History - AustralianAustralian CultureCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


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Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
Why paternalism ruled over conquest?

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

Convicts and their legacy

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity


Can Convict Creations be relied upon?

jimmy Blacksmith

The Rampage of Jimmy Governor

Was he a good fence builder?

Identity is a powerful motivator and a complex thing. Such factors have been seen in the writings and musings about Jimmy Governor, a mass murderer who spent a number of months in the newly federated Australia killing people and taunting the police trying to catch him.

Governor was involved in the death of nine women and children, the maiming of numerous others, and the rape of a teenage girl. For three months he was on the run with his brother Joe; covering more 3000 kilometres while being pursued by over 2000 civilians and 200 police. He was caught on the 27th of October 1900 and hung on the 18th January 1901. Had he not been mixed race and married to a white woman, his story might have remained on file for historians researching psychopathic behaviour but would otherwise be unknown.

In 2001, John Maynard, Research Academic Lecturer University of Newcastle, used Jimmy's murders of women as evidence that Australia was racist to the core. Furthermore, Maynard proposed that the persecution that Jimmy faced was something that all Aborigines could relate to. In Maynard's words:

"Without condoning the horrific response of Jimmy Governor when he struck out at his tormentors, one can only feel compassion for the years of unjust treatment experienced by him and his family...Despite it being one hundred years since the execution of Jimmy Governor, it is abundantly clear from an Aboriginal perspective that racism, prejudice, oppression, contempt and ignorance remain deeply ingrained in the psyche of this country."

Poet Les Murray had a different explanation. In his 1976 poem, The Ballad of Jimmy Governor, Murray seemed to take the approach that Governor's actions were more gender orientated than racial orientated. He imagined Jimmy as a man who felt that he needed to educate women to be more respectful of men:

But a man's not a rag to wipe snot on,
I got that much into their heads,
them hard white sunbonnet ladies
that turned up their short lips and said
my wide had a slut's eye for colour…(*Complete poem below)

Author Thomas Kenneally imagined that Jimmy was suffering confusion stemming from his mixed race heritage. To explore this idea, in 1972 he wrote The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. The novel was based on Jimmy's life but was also an embellishment of it. In his novel, Kenneally imagined that Jimmy wanted to be more white so he married a white woman. Ironically, his white wife cheated on him with a white man and so gave birth to a white baby. The white baby was an ironic symbol of everything that Jimmy had what wanted, but was also a symbol of his wife's infidelity. When Jimmy went forth and killed white women, he was basically smashing his dream of becoming white.

Each of the three men probably moulded Jimmy in a way that reflected something about their own identity and in turn helped affirm their identity. Whether Jimmy's murders were motivated by racial discrimination, misogyny or identity confusion is something that is difficult to decide on available evidence. Nevertheless, considering the evidence may help shed light on the reasons why contemporary generations have moulded him the way they have.

The basic facts of Jimmy's life were that his father was a full-blood Aboriginal man with initiation scars. His mother was mixed race. She had an Irish father and an Aboriginal mother. Jimmy received an education in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal culture. As a teenager, he spent some time in jail for horse sweating (riding horses without permission,) but also did some work for police as a tracker. When he was 23, he married a white woman and fathered two children by her. He then gained a variety of jobs on farms. This work tended to be low status, as it was previously done by Convicts, but it was well paid because farm labour was hard to come by. Jimmy's need for money was lessened by his Aboriginal education that gave him the knowledge of how to live off the land.

In 1900, Governor was employed by the Mawbey family to build fences on their property and he subcontracted some of his friends to help him. A feud with his employers developed when Mr Mawbey questioned the quality of the work. Governor had been paid a salary, but Mr Mawbey refused to pay the final instalments until the fences met his satisfaction.  

On the 20th July 1900, Jimmy and a mate named Jacky Underwood visited the Mawbey homestead armed with tomahawks and nulla nullas. At the homestead, they found Mrs Mawbey, her sister Elsie Clarke, a friend named Helen Kerz, and Mrs Mawbey's children. The two men then attacked the women and children with their tomahawks and nulla nullas. Mrs Grace Mawbey, and Helen Kerz were killed, along with Mawbey's children Grace (16), Percival (14) and Hilda (11). Elsie Clarke was seriously injured. A boy named Bert managed to escape. He fled to his father's camp site and raised the alarm.

Jacky Underwood was soon caught but Jimmy was joined by his brother Joe Governor. The two brothers then went on a fourteen-week, 3219 km murdering rampage. A feature of the rampage was that no able-bodied man was ever targeted. Instead, the Governors' victims were old men, children, infants, pregnant women, teenage girls, middle-aged women and elderly women.

At different times Jimmy gave different motivations for the murders. In an interview to the Maitland Daily in October1900, Jimmy said he had been goaded into the killing. He said that prior to killing the Mawbeys, he had discussed becoming a bushranger with his mates and his wife, with Jimmy proudly boasting that if he were a bushranger he would take some catching. His wife and mates laughed at him and said he wasn't game, to which he replied that they were forcing him to become a bushranger. After a further argument he decided that he had nothing to live for so he might as well kill the Mawbeys. In his own words,

" I thought I might as well die so the Mawbey murders were committed."

The interview also mentioned that Mawbeys deserved it because they had mocked his marriage to a white woman. By the time of his trial, the significance of race had increased. In his statement to the court in November 1900, Jimmy stated that he lost restraint when dealing with racial taunts. He said that his wife had been subjected to racial taunts for marrying a black man and had been asked inappropriate questions concerning Jimmy's mixed race heritage and their sex life. When he confronted the women about it, they expressed dissatisfaction about the interracial marriage, and he lost control. In his own words:

" I am going to see Mrs. Mawbey about those words she has been saying, I'll make her mind what she is talking about. I'll take her to Court if she does not mind herself."
I went up to the house. I said, " Are you in, Mrs. Mawbey? Did you tell, my missus that any white woman who married a blackfellow ought to be shot ? Did you ask my wife about our private busi- ness ? Did you ask her what sort of nature did I have-black or white ? With that Mrs. MawbEy and Miss Kerz turned round and laughed at me with a sneering laugh, and before I got the words out of my mouth that I said in court I struck Mrs. Mawbey on the mouth with this nullah-nullah.
Miss Kerz said, " Pooh, you black rubbish, you want shooting for marrying a white woman." With that I hit her with my hand on the jaw, and I knocked her down. Then I got out of temper and got hammering them, and lost control of myself. I do not remember anything after that."

Counsel for Jimmy argued that he was not motivated by bushranging and pointed out that the men were armed with "sticks" not guns, and that they didn't steal anything. He then went on to say that there was abundant evidence of high provocation, and of unreasoning passion.

In their own way, both the explanation of aspiring to be a bushranger and rejecting racism gave an insight into possible identity issues that might have been motivating Jimmy. In regards to bushranging, perhaps Jimmy aspired to be like the white bushrangers. This was an identity that was more easy to reconcile with his love of the bush and perhaps more representative of his heritage. Like the other bushrangers, perhaps Jimmy also liked the idea of being a symbol of outlaw justice. His current life of building fences seemed to bore him because it was not taking him towards any dream that he wanted. (He also stated that he wanted to leave his wife behind.) On the run, things were more exciting. The Governors taunted police and gave the police clues about their whereabouts so that the Governors could publicly outwit them. It seems as though they wanted to be feared and wanted to be respected for being able to make police look like idiots, as Ned Kelly and Ben Hall had previously. This was far more glamerous than being a salary man doing Convict work.

The explanation of racism is perhaps a bit more nuanced than academics like Maynard have proposed. The fact that racial provocation could be used as a defence suggested that public morality of the time opposed racism. Certainly, it would be hard to imagine a Jew in Nazi Germany using racial provocations as a defence for killing Aryan women.

In addition, the nature of the racism was more nuanced than the Maynard's idea of a black man wanting to defend his heritage. For Jimmy, the main concern was the insults levelled at his wife and himself over their inter-racial marriage, not insults of his Aboriginal heritage. In most cultures around the world, inter-racial marriages are a concern because they undermine the status of racial identities and the boundaries between racial identities. When a man or woman chooses a partner of a different race, members of the race "overlooked" potentially feel slighted. Additionally, the mongrel offspring are not easy to put into categories that underpin race-based social identities and the comparison of racial identities. Without these "good fences", the identities break down. In Australia, the concern about inter-racial relationships led to most Australian states passing legislation banning sex across the colour line. (They were justified as necessary to protect Aborigines.) Jimmy was a product of those who had transgressed the racial boundaries and he had transgressed them as well. When he or his wife were insulted for the transgressions, he lashed out. Rather than be a man seeking any kind of defined racial identity, perhaps Jimmy just wanted to be free of them. (Then again, maybe he was just a psychopath.)

When imagining his motivations, contemporary Australians have tried to rebuild the very categories that Jimmy perhaps tried to transgress. In the words of historian Henry Reynolds,

"Another difficulty about anointing Governor as a black hero was that he did not like to be called a black fellow. He declared himself a mestizo, as much white as black. To retrospectively declare him black is to echo those writers of 1900 who not only declared that the murders had been committed by Aborigines but that fact in itself was a sufficient explanation for the sudden, atavistic violence. The journalists racialised the violence and, in their own way, so do Keneally and Schepisi. Had the Governors been poor white sons of selectors they presumably would have found nothing engaging in their story. Keneally and Schepisi were at their most revealing in an episode of A Big Country that went to air on ABC TV in April 1978. The Aborigines, Keneally explained, were sick of being depicted either as stately warriors silhouetted against the skyline, spear in hand, or as loyal servants to white explorers or pioneers. They were anxious for a modern legend, a new sort of hero, and he informed the viewers that his novel was being used as a text in programs designed to heighten Aboriginal political consciousness.”


An Aboriginal role model

Thomas Keneally said he was trying to create a new kind of hero for Aborigines when writing the Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. In comparison to alternatives, was Jimmy Goveror a good choice when trying to find a new hero?

Why are myth makers not attracted to Mary Anne's story?

Mary Anne Bugg and Jimmy Governor were two individuals of mixed heritage who gained a degree of notoriety. Of the two, contemporary white myth makers have been more attracted to the Governor story. These poets, novellists and film makers have explained Governor's motivation to kill random white women as stemming from confusion over his mixed race identity and desire to be seen as white despite his black heritage.  In your opinion, why have contemporary white myth makers been more attracted to a failed individual than to someone whose mixed race heritage seemed to bring opportunities those of singular heritage lacked?


Butchery by Blacks - Account of murder

Jimmy Governor's trial - Newspaper report


The Ballad of Jimmy Governor
Les Murray

You can send for my breakfast now, Governor.
The colt from Black Velvet's awake
and the ladies all down from the country
are gathered outside for my sake.

Soon be all finished, the running.
No tracks of mine lead out of here.
Today, I take that big step
on the bottom rung of the air
and be in heaven for dinner.
Might be the first jimbera there.

The Old People don't go to heaven,
good thing. My mother might meet
that stockman feller my father
and him cut her dead in the street.
Mother today I'll be dancing
your way and his way on numb feet.

But a man's not a rag to wipe snot on,
I got that much into their heads,
them hard white sunbonnet ladies
that turned up their short lips and said
my wide had a slut's eye for colour.
I got that into their headand the cow-cockies kids plant up chimneys
they got horse soldiers out with the Law
after Joe and lame Jack and tan Jimmy -
but who taught us how to make war
on women, old men, babies?
It ain't all one way any more.

The papers, they call us bushrangers:
that would be our style, I daresay,
bushrangers on foot with our axes.
It sweetens the truth, anyway.
They don't like us killing their women.
Their women kill us every day.

And the squatters are peeing their moleskins,
there's more than a calf in the wheat,
it's Jimmy the fencer, running
along the top rail in the night,
it's the Breelong mob crossing the ranges
with rabbit skins soft on their feet.

But now Jack in his Empire brickyard
has already give back his shoes
and entered the cleanliness kingdom,
the Commonwealth drums through the walls
and I'm weary of news.

I'm sorry, old Jack, I discharged you,
you might have enjoyed running free
of plonk and wet cornbags and colour
with us pair of outlaws. But see,
you can't trust even half a whitefeller,
You died of White Lady through me.

They tried me once running, once standing:
one time ought to do for the drop.
It's more trial than you got, I hear, Joe,
your tommyhawk's chipped her last chop.
I hope you don't mind I got lazy
when the leaks in my back made me stop.

If any gin stands in my print
I'll give her womb sorrow and dread,
if a buck finds our shape in the tussocks
I'll whiten the hair in his head,
but a man's not a rag to wipe boots on
and I got that wrote up, bright red,
where even fine ladies can read it
who never look at the ground
for a man that ain't fit to breed from
may make a terrible bound
before the knacker's knife gets him.
Good night to you, father. Sleep sound.

Fetch in my breakfast, Governor,
I have my journey to make
and the ladies all down from the country
are howling outside for my sake.






John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese






"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)