Peter Jackson: The tragedy of Australia’s black fistic idol

The great black boxer Peter Jackson never forgot his first defeat. Years later on his deathbed in Roma in Western Queensland, Jackson discussed the matter at great length with his doctor Guy L’Estrange. That loss to Bill Farnan in 1884 in Melbourne was Australia’s first heavyweight fight with gloves. Jackson was already a famous and feared fighter and expected to win, despite carrying a leg injury. But Farnan beat him in three rounds.

Jim Corbett v Peter Jackson

We don’t know what rundown Jackson gave L’Estrange before he died, tragically aged just 40. But there is evidence foul play was involved in the Farnan fight. In in its eulogy for Jackson, boxing magazine The Referee suggested Jackson was nobbled in the fight and had been “given a dose”.

The loss spurred Jackson onto greater things. Born in 1861 at Christiansted on the island of St Croix in the Danish West Indies (now the American Virgin Islands), this black kid from the Caribbean found himself in the strange world of Sydney aged 16. Standing six feet tall, he was gentle and easy going and didn’t like a fight. But his weakness for food led him to Larry Foley’s Hotel. Larry Foley was one of Australia’s first boxing champions, undefeated at bare-knuckle fighting. He liked the look of Jackson and tried him out in the back shed. Foley gave Jackson a job and the training he needed in ringcraft.

Jackson became as good as his mentor in bare-knuckle and would sometimes fight with his right arm bound. Four months after the Farnan loss, the pair held a rematch. The bout was indecisive with police stopping the fight in the sixth round after spectators stormed the ring. Farnan retained his title by default but lost it to Tom Lees two years later in 1886. Jackson beat Lees later that year to take the title. Foley gave him a special belt to celebrate the win, now in the possession of a Sydney collector.

Having conquered Australia, Jackson went to America to take on the best in the world. He arrived in 1888 and started with an 18 round victory over black Canadian George Godfrey. Godfrey had previously tried to fight John L Sullivan but after Sullivan became world champion, he refused to fight black boxers. Jackson would run into the same problem. Sullivan would not “lower himself to fight a nigger” and Jackson left frustrated for England.

Jackson chalked up two years of victories in England and returned to the US hoping to get another chance to take on the champion. But Sullivan would not get in the ring with a black man and turned Jackson down. Jackson fought Sullivan’s main contender, Gentleman Jim Corbett. Jackson was five years Corbett’s senior and was ill for ten days before the fight in May 1891 and had a sprained ankle. Yet Jackson and Corbett slogged it out for 61 rounds for an energy sapping draw with most observers saying Corbett had the worst of it.

Corbett later went on to defeat Sullivan and become world champion, but remembered the Jackson fight in the biography The Roar of the Crowd. “That night I thought Peter Jackson was a great fighter. Six months later still tired from the fight, I thought him a greater one. I still maintain he was the greatest fighter I have ever seen.”

Jackson would never lift the world crown. After the Corbett draw he went back to England and defeated the snarling Australian-Irish fighter Paddy Slavin to lift the British and Commonwealth titles in a difficult bout. The pair had bad blood since Sydney days and they still hated each other intensely. In the eighth round Slavin broke Jackson’s rib and a splinter punctured a lung. In intense pain, Jackson seemed beaten but rallied in the tenth to take control of the fight and he pounded Slavin to pieces. The referee insisted the fight continue until Slavin was knocked out but the damage was fatal to Jackson.

The punctured lung never repaired and Jackson went on a downhill spiral. He was forced to appear in vaudeville, giving boxing exhibitions in circuses and, as Jeff Rickert and Raymond Evans said about him in “Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History”, acting as a grey-wigged Uncle Tom in stage performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Suffering from tuberculosis, his last fight was against the powerful Jim Jeffries in 1898 and Jeffries knocked him out in five rounds.

Though Jackson always retained Danish citizenship, he returned to Australia in 1899, his career in ruins. He trained fighters in Sydney for a time but his TB worsened. On doctors’ advice, he retired to the dry heat of Roma, a shadow of the giant he once was. He died on July 13, 1901 at Argyle Cottage, a privately run sanatorium later demolished to make way for the southern end of Roma’s airstrip. Dr L’Estrange put the cause of death of the “retired pugilist” as pulmonary phthisis exhaustion.

Jackson was due to be buried at Roma but there was a last minute change of plan. Another black West Indian boxer, Jack Dowridge from Barbados, who fought as the Black Diamond, sent a telegram asking for the body to be sent by train to Brisbane. A band escorted Jackson’s casket to Roma Railway Station with a procession of sporting bodies and dignatories. In Brisbane, the procession went from Dowridge’s hotel to Toowong Cemetery where he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Dowridge, with the help of several journalists and Jackson’s former coach Foley, raised funds for a Jackson memorial. After a public subscription, Sydney mason Lewis Page carved a dazzling white Carrara marble monument over Jackson’s grave with an image that looks nothing like Jackson. The inscription repeats what Shakespeare’s Antony said about Julius Caesar: “This was a man”.

The best tribute was paid by Jack Johnson, an uppity black boxer from Galveston, Texas who achieved what was denied Jackson. On Boxing Day 1908, a white Australian crowd in Sydney was stunned when he defeated Canadian Tommy Burns to become the world’s first black heavyweight champion. A few weeks later Johnson went to Brisbane and Dowridge took him to visit Jackson’s grave in Toowong. A.E. Austin of the Brisbane Courier said the living champion spent a quiet few moments in silent contemplation at the grave of his brother-in-arms. “It was an impressive sight to see the living gladiator kneeling for a moment over the tomb of he who was Australia’s fistic idol”, Austin wrote.

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