Written by Lewis Twiby
On Tuesday 31 October, Meg Foster, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New South Wales, gave a research seminar on the infamous bushranger Black Douglas. This was in an effort to highlight her research in this overlooked aspect of Australian national history. During Australia’s gold rush of the 1850s, a new brand of criminal named the ‘bushranger’ emerged and set upon miners in search of fortune. Many of these – such as Ned Kelly – became folkloric heroes along the lines of Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, but Meg Foster’s research focuses on one specific bushranger – Black Douglas. While figures like Kelly became heroes, Douglas became a villain. Foster sought to understand why and to know exactly what was true in the stories and records about Black Douglas.
The research seminar commenced at what generally would be the end of a normal seminar, with Foster detailing how Douglas and his gang were captured. This was not by the police, but by almost 200 gold miners 140 kilometres north of Melbourne, at Alma – named after the battle during the Crimean War – in May 1855. Despite calls to lynch him, the miners handed the gang over to the police. Here, Foster gave a concise but detailed insight into the world of Australia’s gold rush. The historiography often compares Australia to California, stressing the lack of lawlessness in New South Wales compared to its American counterpart, and Foster showed that this view is not entirely accurate. ‘Judge Lynch’ provided justice, with miners viewing the police as either untrustworthy or weak. ‘Protection Societies’ were communally formed instead, in order to protect the miners. Many newspapers actually condemned the violence of the miners when they captured Douglas, citing it as an example of the anarchy of the unregulated mines. Furthermore, as with the American minefields, the Australian mines attracted people from around the world. Australians, Americans, British (first arriving in 1852), Poles, Chinese, Maori and Germans were just some of the groups of people who were eager to strike rich with gold. This brought up the question of identity: anyone could dispose of their old life and create an entirely new one, and this reinvention of identity even happened in camps themselves. If someone was caught stealing in one camp, they could easily move to the next and start their lives anew. Foster’s intricate explanation of the Australian gold mines perfectly set the stage for the story of Black Douglas.
Foster went on to explain a curiosity following Douglas’ arrest. Despite leading a gang of bushrangers, and (according to local newspapers) killing a white woman, he was never convicted of murder, assault, or robbery. He was instead convicted of vagrancy and served two years in prison – he was released in February 1857. Foster here links the first half of her investigation to the second half. Douglas embodied the goldfields themselves. The violence during his arrest was seen as symptomatic of the anarchic, unregulated and unruly life of the goldfields: worries which pervaded the Australian press. Despite allegations and stories of his robberies and assaults, there were no witnesses for the court to use. Everyone was a potential criminal, and Douglas, along with his gang, embodied that idea. Foster, however, also emphasised a far less romanticised view of Douglas; he was the embodiment of the fears revolving colonial society.
This is the second reason why Black Douglas is an interesting figure to research, and this is what Foster focused on for the next third of the seminar. The press, prior to his assert, reported that he had murdered a white woman. In their description of him, he was always described as being ‘black,’ and that the white men he worked with were ‘his’ men. Foster linked this to the prevailing racism in colonial societies, which had become formalised through Victorian science. In a thought-provoking section, Foster commented on how Douglas’ white accomplices – likely to be ex-convicts – were side-lined, with the focus being on Douglas himself. Douglas became a double bogeyman to the colonial society; he represented the unruliness of the gold fields and the fears of race relations within Victorian society.
The final part of the seminar revolved around a discussion about an often-overlooked idea when examining national and folk heroes: who exactly was Black Douglas? Here the most interesting part of Foster’s research was shown. Black Douglas was an ex-convict with his convict record saying that he arrived in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) via the infamous convict ship, the Marquis of Huntley. Foster has stated that he may have lied about being a servant and cook in order to have greater prospects upon arriving in Australia, a common occurrence which remarkably resembles the reinvention of identity prevalent in the goldmines. Colonial records stated that he often rebuked authority, earning him 1,000 lashes during his time in Tasmania. However, the most interesting aspect of Foster’s research is what happened before his arrival in Australia, and what happened after his release from prison in 1857.
In her research, Foster has found several possible features of Douglas’ pre-Australia life. His convict record stated that he was originally from Philadelphia, and travelled to Britain where he committed a crime – stealing two coats –, which caused him to be sent to Tasmania. Aged just 17, Douglas was literate and apparently well spoken – he managed to defend himself in court at a later trial, for example, when he and his companion, John Smith, were held in a one-metre cell in a repurposed castle for two weeks. Foster also mentioned his three tattoos: an anchor on his left arm, the outline of a woman on the same arm, and a star or sun on his right hand. All these features offer an interesting insight into the life of Black Douglas; the actual personality of Black Douglas was stripped from him, and he was remodelled as a legend. After his release in 1857, Douglas’ life was a tragedy. He drifted from benevolent society to imprisonment for vagrancy, and back to benevolent societies until his death in 1892 – whilst he was imprisoned. Only two newspapers, apparently plagiarising one another, wrote an obituary for him.
At this early stage of her research, Meg Foster has offered an insightful glimpse into an overlooked figure. She concluded by stating her plans to find out various things about Douglas, in a style reminiscent to that of a detective. These include such things as who exactly was Douglas’ white and illiterate companion John Smith (a very difficult and unenviable task); and what were the exact meanings of Douglas’ tattoos? Did anyone else share his tattoos on the convict ship? – were the tattoos a gesture of brotherhood for the condemned? Foster’s seminar was insightful, in that she efficiently painted a picture of colonial fears of decentralised rule, as well as racist tensions, whilst also highlighting the limitations of the current field of history. Whilst researching Black Douglas, she has had to leave colonial records behind due to gaps in the sources. Her research has also highlighted an important idea. Regardless of whether they are a forgotten figure like Black Douglas, or a well-known one like Ned Kelly, folk and national heroes were not simply names on pages with their exploits: they were real people.