Old Tales of a Young Country

William Buckley, The “Wild White Man”

Marcus Clarke

EVERY country can claim for itself a Robinson Crusoe of home manufacture. He of Australia is William Buckley. As the majority of reading Australians are aware, Victoria—or, as it was originally called, Port Phillip—was twice colonised: first, by Lieutenant-Governor Collins, and, secondly, by Batman and Fawkner. The first was a forced, the second a voluntary colonisation. Governor Collins came in 1803, with convicts. Batman and Fawkner came in 1835 with freemen. Buckley belonged to the first expedition, and, the only white man who remained in the country, he lived long enough to see the second. He was one of the convicts brought out by Governor Collins, and succeeded in escaping to the bush and maintaining himself there for thirty-two years. His “picture in little” has been often painted, but as perhaps few persons are familiar with the details of his life and adventures, this sketch [compiled from an account of his wanderings written by himself] may not prove unacceptable.

William Buckley was born in 1780 at Macclesfield, in Cheshire. His parents were poor folk, who cultivated young William upon a little oatmeal. He had two brothers and a sister, but at sixteen years of age he left them, and never saw them more. Apprenticed to a bricklayer, he scorned the hod, and longed, like Norval, to “follow to the field some warlike lord.” His father objected, but the Norval parallel still holding good, “Heaven soon granted what his sire denied.” A sergeant in the Cheshire militia, assisted by ten guineas bounty, proved too much for parental advice, and William enlisted. He was at that time a prize for any recruiting sergeant. His height was gigantic, his strength excessive, and his brain-power feeble. He made a capital soldier. Getting into the King’s Own [4th Foot] he was sent to Holland, and fought there, receiving a wound in the hand. On his return to England he obtained leave of absence, and indulged in “riotous habits.” His Dutch experiences did not appear to have been of an improving kind. Possibly the army swore as terribly in Flanders in the days of Buckley as it did in those of Captain Tobias Shandy. However, be that as it may, Buckley would seem to have borne rather a bad character, and being, as he neatly puts it, “implicated in an offence that rendered me liable to punishment,” to wit, receiving stolen property, was tried at Chatham, found guilty, and sentenced to the hulks. After six months’ work at the fortifications of Woolwich, he was ordered on board the “Calcutta,” bound for Australia; and from this date his story, as far as we are concerned with it, may be said to commence.

Lieutenant-Colonel Collins, of the Royal Marines (who had previously been Judge-Advocate to the colony of New South Wales at its establishment by Governor Phillip), had been compensated for loss of legitimate promotion by the governorship of the projected colony of Van Diemen’s Land. He was placed in command of the ships “Calcutta” and “Ocean,” with instructions to form a convict settlement on the south-east coast of New Holland, and on the 27th April, 1803, left England for that purpose. A journal kept by the Rev. R. Knopwood, chaplain on board the “Calcutta,” gives us some particulars of the adventure.

After a somewhat stormy voyage the expedition sighted Port Phillip Heads at 5 a.m. on the 9th October, and moored in the bay. After some prospecting of the adjoining land, it was resolved to go higher up the bay, and eventually near Point Lonsdale a site was fixed on for the new city, and the stores were disembarked. On the 25th of October, at 8 a.m., the British flag was hoisted; and it being the King’s birthday into the bargain, some waste of powder was occasioned. The convicts were then divided into gangs, and put to work; and after a skirmish or two with the blacks, the colonists began to shake themselves down. Our hero Buckley was by this time in a position of some importance, and Mr. Knopwood records that on the 2nd November a complaint was made to him by the future Crusoe that “one Robert Cannady had defranded Buckley, the ‘Governor’s servant,’ of a waistcoat.” Hearing the case in his capacity of magistrate, the worthy chaplain upheld Buckley’s cause, and ordered the waistcoat to be given up. Notwithstanding his apparently comfortable condition, Buckley was discontented. He complained that the rope’s-end was a little too freely administered, and that the work was too hard. A magazine and store-house were the first public buildings erected, and upon these Buckley—in virtue, I suppose, of his early lessons under the Cheshire bricklayer—was employed. He had been brickmaking or bricklaying for about three months when he resolved to attempt his escape. Such attempts were frequent.

There seems to have been some wild notion abroad that California was situated on the other side of the continent, and that Sydney was within easy walking distance. The prisoners were not very closely watched; some of them were employed at some distance from the barracks, and escape was not difficult; but the character of the surrounding country made any projected stroll to China or California a serious matter, and in the majority of cases the poor ignorant fellows returned with gaunt frames and hungry faces, begging to be flogged and fed. The Rev. Knopwood’s journal is full of attempted escapes, but he usually records one of two results—a return or a death. The soldiers shot at any escaping convict, and if they missed him, the settlement would content itself with the surety proved by sad experience, that in a few days he would return to the camp, or his dead body would be brought in by some exploring party.

On the 27th of December, one of these “escapes” took place. At 9 p.m. six convicts endeavoured to make their escape, of whom Buckley was one. They were beset by a look-out party, and one man was shot. His name was Charles Shaw. The next night great fires were seen at a distance, and were supposed to he lit by the runaways. On the 6th of January a search was made, the worthy chaplain himself armed and assisting, butwithout any effect. The colony became alarmed. The absence of four men in the bush was a bad example. The next day the drums beat to arms, and a select body of marines were sent in pursuit of the fugitives; but though they were tracked for fifty miles, they could not be discovered. Believing that the absconders had died in the bush, the commandant was satisfied, and refrained from further exertions. On the 16th of January, one of the party, named M’Allender, came in and surrendered, giving up a gun which he had stolen. He said that all the others had died or been lost in the bush. This intelligence was for the colonists satisfactory, and in four days the occurrence was almost forgotten. Indeed, the Governor and his officers had something more interesting than convicts’ escapades to occupy their minds.

From the very first landing the people had grumbled at the situation and the climate. It was the height of summer. The thermometer averaged 110° in the sun. Fires were frequent; once, indeed, the huts of the officers of marines and the marquees themselves were nearly consumed. The soil was sandy and uninviting, the surrounding country barren and grim. Water was not too abundant, and as yet no river of any importance had been discovered. Collins had not the wit or the luck to penetrate to the Yarra or to coast to the Barwon, and disgusted with the inhospitable soil, he yielded to the entreaties of his officers, and broke up the settlement. The 24th, 25th, and 26th of January were spent in re-embarking the convicts, stores, and soldiers, and by daylight of the 30th Port Phillip was deserted. It had been colonised for the space of three months, and during that time one child had been born. “On the 5th November,” says the chaplain, “Sergeant Thomas’s wife was delivered of a boy, the first child of European parents born at Port Phillip.” This boy was named Hobart.

The record of the chaplain’s experiences, as far as it is necessary to follow it, ends at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of the day of the desertion. “At 3 p.m.,” says he, “I dined with the Governor.” Perhaps the conversation at that dinner was not without reference to the fate of Buckley and his companions. I can imagine the good chaplain sighing over his glass, and mentally congratulating the repentant M’Allender upon the good sense which had induced him to return to bondage. There could be no hope for the poor runaways now. Even if, by some wild chance, a hardier absconder succeeded in dragging himself back to camp, eager for the lash and loaf, his tardy penitence must come too late. The hot January sun would glare down now but upon deserted and unfinished buildings, bared spaces of ground, and all the melancholy ruin of abandoned habitations. Convict M’Allender himself, snugly disposed in the lower deck of the “Ocean,” might feel not uninclined to plume his ruffled feathers at the good fortune which had preserved him from the hideous fate of his unhappy companions.

Let us see what that fate was.

On the evening of the 27th of December this had occurred. At sunset, the hour of returning to the sheds, four men—one of whom had possession of a gun obtained from the Governor’s garden—sneaked round the partially-finished buildings, and took to the bush. A sentry challenged, and, receiving no reply, fired, and shot the last of the party. The others ran for the best part of four hours, and though pursued, were not recaptured. That night they camped on the bank of a creek, and in the morning pushed on again with redoubled vigour. They had some bread and meat, sundry tin pots, the gun before mentioned, and an iron kettle. It was resolved to head for Sydney; and in happy ignorance of intervening dangers, the adventurers set their faces to the wilderness and made straight towards the present site of Melbourne.

They crossed the Yarra, and reached the Yawang hills on the third day’s journey. Here the last particle of the treasured bread and meat was consumed, Sydney was distant, and starvation imminent. Buckley, who by virtue of his size and courage had been elected leader of the party, ordered a retreat to the sea coast, where mussels and limpets might keep life in them. With some difficulty they made their way to the beach, and wandered along it for three days, subsisting on gum, fish, and limpets. They broiled their poor fare on the embers, having flung away the kettle on the second day’s march, as being too heavy to carry. It was found, Buckley says, thirty-two years afterwards, by a ploughing settler. By this time they had made the circuit of the bay, and from their lair could see the “Calcutta” lying at anchor on the opposite side. Maddened by hunger, and desperate with dread of death, the grim philosophy of the lash and loaf overtook them. They lighted fires by night to attract the attention of the settlement, and hoisted their ragged garments on trees by day. Once a boat—probably the one with our armed chaplain—was seen to approach, and a rescue was hailed with a sort of dismal delight; but she returned without seeing their signals, and hope vanished.

For six days the miserable wretches starved within sight of their prison home, and at last plucked up courage to make a last effort for life. They told Buckley that they had determined to retrace their steps round the bay to the settlement, and urged him to accompany them. The desperate giant refused. He would have liberty at any hazard. Death in the gloomy swamps, the fantastic underwood, or the barren sand hills, seemed not so terrible as the death-in-life of the convict sheds. They might go if they pleased—he would remain. They did so, and all but one—M’Allender who carried the now useless gun—met the fate they dreaded.

Buckley, left to himself, turned his back upon the ships, and doggedly set out in search of Sydney. “How I could have deceived myself into a belief of reaching it,” he says, “is astonishing. . . . The whole affair was in fact a species of madness.” For seven days he travelled, swimming rivers, fording creeks, and plunging through scrub. His hope was to follow the coast-line until he reached his destination. He lived on shell-fish, gum, and the tops of young plants. On the sixth day the climate grew warmer. This added to his distress, for it increased his thirst. He began to have difficulty in finding food, and coming to two rocks that stood close together, flung himself down between them in despair. The rising tide drove him out of his miserable refuge, and climbing to the top, he slept, and hoped to die.

The next morning, however, he found something which cheered him. All through the journey the runaways had seen and heard the natives. Buckley had twice swum a creek to escape from them, and at night the forest was glow-wormed with their fires. The dying wretch—he had been without food or water for three days, and was at the last gasp—came upon a smouldering log. The sight gave him new energies. He tore down some berries, roasted and ate them, and searching a little further found a “great supply of shell-fish.” At this place he remained for more than a week,1 and then coming to a big rock, sheltered by an overhanging cliff, from which a plentiful stream of fresh water continually gushed, he made himself a sort of hut. Here he lived in rude contentment, and feeding on shell-fish and a sort of wild berry,2 began to experience the delights of freedom.

He was soon disturbed. One day three natives appeared, and took possession of his home. They did not seem terrified at his appearance, but ate and drank (cray-fish and water) with great gusto. They were dressed in opossum skins, and armed with spears. Buckley, weak with illness and unarmed, made no resistance to their will, and they bore him off to their huts. That night they watched him, or he would have escaped. In the morning, after a vain attempt to obtain such remnants of his woollen stockings as time and the shingle had left him, they went away, and he, frightened at the chance of their return, took to the bush. For some months he wandered about, living the life of a wild man, and subsisting on roots, berries, and shell-fish. The weather set in gloomy and tempestuous. He was frequently without fire, food, or shelter, and his sleep was broken by terror of the natives. The physical instinct of life-preservation must have been very strong in the man; a less stolid animal would have got rid of its burden long ago. One day, crawling rather than walking through the scrub, he saw a mound of earth with a spear sticking up out of the top of it, and, being in want of a walkingstick, he pulled up the weapon. That spear saved his life.

Having lain down that night under a tree, at grips with his last enemy, and not expecting to see the light of another morning, he was perceived by two lubras, who brought their husbands in great amazement to see the white man. The husbands—with that intelligence which is the privilege of the male sex—saw the state of the case at a glance. A great warrior had been buried at the mound. Great warriors, as all the world knows, change into white men after death. Buckley was a white man; and, moreover, he had in his hand the very spear that had been stuck into the tomb. Nothing could be more satisfactory, and saluting the half-starved convict by the name of Murrangurk, they bore him off to their huts, with much shouting and demonstrations of joy. Luckily for the restored Murrangurk, this joviality soon took the practical form of gum-water and chrysalids, upon which he dined heartily.

After a terrific corroboree, in which the women beat skin-drums until they fainted, and the men hacked themselves with knives until they bled, Buckley was duly received into the black bosom of the people, and presented with a nephew. This ready-made relative proved attentive, and Buckley accepted his position with grace, reflecting that if his nephew was not very wise, “there was no chance of his uncle having to pay his tailor’s or other bills. A consolation,” he adds with some humour, “that many uncles would be glad to possess with equal security.”

The rescued man soon fell in with the customs of his rescuers, and for the next thirty years lived with them as one of themselves, joining in their fights, and taking a prominent part in their councils. He was married to a charming but faithless woman, who, unmindful of the honour done her, eloped with a young warrior of her own race a fortnight after her marriage. Her justly indignant relatives, however, quickly knocked her on the head, and upheld the sanctity of the marriage tie. Despite his ill-success in the matrimonial lottery, Buckley appears to have found considerable favour in the eyes of the lubras. He relates with calm satisfaction many interesting intrigues, and pauses frequently in his narrative to heave a tender sigh at the recollection of the many ladies who were waddied for his sake. He became at last a sort of father of the people, presiding in the council and issuing orders to the senate. The tribe which originally adopted him were almost totally destroyed in battle, and he then found a home among the friends of one of his wives.

His account of his wanderings is not particularly interesting. The Australian black is as far removed from Uncas and Chingachook, as Uncas and Chingachook are from reality. Mr. Buckley’s friends had no medicine men, no tents, no Great Spirit, no fawnskin clothes, no mocassins, no calumets, and no buffalo. They were simply a set of repulsive, filthy savages, who daubed themselves with mud, and knew no pleasure save that of gorging. I am afraid that Mr. Buckley’s narrative shows the beautiful fallacy of the “poetical” native theory. An Australian Romeo would bear his Juliet off with the blow of a club, and Juliet would prepare herself for her bridal by “greasing herself from head to foot with the kidney-fat of her lover’s rival.” Poor Paris!

However, here and there we get amusing hints of primitive innocence. In happy ignorance of cookery, Mr. Buckley’s friends eat “all kinds of beasts, fish, fowl, reptile, and creeping thing.” They have no notion of mechanical appliance, and a rude dam that Buckley makes astonishes them greatly. Their arms are spears, clubs, and flint-headed tomahawks, and they spear their fish and dig out their wombats. No genius among them has ever invented a net or a snare. They keep count of time by chalk-marks on the arm. They paint themselves for battle or feast. They bury their dead in mounds, or suspend them in trees. They eat their enemies, having previously grilled them between heated stones. Affectionate wives preserve the knee-joints of their dead husbands as relies, and wear them round their necks, locket-fashion. Deformed children are instantly brained, and the population is kept within reasonable bounds by judicious weeding of an extensive family. A child every two years is considered enough for any reasonable mother, and should she indulge in more, the indignant father cracks its skull against the nearest tree. Nothing is new, we see,—not even Social Science. Cannibalism is a luxury, not an ordinary practice; but Buckley mentions a tribe called the Pallidurgbarrans, who eat human flesh whenever they get a chance, and employ human kidney fat, not as a charmed unguent for the increase of their valour, but as a sort of Dundee marmalade, viz., “an excellent substitute for butter at breakfast.” These gentlemen are the colour of “light copper, their bodies having tremendously large and protruding bellies.” They ate so many natives at last that war was declared, and some inglorious Pelissier drove a few hundred of them into a cave, and setting fire to the surrounding bush, suffocated them with great success.

When a girl is born she is instantly promised in marriage, and from that time neither she herself nor her mother must speak to the intended son-in-law, nor the son-in-law to them. Marriage is quite á la mode with these people. The nearest approach, however, that they make to civilisation is in popular theology. They believe that the earth is supported on props, which are in charge of an old man, who lives at the most remote corner of the earth. Occasionally this old man sends a message to say, that unless he gets a supply of tomahawks and rope wherewith to cut and tie more props, the earth will “go by the run, and all hands will be smothered.” One of these messages arrived while Buckley was there, and he says that intense excitement prevailed, and tomahawks galore were sent on to the “old man.” “Who this knowing old juggling thief is,” says Buckley, “I could never make out. However, it is only one of the same sort of robberies which are practised in the other countries of what are called Christendom.” Popular theology is accustomed to cry out for “more props.”

At last, after thirty-two years of savage life, Buckley met two natives, one of whom carried a flag over his shoulders. He had long given up all hope of meeting with white men; he had forgotten his language and almost his name, but the sight of the flag gave him a strange shock. The natives told him that they had seen a vessel at anchor in Port Phillip Bay, near the Indented Heads, and, all hands having left her on a boat expedition up the river, they had climbed on board and helped themselves. They proposed to Buckley to go back with them and help to decoy the people on shore, when they would kill them and seize the cargo. Now for the first time the hope of escape from the hideous liberty he had sought arose. He pretended to fall in with their views, and going down to the sea-shore, made every effort to privately attract the attention of the new comers. But he had forgotten the English tongue, and could only make hoarse and unintelligible noises. Twice a boat approached him, and twice, hearing his frantic gibberish and seeing his savage costume, the sailors laughed and pulled off.

While watching the vessel, the natives told him that some years before another vessel had anchored in the same place, and two white men were brought ashore by four or five others, who tied them to trees and shot them, leaving their bodies bound. There were many such mysteries of the sea in those times.

In a few days more the vessel departed, and poor Buckley going to the spot where he had last seen her crew land, found a white man’s grave—grim answer to his hopes and prayers. A few months after this he found a boat stranded on the shore, and learned that two sailors had been saved and well-treated by the natives, who wished to bring them to him, but that the castaways, suspicious and ill at ease, had gone off in the direction of the Yarra. There they were savagely murdered. A vessel would seem to have been wrecked somewhere on the coast, for barrels were found. One of these contained what Buckley, who found it, supposed to be beer or wine; but the flavour appeared “horribly offensive” to him, and he staved the cask.

At last his “good time” arrived. One day two young natives met him, and waving coloured handkerchiefs, informed him that three white and six black men had been landed from a ship which had gone away again, and that they had erected two tents. The natives suggested murder and robbery, and told Buckley that they were in search of another tribe in order to fall upon the white men more effectually. Alarmed by this intelligence, Buckley started for the white camp, and reaching it the next day, sat down at some little distance and made signs to his countrymen. His strange colour, his wild garb, and his gigantic height appeared to alarm them, but they spoke kindly to him. Buckley could neither understand nor reply. At last one man offered him some bread, “calling it by its name,” and as he did so, Buckley says, “a cloud appeared to pass from over my brain, and I repeated that and other English words after him.” They took him to their tents, and gave him biscuit, tea, and meat. He showed them the initials W. B. on one of his arms, and they regarded him as a shipwrecked seaman. Little by little he recovered the use of his tongue, and could speak with them. They told him that the vessel which had landed them would be back from Launceston in a few days with more people and a fresh supply of tools; that they were about to settle in the country, and had already bought land of the native chiefs. “This,” says Buckley, “I knew could not have been, because, unlike other savage communities or people, they have no chiefs claiming or possessing superior right over the soil, theirs being only as heads of families.”

The natives now began to assemble in great numbers, and announced to Buckley their intention of killing the new settlers, desiring him to aid them, and threatening him that they would sacrifice him with the weaker party if he refused. Buckley was a little frightened at this, but succeeded in persuading his old friends to wait until the return of the ship, when, he said, the amount of plunder would be increased. The ship not returning as soon as was expected, the natives began to grow impatient, and then Buckley, throwing off all disguise, openly sided with the white men, and, arming himself with a gun, vowed he would shoot through the head the first man who flung a spear. This threat, and a promise of unlimited presents, kept them quiet, and at last the vessel arrived.

She brought Batman, Wedge, and their party, and having landed the stores, returned next day to Van Diemen’s Land with an account of Buckley, and a solicitation from Mr. Wedge for a free pardon for him. He was installed in the meantime as interpreter, and guide to the expedition. When the vessel returned, Batman went on board, and fired off his gun as a signal to Buckley that his pardon had arrived. The next day he received that document, signed by Colonel Arthur, dated 25th August, 1835, exactly thirty-two years from the date of his landing from the ship “Calcutta.”

By this vessel instructions were brought to the directors of the company to proceed to the right bank of the Yarra, and in three days the site of Melbourne was marked out. The next vessel brought Mr. Gellibrand and a number of settlers, to whom Buckley was engaged as interpreter, at a salary of £50 a-year and rations. He accompanied them in an exploring expedition, and on his return built the chimney of Mr. Batman’s house, on Batman’s Hill, the “first habitation regularly formed at Port Phillip.”

The tide of immigration now poured into the new settlement, and Melbourne became a township. Captain Lonsdale (of Buckley’s old regiment) came over with a detachment of the 4th to assume the command of the colony, and made Buckley his personal attendant. He was now in clover, was well-dressed, well-fed, and a man of no small importance. He quarrelled with a Mr. Fawkner,3 from Launceston, “who had been an old settler, but had no connection with the company.” He acted as constable, and hunted down and apprehended a black-fellow for killing a shepherd. Governor Bourke with several officers of the New South Wales Government visiting the place, Buckley received him at the head of 100 natives “ranked in line, and saluting him by putting their hands to their foreheads” as he directed. The Governor was interested in the “wild white man,” and asked him many questions about his wild life. Buckley replied with suitable dignity, and ended by accompanying His Excellency into the interior—about as far as Mordialloc—and showing him the lions. On his return he heard of the loss of Mr. Gellibrand and Mr. Hesse, and volunteered to look for them. The loss of these gentlemen threw the settlement into a great state of consternation. They had attempted to ride from Geelong to Melbourne, and had been lost in the bush. It was generally thought that they were murdered by the blacks, and several natives were shot without the slightest reason. All search for the missing men proved unsuccessful, and Buckley returned. An absconder from Van Diemen’s Land being apprehended about this time, Buckley was sent in charge of him to Launceston, and returned in a steam-vessel, having on board Captain Fyans, who had been appointed resident magistrate at Geelong.

He now seems to have been discontented with his position, and says “finding that some persons were always throwing difficulties in the way of my interests, and not knowing what might be the result, I determined on resigning office, and on leaving a colony where my services were so little known, and so badly appreciated by the principal authorities.”

On the 28th December, 1837, Buckley sailed from Melbourne in the “Yarra Yarra,” and landed in Hobart Town on the 10th of January following. Here he was made much of; public-houses were open to him, and strangers stood treat to him. One gentleman took him to the theatre, and “one of the performers came to ask me if I would like to visit the place again, and come upon the stage.” Buckley, with that wild desire to go “behind the scenes” which thirty-two years of barbarism had not shaken out of him, said that he would like it much. Next day, however, he discovered the reason of his friend’s kindness. He was to be exhibited as the Anglo-Australian giant! “I soon,” says he, “gave a denial to any such display, very much to the mortification, as I afterwards understood, of the stage manager, who had publicly notified my appearance.” I wonder who was this ingenious dog. He doubtless gauged the public taste accurately—Buckley would have been a “good draw.”

Shortly afterwards a Mr. Cutts, one of his old shipmates in the “Calcutta,” who had now become a wealthy and respectable settler near Green Ponds, made interest with Sir John Franklin, and Buckley was appointed assistant-store-keeper at the Hobart Town Immigrants’ Home; and when that establishment was broken up, he was transferred to the Female Nursery as gatekeeper.

At the Immigrants’ Home he “became acquainted with a family, consisting of a respectable mechanic, his wife and daughter,” and the mechanic being killed by the natives near the Murray River, Buckley proposed for the widow and was accepted. He was married in March, 1840.

Ten years afterwards he was paid off by the Convict Department, with a pension of £12 a-year, and on this, and a subscription raised by his friends, he lived until his death, which occurred in February, 1856, when he had attained the age of seventy-six.

1.    “It may have been two or three,” he says, “for I seemed hence-forward to have lost all record of time.”    [back]

2.    Probably the cherry.    [back]

3.    John Fawkner, J.P., who claimed to be the founder of the colony. He died on the 4th of September, 1869, aged seventy-seven years.    [back]

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