Ludwig Leichhardt: Into the Unknown

unknownIn the opening sentences of the Ludwig Leichhardt biography “Into the Unknown“, author John Bailey tells his version of the last known days of the German explorer. It is April 1848 and Leichhardt is setting off from European settlement 500km west of Brisbane towards the Swan Colony (now Perth) on the west coast of Australia. The journey would take two to three years of travel through rugged and hostile desert country. Leichhardt writes one last letter to Sydney which Bailey says he pressed into the hands of his host Allan Macpherson as he off into the unknown. A couple of days later, Bailey suggest there was another meeting between Leichhardt and Macpherson. According to Bailey, Macpherson and his friend William Hill trace Leichhardt’s party’s track to deliver one last parting gift of a fat cow. They caught up with Leichhardt at nightfall but the German declined their gift saying he didn’t want a wild cow mixing with his docile herd as she might lead it astray. Macpherson and Hill left the following morning. As they left Hill asked Leichhardt where he was heading. “To the setting sun,” the explorer responded and they left, never to be heard of again.

The story is fascinating however I’m not convinced it is true. Macpherson’s station at what Bailey called “Cogoon”  is near Muckadilla, 40km west of where Roma now lies and I learned a lot of what Leichhardt got up to in the region from Roma historian Peter Keegan. Allan Macpherson was an intriguing character, and was the first white settler in the area and his story is told as part of the astonishing story of five generations of the Scottish Macpherson family in the service of the British Empire across the globe in Stephen Foster’s epic A Private Empire. Peter Keegan supplied much of the research to Foster about Macpherson’s tumultuous years in the district from 1847 to 1849, a time he spread between Mt Abundance, as Macpherson called his Cogoon Station and Keera, his property in New England. Leichhardt’s last letter was written a sheep outstation on the western edge of Mt Abundance.

I recall asking Keegan if he thought Macpherson crossed paths with Leichhardt. His view, as was fellow Leichhardt scholar Darryl Lewis was that they never met. Macpherson was likely in Keera or Sydney or on the road when the German came through the district. So I was fascinated by the detail in Bailey’s meeting – not just once but twice. The end notes were unhelpful – there was no source offered for where he got the information. I immediately emailed Keegan, who confirmed his view that neither meeting happened. “There were many people trying to get onto the Leichhardt bandwagon after he went missing,” he told me. I’ve emailed John Bailey to ask him where he got his information but am yet to hear back.

It may be one of the more intriguing mysteries of Australian historiography in what Bailey described as one of the most intriguing mysteries of Australian history. Bailey tells Leichhardt’s story in straightforward style. The story of his youth is revealed through letters to family and close friends. Leichhardt was very intelligent and studied widely across many disciplines but he never emerged with a university degree. His disordered approach to course selection owed much to the influence of Wilhelm von Humboldt who saw education as a process of self-emancipation. Leichhardt’s family wasn’t wealthy and the student desperately sought a patron to subsidise his education.

Enter John Nicholson, the son of a retired Bristol vicar, who came to Gottingen University to finish his studies. Leichhardt was there from Berlin University as part of his Wanderjahr. The pair hit it off and for four months they were inseparable. Nicholson’s departure back to England left Leichhardt grief-stricken.  At his lowest ebb, a saviour appeared. It John Nicholson’s younger brother William, also sent to Germany to complete his education. Leichhardt became mentor to the younger Nicholson and they moved in together with the Englishman footing their bills. Leichhardt stopped attending lectures instead devoting himself to books and spending time in clinics learning the rudiments of medicine.

When William finished his degree in 1837 he planned to go home to England with Leichhardt to follow. Leichhardt was obliged to serve a year in the military but he obtained a deferment to 1840. Leichhardt loved London and later Paris when the pair moved there. Leichhardt attended lectures at the Jardins des Plantes and natural history museum. He spent two months at La Charite hospital where the nurses asked him to translate for German patients. Nicholson and Leichhardt’s relationship gradually soured when they travelled through France and Italy. When Leichhardt heard the elder Nicholson was emigrating to Australia, it awoke in him the possibilities of exploration in that land. In 1841 he booked a passage on the Sir Edward Paget and passed the long journey offering lectures to disinterested passengers. He also got the captain to teach him celestial navigation. The ship arrived in Sydney on February 14, 1842.

Leichhardt quickly established himself as a man of considerable learning and found a patron in Lt Robert Lynd, a barrack-master who enjoying reading Goethe and collecting shells. Leichhardt began his education of Australia with a trip to the Hunter Valley to study botany and geology. He became convinced the area was suitable for good winemaking and he almost died of thirst when he got lost in Port Stephens. He later headed north to Moreton Bay and called in on his countrymen at Lutheran Aboriginal Mission at Zion Hill near Eagle Farm, an experience which depressed him. “There is no hope of converting this generation to Christianity and this generation will likely be the last,” he wrote. Onwards he went to the Darling Downs and finally back to Sydney with a bold expedition idea.

His destination was the short-lived military outpost of Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula 3000km north-west of Sydney. Though he had no Government support, Sydney newspapers got behind him and he signed up eight companions. They left Sydney August 13, 1844 and sailed to Brisbane before setting out for the Darling Downs. There he was joined by ornithologist John Gilbert and they – a German, four Englishmen, an American, a convict, a Welsh boy, two Aborigines, 17 horses and 16 cattle – spent their last night in European Australia at Jimbour Station on September 30.

Progress was slow and they followed the Condamine River rest until around modern Chinchilla (Charley’s Creek is named for Leichhardt’s Aboriginal traveller). Gradually they moved north following the Dawson River where Leichhardt named geographical features after members of his expedition. They were well behind schedule and Leichhardt cut their rations amid grumblings from his crew. Gradually their resentment of Leichhardt grew as did the arguments. Leichhardt cut loose two members as rations were further tightened. By the start of 1845 they were following the Comet Rover north but an argument with Charley ended up with the Aborigine whacking the German in the face. Leichhardt banished both blacks but quickly realised they were the two most useful members of the expedition knowing how to hunt and communicate with local blacks. They were soon forgiven.

In April 1845 they found a huge river Leichhardt called the Burdekin after a female patron of his expedition. In May he named a new river the Lynd for his Sydney friend and inched their way towards the Cape. Back in Sydney Lynd himself led the eulogy for the now-presumed dead traveller. Leichhardt was still alive and close to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the Mitchell River. Not long afterwards tragedy struck on the Nassau River. During one night an Aboriginal war party attacked them and killed Gilbert and wounded two others. They pressed on and came to a river Leichhardt named the Gilbert for his “unfortunate companion”. On August 20, he named the Nicholson River for his friend William and then the Roper River for another member of his expedition. They descended Arnhem Land scrambling down rocks before emerging on the floodplain of the South Alligator River. They knew they were closing in on Port Essington as the blacks had European goods and a smattering of English. Just before Christmas they astonished the English garrison with their bedraggled presence and were lucky enough to find a ship leaving for Sydney after just three weeks.

Back in Sydney, Leichhardt was a sensation and the most celebrated man in Australia. Not content to rest on his laurels he immediately began planning an even longer east-west trip to Swan Colony. He set off with his new party of seven from the Darling Downs in November 1846. This trip was a disaster with disputes between the travellers, especially Leichhardt and the upper-class Hovenden Hely who took exception at being assigned goat herder. They headed towards Peak Range in miserable weather, constant rain and flooding creeks. Almost all the party fell ill and they were forced to wait months for rivers to recede and travellers to get better. Neither happened and they abandoned the expedition on June 7, 1847. On the way back, Leichhardt heard Sir Thomas Mitchell had supposedly discovered “a River to India” (the Barcoo which went nowhere near India but instead drained into Lake Eyre) and he mapped the Balonne and Condamine Rivers as they went west.

It was these discoveries that led to Leichhardt starting his third expedition from Mt Abundance where he went “Into the Unknown”, which begins this post. For theories on what might have happened Leichhardt, you should read Darrrell Lewis’s meticulously researched “Where is Dr Leichhardt“.


Allan Macpherson and Mt Abundance

The first European in the Maranoa was likely either Thomas Mitchell or his son Roderick in 1846 (though Finney Eldershaw claims he beat both Mitchells by four years in his journey of 1842).

Roderick Mitchell was the deputy Crown Commissioner for Lands in NSW who charted branches of the Balonne River and may have got as far as the Bungil and Bungeworgorai Creeks. His journeys and maps helped his father Sir Thomas Mitchell, surveyor-general of NSW, on his trip to the Maranoa in 1846. Sir Thomas took the same route up the Darling River system into Queensland. He was the first person to describe Mt Abundance and the rich area around it. He called it the Fitz Roy Downs in honour of the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles Fitz Roy.

It was no coincidence it was Mitchell followed his son, nor was there a coincidence about the man that followed Sir Thomas to become the first white settler of the Maranoa. His name was Allan Macpherson.

Macpherson’s father William was the clerk of the NSW parliament and a friend of fellow Scot Mitchell. Mitchell was also fond of William’s son Allan, a determined and ambitious young man. Allan was an adventurer who ran cattle and sheep on his Keera property in the remote Gwydir district of northern NSW. While the hilly country reminded him of his native Scotland, it wasn’t profitable. Macpherson was captivated by Mitchell’s description of Mt Abundance as “champaign country” and was determined to claim it for himself.

“First come first served” meant possession under British law, and he set off north-west along the river system for the promised land in July 1847. Macpherson had more than just Mitchell’s maps, he had ten thousand sheep, hundreds of cattle, dozens of horses and drays and twenty men. The going was slow – they travelled just 60km in the first two weeks – but by the end of September his team was at the natural ford or “rocky bar” on the Balonne Mitchell (senior) called St George’s Bridge because he arrived there on the saint’s day,  April 23.

St George was the last settled part of the English realm. No white man or woman lived north of the bridge. MacPherson crossed his Rubicon but was forced to halt for the lambing season. Leaving the sheep behind, he finally gazed on Mt Abundance on Friday, October 15, 1847. Macpherson found Mitchell had not exaggerated about the quality of the land. “A glorious prospect!” he enthused.

He claimed a farm 30km wide from the Cogoon River (now Muckadilla Creek) in the west to Bungeworgorai Creek in the east. The sight of the first natives two weeks later scared his men witless. Macpherson shamed them as cowards and spent months building huts, cattle and sheep yards and fencing. Macpherson built several outstations including a cattle station on the spot of what would later become Roma.

The distance to Newcastle was forbidding and Macpherson hoped to find a closer port at Brisbane via the Darling Downs. Urgent farmwork tied him down at Mt Abundance and after Christmas he went back to Keera for more supplies and drays. In January 1848, Macpherson got caught up in a formidable foe: summer floods. Macpherson was bogged in heavy and impassable country with swollen fast-moving creeks.

He eventually made it to Keera but his return to the Maranoa was also delayed by floods. It was again a fleeting visit as Keera and Sydney demanded his presence on urgent family business. It was on his third return to St George’s Bridge, Macpherson received the bad news Mt Abundance had been attacked.

Two men in outstations were speared to death and the rest were fleeing south. Macpherson found them where the Cogoon met the Balonne but could convince only one man to accompany him back to Mt Abundance. The blacks were gone but they left a mess. The experience redoubled his efforts to find a more direct route to the Darling Downs. The furthest he got was to a nearby station east of the Bungil owned by James Alexander Blythe.

Blythe was one of the earliest travellers to the Maranoa after Mitchell and had come back to establish a property between Roma and Wallumbilla. Macpherson was fortunate to survive a skirmish with Aboriginals on his return home after a visit to Blyth but his servant Charley was missing presumed dead.

By the end of 1848, Macpherson became convinced it was too unprofitable to run sheep due to “blacks, losses, native dogs and overcrowding.” He turned Mt Abundance into a cattle property but the native attacks continued and three workers were speared in March 1849. After two more wool-carriers were killed, Macpherson and the new Commissioner of Crown Lands John Durbin patrolled the area with mounted troopers gathering the wool and taking it south. But Macpherson had had enough.

He went off to Scotland to get married and Mt Abundance remained an expensive and unprofitable out station. He sold it on his return “for a song”. As Macpherson said, “it was by no means the first pioneers that reaped the golden returns, but those who were prudent enough to follow in their wake.”

Major Mitchell and the Maranoa

The Maranoa is far from Scotland but it was the fertile woody lands west of Roma that most appealed to the Stirlingshire-born surveyor-general of NSW, Thomas Mitchell.

Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army who earned his stripes with Wellington in the 1811 Iberian Campaign against Napoleon. The Duke was so impressed by the young Scot, barely 19, he commissioned him to survey the battlefields. After 16 years of military service the Crown asked him to perform the same duties for the young colony of New South Wales as Deputy Surveyor-General.

Mitchell’s boss was John Oxley who had opened up several areas to white settlers including the Lachlan, Macquarie and Tweed Rivers. With botanist Allan Cunningham, Oxley beat an inland path to what would become Queensland via the Brisbane River. But the difficulties of explorations led to Oxley’s death in 1828 aged 45. Oxley’s ill-health was always in Mitchell’s mind and suddenly he was promoted into the role he would keep for the next 27 years and four major explorations. The first in 1831 took Mitchell directly north of Sydney towards Tamworth. He found the Gwydir River and turned inland till he found the Darling. After natives killed two of three helpers, Mitchell returned to Sydney to plan his next sortie. It took four years to return to the Darling but he was determined to find out where this long meandering river emptied into the sea. His botanist Richard Cunningham was killed by the Aborigines and Mitchell was forced to withdraw again after a skirmish.

Undaunted, he was back a year later to try again. There was more battles with natives and he killed seven of a large posse of 200 that attacked him. He followed the Darling until it joined the Murray near Wentworth. Mitchell saw the Grampians and he followed the Glenelg River to the Bass Strait coast (where Nelson is now). Mitchell returned to Sydney a hero after opening up this vast stretch of Australia Felix to Europeans.

Having mapped much of what would become Victoria, he would do the same for what would become Queensland. With fellow explorer Edmund Kennedy he set off north on December 15, 1845, aged 54. Mitchell called on familiar routines striking out north-west for the Darling, as he had done three times before. This time he continued north to the Narran River, the Balonne and the Culgoa. Near the junction of the Maranoa and Balonne rivers, Mitchell found a natural bridge on April 23, 1846. He named the bridge for the auspicious saint’s day, St George’s Bridge.

Mitchell followed the Cogoon Creek which he renamed what he thought the natives called it: Muckadilla Creek. This took him into great pastoral country west of what is now Roma. He named a hill in the region Mt Abundance and from its top, marvelled over what he called a “a champaign region, spotted with wood, stretching as far as human vision or even the telescope would reach.” Mitchell would continue west to find the Warrego and Barcoo Rivers but it was his description of Mt Abundance that resonated. By champaign, Mitchell meant undulating country, but many who followed in his path were made drunk by his vision.

Back in Sydney, he told his friend and fellow Scot William Macpherson about his discoveries. His son Allan Macpherson held lands at Keera in New England and Mitchell encouraged him to try his luck at Mount Abundance. Heading north-west and crossing St George’s Bridge in the path of Mitchell, Macpherson was the first white settler of the Maranoa in 1847 just a year after his mentor, bringing with him his workers, cattle and sheep.

Watched closely by the Mandandanji whose lands he craved, Macpherson was fearless and carried guns to enforce his law. Ultimately he was not successful but he laid open the path for others to follow both from the south and from the east to the Darling Downs.

Thanks to Mitchell, Macpherson had changed the region forever.

Goodbye Bussamarai: The Mandandanji Land Wars in the Maranoa

I have just finished reading Goodbye Bussamarai, about how Europeans displaced the Aborigines in the part of Australia I live in. Subtitled less evocatively “The Mandandanji Land War Southern Queensland 1842-1852”, the book is simultaneously a work of great research, and a difficult, dense and sometimes dull read. Author Patrick Collins laments the fact that most Australians have heard of the Apaches heroes like Cochise and Geronimo but few have heard of tribes such as the Mandandanji and their leaders such as Bussamarai.

However the record is patchy, written by whites and with the most awkward bits left out and unfortunately a sense of Bussamarai the man does not emerge from Collins’s book. What does emerge is that early Europeans were tolerated as adventurers but not as a permanent and disruptive presence. When explorers Mitchell and Leichhardt drifted into what Collins calls East Maranoa in the colony of NSW (the current Queensland local government region of Maranoa plus all of the Balonne shire north of St George), they were followed by a handful of whites determined to take advantage of the fertile lands suggested by Mitchell’s descriptions of “mount abundance” and a “champagne region”.

Mitchell and Leichhardt described their meetings with “the blacks” so the settlers knew the land weren’t empty. But they were not occupied in a way Europeans understood. So with a sense of entitlement allied to superior firepower, it led to mass murder as the competition for territory expanded. The whites had brought with them “too many dreams and two many cows”. After NSW surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell came to East Maranoa in 1846, he recounted his adventures in Sydney to William Macpherson, secretary to the NSW parliament and his son the grazier Allan. Mitchell gave Allan maps and encouraged him to set up a land claim there. Macpherson Junior would be the first farmer in the Roma region setting off with men and livestock from his headstation in the Gwydir in 1847.

Without an inspection of the land, Macpherson was taking a large leap of faith with Mount Abundance near Muckadilla 200km from the nearest white settlement at Moonie. Mitchell and Macpherson weren’t the first whites in the area. Clarence River area squatter Finney Eldershaw described his search in 1842 for suitable land after he heard of “luxurious downs” in the region. But economic conditions weren’t right for Eldershaw. Australia was in depression and East Maranoa’s remoteness from white settlement made it a difficult financial prospect.

Five years later, conditions were better. While Macpherson was setting off, Mitchell’s deputy Edmund Kennedy was back in the region to do more exploration. He was joined by Archer, Blyth and Chauvel who explored the region from the north. Macpherson started his run in October 1847 with 20 men working the property. While we know a lot about the early whites, the Aborigines are more inscrutable. The character of “Bussamarai” is particularly problematic.

Collins claims a tribal leader called variously as old Billy, Eaglehawk, Possum Murray and Bussamarai was the one and the same person but the evidence is not always convincing. Collins said the elder who helped Mitchell find Muckadilla Creek and the Maranoa River was “probably” Bussamarai but offers no proof. All Mitchell said was the natives were not covetous and asked for nothing. By the time Kennedy returned, relations had gone downhill and he had to use “one or two shots in the air” to frighten 200 Aborigines away from his camp. As the decade went by the Mandandanji lands became untenable as more whites entered the East Maranoa motivated less by fame and discovery then by land acquisition.

Macpherson recorded the first cattle killing at Warroo station near Surat in late 1847. By December 1848 there was war between the blacks and the settlers affecting every station between Roma and Chinchilla. Station hands working for absentee landholders dispensed rough justice in retaliation for attacks on their livestock while authorities in Sydney and London turned a blind eye.

Finally a new force gradually restored “order” by 1851. This was NSW’s northern division of the Native Police, which served the economic ends of the pastoralists. Pastoral superintendent Frederick Walker led a team of 20 Aborigines up from the Macintyre River district dispensing rough justice wherever they went. Walker was renowned for his good relations with Aborigines but he showed no mercy in East Maranoa.

Scanty evidence exists of the genocide that followed. Gideon Lang testified to an 1854 parliamentary select committee on the native police he wanted them to protect his Darling River runs. Lang also knew of the “wholesale and indiscriminate killing” and “cold blooded cruelty on the part of the whites quite unparalleled in the history of these colonies”. Walker’s men used “fair means or foul” to bring about a lopsided peace in East Maranoa. There were significant massacres at Yuleba Creek in March 1850 and Yamboucal station near Surat in May 1852.

Collins said Bussamarai united the Bigambul people and two or three other groups with the Mandandanji to drive out the whites. They engaged in battles with the Native Police with inevitable conclusions. On November 1852 a Sergeant Skelton noted a skirmish at Ukabulla between the Aboriginals led by Bussamarai and armed troops in daylight. Two Aboriginals were “shot in the attempt to apprehend them,” Skelton said. “Likewise four more of the Blacks were shot before I could drive them to the station.” Bussamarai was dead, the Maranoa front was “tamed” and the war moved on to other areas of Queensland.

The surviving Mandandanji became fringe dwellers in their own territory. Many were forcibly removed to settlements at Taroom and later at Woorabinda and Cherbourg, scattering the memory of their sacred link to the land. Goodbye to Bussamarai is a farewell to a warrior but also to a way of life that stood no chance against European weapons.

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.

In praise of countrymindedness Part 1

What lessons do Australian country newspapers offer to the wider industry? Rural newspapers are the poor cousins and the entry rung to the profession. Numbers of staff, audiences, resources, profits and influence are all small compared to the national and metro dailies. Their digital imprint and reach is also tiny compared to the big metro companies (Nguyen, Ferrier, Western, and McKay, 2005). Many regional papers (like the the Western Star until recently) do not have a content based website[1]. Practitioners in rural journalism tend to be new to the industry, most are young and inexperienced and low paid. Academically the sector is under-researched.

Wallumbilla Grain Shed – Derek Barry

Yet there are subtle differences in media practices in country areas that warrant closer attention. Some differences are cultural. Though urbanisation has been the dominant experience for a majority of Australians since the 19th century (Glynn 1970, pp.76-77), Ward’s classic The Australian Legend (1958) argued the Australian bush has always informed the national character through its notions of egalitarianism. In the US, Putnam has shown country areas, small town and rural people are more altruistic, honest and trusting than their urban counterparts (2000, p.205). Australian studies show similar findings with more community involvement in non-metropolitan areas (Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics 2005, p.xix).
There is also a strong bond between Australian country papers and their audiences (Bowd 2010). That bond was initially formed by, as Kirkpatrick (1999) put it, “countrymindedness” which was born of the isolation of country areas – “the tyranny of distance” (Pretty 1993, p.77). Newspapers loudly articulated their editorial support for the country lifestyle. Writing four years after Ward, McLuhan (1962) [2]) predicted a move away from 20th century individualism and fragmentation towards an inter-connected global village. Today’s Internet, fast broadband and social networks are enabling McLuhan’s global neighbourhood where Ward’s sense of bush egalitarianism and country trust could turn out to be useful assets.
Kirkpatrick’s countrymindedness also has other global parallels, particularly with development journalism in non-western countries where newspapers still thrive. Development communication sees mass media as agents of social change (Stevenson 1994, p.232) based on a foundation of respect for local knowledge (Loos 1994, p.2). Country journalists live and work closely among their readers and are impacted by them.  Readers know their local journalists and are in a position to form bonds of trust for mutual gain. In this situation, journalists are not neutral observers but communicators who change themselves as much as what they effect (Loos in Bowd 2003, p.126). The news is still reported fairly, but the newspaper is clearly on the side of its community than in urban areas and the community is on the side of the newspaper. Readers can and do still find fault with rural publications. But no matter how bad the papers are, they will always belong to the readers.
Part 2 will look at the international scene.

[1] The Western Star is now online with fellow SW Qld papers at However a Google search for the Western Star online will return an APN (publishers of the Western Star) website with information about the paper but no editorial content.

[2] The Gutenberg Galaxy was originally written in 1962.
Bowd, K. (2003), “How different is ‘different’? Australian Country Newspapers and Development Journalism”, Asia Pacific Media Educator, Issue No 14, December 2003.
Bowd, K. (2010) “’Did you see that in the paper?’ country newspapers and perceptions of local ‘ownership’”, Australian Journalism Review, 31 (1) pp. 49-61.
Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (2005) Focus on regions no. 4: social capital, Department of Transport and Regional Services, Canberra
Glynn, S. (1970) Urbanisation in Australian history, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne
Kirkpatrick, R. (1999) “House of Unelected Representatives: The Provincial Press 1825-1900” in A. Curthoys and J. Schultz (eds.) Journalism: Print, Politics and Popular Culture, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
Loos, E. (1994) “Teaching development journalism in the reporting of cultural diversity”, Australian Journalism Review, 16(2) July-December 1-10
McLuhan, M. (1971 edition – originally 1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
Nguyen, A, Ferrier E, Western, M and McKay, S. (2005) “Online news in Australia: Patterns of use and gratification”, Australian Studies in Journalism, v.15
Pretty, K. (1993) “Dusting off the grassroots: A survey of Australian country journalists”, Australian Studies in Journalism, Issue No 2 75-123.
Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, Touchstone, New York.
Stevenson, R. (1994) Global Communication in the 21st Century, Longman, New York
Ward, R. (1958) The Australian Legend, Oxford University Press, Melbourne

Watching the Watchman: Swearing and 14-hour days

A couple of weeks ago my mate Glenn alerted me to the next episode of Australian Stories called Letters to the Editor. “Sounds like you,” was Glenn’s succinct summary and he sent me the blurb from the ABC website. It read:  

“James Clark enjoyed a successful life in Paris when he decided to put his future, his relationship and the family sheep station on the line to chase his dream of running a little local newspaper in outback Cunnamulla, Queensland.”


I didn’t know the ABC were featuring Clark, but I was intrigued by someone I instinctively liked as a rare beast. He is the owner and editor of a country newspaper, the wonderfully-named Warrego Watchman.  The Watchman is a competitor to our papers and I’ve yet to meet James but our enormous territories of coverage roughly overlap and we’ve had dealings from afar. I’ve known him for over a year and he kindly offered his help in my masters on country journalism. Given his knowledge of the topic I regret not finding the time to take up his offer in my last-minute rush to finish.

I missed the show on the night it was broadcast but I was able to watch the 30 minute documentary later on the website. I felt a deep connection with most of Clark’s responses to his experiences (though my own experiences were very different). I also felt I got to know him a lot better.
I emailed Clark to congratulate him on the success of the show. “Keep up the great work for journalism in the south west,”  I told him. His response was almost sheepish. “All pretty embarrassing but about 1.3 million apparently now know about the rag who didn’t previously.” Clark knew well how the journalists at the ABC put together the show to get the most emotional impact – making his relationship with wife Josephine Birch central to the tale. But having the world see inside your marriage is perhaps a small price to pay, when the Warrego Watchmen’s audience expands a couple of hundredfold – at least temporarily.
My mate Glenn is right to a point – his story has many similarities to my own.  I don’t know how old Clark is but I suspect he is not many years younger than my 48. He left high-paid journalism Europe to take on a small South West Queensland paper, while I quit high-paid IT in Brisbane to work for a slightly bigger small south West Queensland paper. Clark and I believe strongly in the future of country media and our towns and see newspapers as important cornerstones of the community and chroniclers of its adventures.
But there are massive differences between us too. Clark had huge roots to his paper. He grew up on a sheep and cattle property of 160,000 acres near Cunnamulla and his family still farmed 60,000 acres at Pabra ranch south of town. I grew up in a small house in a small town half a world away from Roma. Though 20 years in Australia, I’d hardly ever set foot in south-west Queensland until I started working there. I had no idea of rural issues and I’m still green around the agricultural gills two and a half years later. Clark’s intimate knowledge of the land gives him a real grounding to his writing impossible for me to replicate.
But Clark is no country yokel either. He rebelled against farm life as a young man and lived a varied career as a journalist across the world – another difference to me, barely two and a bit years in the craft. He got his break with a year on Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “Once you get a bit of experience on a newspaper that’s recognised around the world, you’re in, you’re away,” Clark said. Clark later worked in Fleet Street and was in France freelancing when his brother asked him to come back and look after Pabra. He and Birch were beginning to forge a relationship and on impulse he invited her to join him in Cunnamulla. That is another major difference – I don’t have a glamorous French actress for a wife.
Birch said her introduction to Cunnamulla was Dennis O’Rourke’s controversial documentary made in 2000 called Cunnamulla. Clark showed it in Paris to a collection of French friends, including Birch. O’Rourke’s film is an Australian classic but is not an easy watch. It is hated in the town itself for its unflinching hardness and brutal honesty in its portrayal of remote small town life and its race relations.
Clark wrote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald talking about O’Rourke being lynched if he ever showed up there. O’Rourke’s cinema verite style should have struck with Clark’s French audience but all were bewildered by the strange Queensland accents and the apparent lack of action. All except Birch, who thought it intriguing. She followed Clark to Australia but said her destination wasn’t Cunnamulla but Clark. The pair took on the paper as well as Pabra and were suffering until they decided they could no longer print the paper themselves. Birch said their printer breakdown saved them from their own breakdown and they face the future with optimism, now printing has been outsourced.

At the “happy ending” of the ABC show, Clark and Birch got married (in April this year) and Birch spoke of their dreams to be “Murdochs of the South West”. While she said it in jest, it reminded me of another difference between Clark and I. He is an owner-editor, I’m just an journalist-editor. I don’t want to be a Murdoch, I’d just be happy to be the Harold Evans of the South West. I don’t have the capital to buy a paper and I don’t have the business acumen and way with money to run one successfully anyway. Clark would see me as part of the problem, working for the man (the Western Star is published by APN) and producing corporatised papers.  But his goal to make the Warrego Watchman a “lively read” is one I share for the Western Star. Unlike Clark, I haven’t torn myself away from the need to be impartial. And I will never tear myself away from the need to be trusted.

It was one comment by Birch early in the piece where I most identified with Clark and where my friend Glenn was right on the money. Working on bush newspapers, Birch said, meant “a lot of swearing and 14 hour days.” I squirmed in immediate acknowledgement. Country papers don’t pay much so you must be passionate about them to enjoy them. That means dealing with pressure and long hours. Clark, Birch and the ABC did well to shine a rare light on newspapers in this part of the world.