’, claiming that she was married to Ward and relied on him for support. She has since been remembered only for her relationship with Ward, with little attention paid to her life beyond their four years together. Popular legend even reported that she had died in 1867 after being nursed through illness by Ward. Foster instead reveals a remarkable woman who navigated several significant romantic relationships to become a property owner, nurse and mother of numerous children before dying of natural causes in 1905 aged seventy.
The final two chapters concern Jimmy Governor, whose murders of a settler family that had been insulting his white wife for marrying a part-Aboriginal man earned him an infamy in 1900 that has endured through to today. While Governor’s history has been recounted in fiction, film, podcasts and academic accounts, Foster delves into the less-explored terrain of Governor’s role as a family man, and how his crimes impacted upon his wife and Aboriginal relatives, including seeing them be held without charge for many weeks. The final chapter explores how the timing of Governor’s crimes at the dawn of the twentieth century, just as bushrangers were emerging as celebrated figures of incipient Australian nationalism, was significant. Influenced by popular culture narratives, Governor described himself as a bushranger in conversations with family and letters to the press during his flight from justice. However, just like his other efforts to integrate into white culture through his education, employment and marriage were met with repeated acts of prejudice and exclusion, Governor’s attempts to position himself as part of this cult of national heroes was rejected. The media depicted him instead as a ‘blood-crazed savage’ whose crimes reaffirmed white superiority, and demonstrated the limits to which Aboriginal peoples could be assimilated into white society.
Although not explored explicitly in the text, there are parallels between these histories and many contemporary criminal justice issues that may interest researchers and policy-makers in this area. Both Mary Ann Bugg and Jimmy Governor’s stories reveal how vagrancy provisions were liberally used to exert control over nineteenth-century Aboriginal populations, just as public order charges like swearing and public drunkenness still continue to be disproportionately deployed against these groups. The role that gaols played in the nineteenth century as de facto social welfare institutions for the aged poor like William Douglas raises questions about the causes of today’s rapidly growing population of older prisoners, including many entering prison for the first time. Criminology’s revelations that the categories of victim and offender are often highly permeable is supported by one of the incidents in Sam Poo’s career, in which he asserted that his alleged threatening of a white man he met on the highway with a rifle was actually an attempt to avoid being robbed himself, given the high rates of violence against solo Chinese travellers at the time. More generally, Foster’s work draws attention to the necessity of looking beyond the crime itself to an offender’s whole life in order to properly understand the social context that led to its occurrence.