The public hangings of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenneer, which took place in Melbourne on 20th January 1842, were one of the biggest injustices of Australian History. The two aboriginal men were executed for killing two white sealers and the justice system of that time completely ignored their plight and the reasons behind their actions. Here we are revisiting the dark past of Australia’s white settlement.
The sealers had begun commercial operations in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) since 1798, but significant European settlement began with the establishment of a military post in present day Hobart in 1803. The atrocities committed against the aborigines by the settlers since 1798, are some of the most disgraceful chapters of human cruelty. Initially the central motivation for attacking the black population was for kidnapping their woman and children for sex, as the enormous gender imbalance among the settlers being the contributory factor.
The women and children were brutally raped, and some were kept as sex slaves for longer periods and others were just shot and killed. Aborigines were also killed for sport but as the native population began retaliating, settlers united in force to suppress the native threat and engaged in revenge killing of aborigines. By the 1820’s the hostilities between the blacks and the settlers reached boiling proportions and the resultant mass murder of aborigines that followed for the next decade or so, can only be described as a genocide.
The martial law declared by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur in the 1820’s effectively provided legal immunity for killing aborigines. In the 1830’s a massive six-week military offensive known as “Black Line” was conducted. Around 2200 civilians and soldiers formed a series of moving cordons to drive aborigines out of the settled districts of Tasmania killing hundreds in the process. Bounties were also paid when aborigines were killed.
In the early 1930’s, George Augustus Robinson initiated a process to persuade Aboriginal people to surrender and be removed to an island sanctuary in Flinders Island. Robinson was widely known as a wolf in a sheep’s skin. With the help of aborigines he befriended, he negotiated with other aborigines offering a safe passage to Flinders Island for laying down arms.
When Robinson was offered the position of Chief Aborigine Protector in Victoria, he took a group of Tasmanian Aborigines with him to assist him in Melbourne in the year 1839. Truganini, her husband Woorrady, Pyterruner, Planobeena, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyhenner were part of the 16 Tasmanian Aborigines, who followed Robinson to Melbourne.
Robinson took the assistance of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener to interact with the aboriginal clans in Melbourne. This would have given a clear picture to the young aborigines about what is happening in Melbourne is no different to what happened in Tasmania. Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener along with others in the group split with Robinson. Tunnerminnerwait, Maulboyheener, Truganini and two other women gathered supplies and forged out into the bush. Probably they were trying to find a way back to their home land in Tasmania.
The group was heading towards Wilsons Promontory through the Dandenong Ranges collecting weaponry and destroying livestock and white settlements on the way. At Wilson Promontory in 1841, the group had a clash with two white whalers. The aborigines shot at the white whalers and one died instantly, and the other was clubbed to death. It could not be confirmed whether the murder happened in self-defence or not. Within six weeks the group was caught by the Police and brought back to Melbourne to face the justice system which still was in its infancy.
The trials were widely reported by the media and the judge wanted to send a message for Victorian aborigines that, this is what going to happen if they resisted the actions of white settlers.
When the day of Tunnerminnerwait’s and Maulboyheener’s executions arrived, thousands descended upon Melbourne to witness the event, held on La Trobe Street. The newspapers called Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener as Bob and Jack, so it is difficult ascertain who is jack and who is Bob.
The Report in Australasian Chronicle (Sydney, NSW : 1839 – 1843) published on Tue 15 Feb 1842
Courtesy: National Library of Australia
Execution of the Blacks
The first capital punishment which has been executed in Port Phillip since its establishment in 1835 was carried into effect on Thursday morning. on the two aboriginal natives, Bob and Jack, convicted at the criminal sessions of December for the murder of two whalers, near Cape Patterson, in the month of October . Many circumstances tend to throw the greatest interest round their fate, and to excite in the public mind a more than ordinary portion of that morbid curiosity which attacks minds imbued even with the best feelings, in cases such as we have now to describe. Bob and Jack are two aboriginal natives of Van Diemen’s Land, where, at an early age, they became attached to the fortunes of Mr. Robinson, the gentleman who now fills the office of chief protector to the blacks in this province.
Mr. Robinson, as we have often before stated, is celebrated for the part he took in those transactions which led to the ultimate capture and removal of the native inhabitants of the sister colony. Bob has been brought up, it appears, from childhood, in companionship with the whites; had been a resident at Bruné Island when Mr. Robinson had charge of some native establishment and had accompanied him in various of his expeditions into the interior. At these periods he displayed the greatest courage and fidelity, joined to an acuteness which rendered his services particularly valuable. Jack, his brother in crime, was brought into civilised connexions at a much later date of his life, and although one of the most promising adult pupils of Mr. Robinson’s system of training, never proved either so faithful or so docile. Besides these, there were other points of contrast in the men’s characters, which renders their ultimate criminal relationship most singular.
Bob was lively, pliable, and capable of affection; Jack was sullen, but daring: the latter was the leader in all the depredations that closed in their ignominious death; the former revolted at the crimes committed but was compelled to submit. Bob had imbibed clearer ideas of religion and was affected at the last by the terrors of his situation. Jack was evidently sceptical of the simplest truths of Christianity, and doggedly retained his firmness to the moment of death. When Mr. Robinson had succeeded in his conciliatory mission to the blacks, he was appointed, as is well known, to the superintendency of Flinders’ Island, whither the whole of the tribes were despatched, to be placed under his charge.
Bob and Jack voluntarily attended their friend and master in his translation, and, together with their wives, were among the most exemplary of the natives. Again, on the appointment of Mr. Robinson to the situation of Chief Protector in New South Wales, these men followed him to Port Phillip, but we have reason to say not without dissatisfaction; they had, or believed they had, in conjunction with the rest of the natives at Flinder’s Island, some interest in a flock of sheep which had been bred for the sole use of the establishment, and expressed their disappointment in not having been allowed to take their share either in sheep or in value. Arrived at Port Phillip, Bob and Jack remained on the chief protector’s domestic establishment until the beginning of last year, when they were allowed to hire themselves out for work in the country; the former, under this permission, went with Mr. Alfred Langhorne in an overland expedition to South Australia, during the accomplishment of which we have that gentleman’s testimony that he saved his life. In the meantime Jack, it seems, was employed in various stations until the return of Bob, when he was joined by the latter, and both in conjunction commenced those outrages which brought them to the gallows.
They were captured on the 20th of October last by a party of mounted troopers under the command of Mr. Commissioner Powlett, and were committed, in company with the women, for murder, at the Melbourne police office, on the 30th of November; were brought to trial in the supreme court on the 20th of December, were convicted, but recommended to mercy (the females being acquitted), and were executed on the 20th of January, 1842.
The prisoners, throughout the time which elapsed between trial and punishment, were lodged in the gaol at the west end of Melbourne, and from the day that their fate was ratified by the Governor, and made public in the province, were visited by several of the curious, most of the protectors, the Wesleyan missionaries, and the ministers of all denominations in Melbourne. At first they showed a feeling with regard to their position, which could be construed either into solid apathy or savage indifference, but which, from their silence, it was impossible exactly to define. Bob, by degrees, began to express some feeling which swelled at the termination into an agony of terror. Jack showed no symptom what- ever of being influenced by any religious ideas, nor even of sorrow for the inhumanity of his deeds.
He confessed that revenge had led him to commit the murders, and that his belief was, that, on dying, he would join his father as a hunter in Van Diemen’s Land. Bob listened attentively to the exhortations of the various ministers who visited him, and betrayed, in the end, the liveliest anxiety for his future fate. Preparations for the last awful moment were in progress for some days previous to the execution, but we are happy to say, for the character of the inhabitants, that the greatest difficulty was experienced by the Sheriff in obtaining the service of a hangman, and it was only by promising the convict messenger of the gaol ten pounds and a ticket for another district, that an executioner was secured.
On Wednesday night, that preceding the execution, the prisoners presented the greatest contrast in their demeanour, Bob was dejected, and Jack thoroughly indifferent. The former made at this time a most important confession; it was to the effect that he took no part in the murder until threatened by Jack, who placed a loaded musket at his head when commanding him to fire on one of the whalers; even then, however, he would have refused had not the women bidden him remember the murder of their relatives at Port Arthur, in Van Diemen’s Land, by the white people, and this incited him to a revenge which all considered justifiable. When their supper was brought overnight to the unfortunate prisoners, Bob refused to eat, while Jack fed heartily, and smoked his pipe with the utmost tranquillity; the same thing occurred at breakfast the following morning, and it was only after much pressing that Bob consented to drink a little tea.
During the night the Rev. Mr.Thomson attended and prayed with the criminals, joining them again two hours previous to their final removal. From the earliest hour of the morning crowds of people began to gather round the gaol and take up what they considered the most favourable situations for viewing the spectacle. At the commencement, and throughout the scene, the greatest levity was betrayed, and the women, who made by far the greatest proportion, had dressed for the occasion. The side and end walls of the gaol which were nearest the gallows were crowded with human beings; the trees in the vicinity had their inmates, and by eight o’clock the assembly numbered upwards of three thousand souls. Between eight and nine, accessions to the crowd of spectators were momentarily received, and the most disgusting spirit betrayed in scrambling for places; several even jumped upon the coffins, which stood at the foot of the gibbet, in their eagerness to watch any movement connected with the event.
At eight o’clock, Captain Beers arrived at the scene, with a guard of soldiers, who, on the appearance at the other end of the town of the cavalcade attending the prisoners, made a lane for their passage at the point of the bayonet. The prisoners were in a travelling van belonging to Mr. Robinson, and in which, concealed from public gaze, they were drawn from the gaol to the place of execution. The van was a small carriage frame, drawn by two horses, and covered in with painted cloth stretched round on poles fastened to the corners of the frame; they were preceded and guarded by a body of mounted and border policemen, and were accompanied on the way through Lonsdale street by several hundreds of people, who joined and merged with the dense mass round the gallows. The Sheriff, the Governor, and other officers of the gaol, the chaplain, and chief constable, came up at the same time, and superintended the dreadful preparations. The platform, from its construction, could only be reached by ladders, two of which were placed against it, while from the top descended the noosed ropes, carefully lashed to the beam above and falling on the platform. On the arrival of the van two constables stepped up to hand the prisoners out, and the start back which Bob gave showed the terror inflicted by the sight of the unexpected populace; he came out, however, immediately, after trembling violently, followed by Jack, calm and imperturbable to the end.
It was gratifying to see the universal kindness with which they were treated, soothed by everyone round, and tenderly handled even by the executioner. On coming out of the van their arms were tied behind them slightly, and prayers commenced by the miniister in attendance. Bob’s agitation increased with every passing moment, and his moans were terrible to hear. They knelt together with the clergyman while he prayed, joining at intervals in a few words which they understood. On rising again, Bob’s feelings broke out in the most heartrending groans; the terrified and piteous looks he threw around him, pressing against everyone that spoke to him as it to catch at some chance of salvation, were terrible to witness; he trembled violently, while the sweat burst from his face in the agony of his sufferings. At length everything was completed, their arms were securely bandaged, and they were directed to mount the scaffold. Here we cannot refrain from remarking on the scandalous manner in which the dispositions of these arrangements had been affected.
The poor wretches in getting up the ladder, deprived of the use of their hands, were obliged to cling to the bars with their knees and chins, and so be partly dragged and partly pushed up to slaughter; the circumstance was a gross outrage of public decency, and should be noticed by the proper authorities. This fault, however, was the means of affording a momentary relief to the minds of the spectators, for Bob’s attention to his fate was for a while distracted by the exertion he had to use in climbing up the ladder, and his groans had ceased on attaining the platform. It was at this time that Jack, who was already standing in his appointed place, and whose eyes had been left uncovered at his own request to the latest moment, might have been seen fixing his eyes on some native blacks, who had taken their stations in the branches of a tree close to the gallows to witness a sight to them so novel and impressive it was the only sign of interest or anxiety he had expressed during the occurrences of the morning; and, whatever were the feelings which crowded through the brain and heart of the savage at that moment, it is certain the expression of his face alone witnessed for their deep and unknown interest. With considerable difficulty Bob was got upon the platform, when the hangman, passing behind them, fixed the ropes round their necks, placing the knot of each noose under the ear, drew down the night caps on their heads over their eyes, and descended again the ladder. As the two criminals stood on the platform, their heads nearly reached up to the beam, while their faces were turned to the west end of the town; they were dressed each in white shirt, trousers, stockings, and caps, and the colour, contrasting with their tawny hands, faces, and necks, rendered them distinctly and horribly conspicuous.
The executioner having reached the ground, the ladders were removed, the hangman and a companion stationed at a rope which led from the foot of the prop described before, and, at a signal given, they hauled together, and with a jerk the unattached end of the platform fell a couple of feet; there was a dead pause, and a cry of shame from the crowd. Bob even then was sensitive to his position; his start was indicative of suppressed terror, and his knees shook under him. At this moment, too, a tremor ran through Jack’s frame, which increased the horror of the sight.
Again the prop was tugged at—it was removed, and the platform fell; a sharp cry was heard from Bob as he fell, but from Jack only a heavy sound, as if the wilfully pent breath had been forced out of the body by the violence of the jerk. From the bungling manner in which the platform was struck away, Bob’s fall was broken by a space of two feet, and this, joined to the partial displacement of the noose, rendered his struggle more lasting than his partner’s. The bodies swung to and fro for a few moments, but presently settled downwards; there were one or two violent muscular movements, and both were dead. Having hung an hour, the bodies were cut down, enclosed in coffins prepared for their reception, and buried near the cemetery to the north of the town.