Home Melbourne Stories William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with aborigines for 32 years

William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with aborigines for 32 years

William Beckley

Early European settlers in Australia had a difficult life as they had to fight against the nature to make a living and had to adjust to the new realities of a new country. But the fight for survival of a few of them differed a lot from the rest and William Buckley is one such character. William Buckley was born at Marton, near Macclesfield, Cheshire in England . Though apprenticed to a bricklayer, at the age of 19, Buckley left to enlist in the King’s Foot Regiment and was soon transferred to the King’s Own Regiment. His life took a wrong turn when he was convicted of possessing a stolen parcel of clothes. He was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales for 14 years. Buckley always maintained his innocence saying, he was only helping a woman he never met before, who requested him to carry a piece of cloth in a parcel to a soldier’s wife in the garrison to be made up.

Buckley was one among the convicts in HMS Calcutta, that left England in April 1803 for Port Phillip to form a new settlement under Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins, which anchored near what later became Sorrento in Victoria. The new settlement they called Sullivan Bay lacked fresh water and good soil for agriculture and Collins was a misfit as a Governor.  A decision was made to abandon the site for Van Diemen’s Land.  Hearing the news, Buckley and two other mates resolved to make an escape, ran away from the camp at night on 27 December 1803, taking necessary provisions with them. They decided to conceal themselves until the ship had sailed, then to make their way to Sydney. They thought Sydney could not be far and did not have any idea that it is 1000km away. They took off in one of the ship’s boats and stuck into bush soon. Buckley and two of his mates walked as far as they could that day, then sat down and ate last of their provisions. Unaware of the distance to Sydney Buckley thought if he keeps walking in northerly direction, soon he will reach Sydney, but the other two convicts already had enough and wanted to return to the settlement.  They split up in the vicinity of present-day Melbourne and Buckley resolved to travel alone.

He survived on sea food. On his upward journey he happened to meet a black man with a large family of children, who treated Buckley with kindness from whom he learned enough language to express his wants. After a few days he bid adieu to them and continued with his journey. Many months passed wandering; sometimes starving and sometimes eating to repletion; this wretched existence of loneliness was slowly catching up on Buckley. At a few occasions he had fell in with aborigines. One day he was spotted by a group of aboriginal women, who immediately informed their husbands. They have come there to gather wattle gum, their favourite article of food. They believed Buckley to be a black, who had died sometime previously, and they thought had come again to them. Buckley was carrying with him a spear left at the burial ground of this man to mark the location. They treated Buckley with respect and honour and Buckley tried his best to conform to their habits and avoid giving them cause of offence. They even gave him a wife.

After living with them for around 6 months, Buckley happened to meet one of his companions with whom he escaped, living with another family of tribe on the seacoast, who then came and lived with him. But his reckless character with women made him fear would result in being murdered by enraged aborigines. He was asked to leave and Buckley never heard of him again. He soon lost all beckoning of time, but in about 2 years in the country he could express himself in aboriginal tongue pretty freely. He also mastered the art of spearing fish and hunting, which he claimed to do better than his fellow aborigines.  Beckley also shed some light on the aboriginal way of life. He said, the aboriginal tribes used to have fierce fights between them, but they respected his neutrality and always put him away from harm’s way. Aborigines consumed considerable variety of food besides Kangaroo, possum, bandicoot, sugar squirrel, porcupine or hedgehog. Having obtained their prey, they enclose it entire in a piece of bark and then roast it. Taking off skin, they again apply the body to the fire. The aborigines he was with, was called the Waddawurrung. The natives are cannibals and Buckley said he has seen them eat small portions of the flesh of their enemies slain in battle. They did this not from any kind of liking for human flesh but from the impression that by eating their adversaries flesh they themselves would become better warriors. Many of them are, however, disgusted with the idea, and instead of eating the flesh, merely rub their bodies with a small portion of the fat, as a charm equally efficient. They also ate the flesh of a dead child to whom, when alive had been much attached. When a child dies, they place the body in an upright position in a hollow tree and allow it to remain there until perfectly dry, then the parents retrieve it and carry it about with them.

They also suffer much from skin disorders. Promiscuous intercourse of the sexes is common, and on certain festivals is even encouraged. At certain times the women are formally left to the young men who have no wives. Sometimes a black will go and entice away a woman: the husband will allow her to go with him, but she will have a severe beating on her return.

Buckley’s ” life and adventures” were recorded in a volume by John Morgan, of Hobart, in the year 1852, in a publication titled “Life and Adventures of William Buckley” .

On 12th July 1835, John Batman, with whom was associated John Helder Wedge and G.T.Gellibrand was surprised by meeting Buckley with some natives at Intended Head, east of Geelong. It was nearly 32 years since he left the European civilisation for the aboriginal way of life. At first, he could not remember any of the English language and couldn’t even answer the question, “what is your name?” Instead he showed the two letters ‘WB’ tattooed on his body. But within a few days he was able to speak reasonably well. Batman’s people asked him to stay with them until the ships returned from Tasmania. A few days after he had joined with the whites, blacks began to roll up in large numbers and formed a camp near that of whites and asked Buckley to camp with them. Natives intend to murder whites for the sake of getting their possession of goods and they wanted Buckley to join them in the attack. He temporized with them and got them to put off the attack until the ship returned, saying they would get much better haul. The gratitude for taking care of him for the past 32 years gave way to European style treachery. The blacks consented first, but got impatient as time passed, but Buckley threatened to shoot them. Batman saw an opportunity in Buckley to be used as an interpreter and a mediator between him and the blacks.

William Barak, the last traditional elder of the Wurundjeri-willam clan who attended the government’s Yarra Mission School from 1837 to 1839, gave some accounts of what happened after Batman met Buckley.  After meeting Batman, Buckley told the blacks to look at Batman’s face and told them, “every white man that you see out in the bush, not to touch him; when you see an empty hut, not to touch the bread in it. Make camp outside and wait till man comes home and finds everything safe in house. They are good people, and if you kill one white man white fellow will shoot you down like kangaroo.”

Buckley was fearful that he will be punished for being a runaway. So  surveyor John Helder Wedge put up an application to the Governor Arthur of Vandiemen’s land for a pardon which was granted immediately with conditions.

Some of the newspaper records of that time suggest Buckley acted as an intermediary between Batman’s party and the natives in signing the now infamous agreement between the two. But this contradicts other records which states Batman was helped by the aborigines he brought from NSW in making contact with Melbourne natives and so was the case with the treaty. But it is unlikely that Sydney natives could speak the language of Melbourne’s aborigines. “Reminiscences of john Pascoe Fawkner”, mentions Buckley’s role in assembling aborigines.

Buckley was considered as too dull. The only person in Batman’s team who saw some potential in Buckley was surveyor John Helder Wedge. Some historians even claim that the treaty was a forged one.

 The agreement was between Messrs. Batman, Gellibrand, Swanston and Simpson, on the one side and the natives on the other were represented by Jagajaga, Cooloolook, Bungaree, Yanyan, Mowstrip and Mommamalla. The price was fixed at an annuity of two hundred a year in return for 750,000 acres of land. The group also handed out several blankets, mirrors, tomahawks, beads etc to the natives. Batman had put Buckley on a salary of 50 pounds a year and rations when he was appointed as an interpreter.

In 1836 Captain William Lonsdale came to Melbourne as Chief Agent of Government, Police Magistrate and Commandant for the Port Phillip region. Buckley was given the position of Constable. Buckley couldn’t cope with the pressures of the job and he was always looked restless and dissatisfied. Buckley was considered as a man of low intelligence and he was found to be less useful in mediating with the blacks and not much information came out of Buckley which the authorities could use to their advantage.

Another incident that happened in 1837, shook the small settler community. In 1837, Joseph Tice Gellibrand and George Brooks Legrew Hesse disappeared near Birregurra, on their way from Geelong to Melbourne. Great fears were expressed in Melbourne that they were murdered. Buckley was also a member of the search party dispatched. But the whites did not trust Buckley as they thought he is standing on two stools. Afterward he was given more freedom in his pursuit, but he could not do much as much animosity was already created between the blacks and the settlers, due to the cruel treatment of blacks in the hands of the settlers.

Buckley left Melbourne on 21st December 1831 and reached Hobart early January 1838. Buckley was appointed as assistant storekeeper at the Hobart Town Immigrants Home and when that establishment was broken up he was transferred to the female nursery as gate keeper. At the immigrants’ home he became acquainted with a family consisting of a respectable mechanic, his wife and daughter. The mechanic was later killed by the natives and Buckley proposed to his widow and married her in March 1840, at the age of 60. In his old age received a pension from the Government. He died at Hobart in 1856 at the age of 76. Some accounts say, a fall from a gig hastened his death. With this ended the weird yet colourful life of William Buckley the convict.

William Beckley

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