CASE 5. PORT STEPHENS ROBERT
BY DAVID MURRAY
David Murray is a university medalist with a Creative Arts Phd from Newcastle Uni. He has published two books of poetry: “Swinging from a broken clock” and “Blue bottle” (Sultana Press), and contributed to Overland, The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture and the Mascara Poetry Journal.
Murray treats historical true crime creatively as a cultural marker of everyday life. It’s a process concentrating on ordinary lives while reflecting Luc Sante’s observation that ‘violence, misery, chicanery, and insanity exist in a continuum that spans history; they prove that there never was a golden age”.
On 26 January 1808 Governor William Bligh was dramatically placed under house arrest. It was exactly twenty years to the day New South Wales was colonised. While there was partial stasis awaiting London’s response, the interim administration did set about cleansing Sydney Town of its most decrepit lags, street drunks and petty recidivists. Many found their way to the secondary penal outstation of Newcastle.
Since 1804 Newcastle doubled as an open prison that also traded fine timber, salt, lime and coal. This was mostly hand loaded by single baskets into waiting vessels, a labourious process leaving traders at anchor for days. While martial law and strict curfews limited visiting crews’ recreation to fishing, hunting or exploring the river, the more thirsty could grease the venal palm of certain garrison soldiers for entry into a slight, but well hidden world of illicit gaming, sly grog and carnal respite: by the time of Bligh’s arrest Newcastle’s infamy as a harsh secondary prison was equalled by its less publicised distinction as the colony’s home of the Venus curse.
A less covert distraction for visitors was to investigate the wreck Dundee and search for Captain Cumming’s elephant tooth, measuring six feet in length, and remarkably fine,[i] thought to have gone down with the vessel in an 1807 cyclonic storm.
On a fine and windless October morning in 1808 the tooth remained an elusive quest after John Spillers, John Bosh and an 11 year old swabby from the trader Halcyon rowed across the harbour and half-heartedly crabbed over the wreck’s sodden timbers. Finding nothing and with nowhere else to be they decided to continue the short distance to the northern harbour entrance of Pirate Point.
While beaching their dinghy in soft sand a figure soldiered coolly towards them from out of a dense, cabbage tree forest. Face-to-face he revealed himself a fine muscled, bare chested Native wearing tattered convict slop-pants holding a spear and nulla-nulla casually in one of his large, mallee-wood hands. A dramatic forehead scar (echoing combat rather than ritual) completed his formidable presence. Grunts and gestures failed the four until the young boy presented a hollow sea biscuit he mimicked eating before gifting to the Native. Slightly unimpressed by the taste after licking it, the Native nonetheless placed it in his pants pocket before motioning with his nulla-nulla for them to follow him along the beach. A Sydney Gazette from the time explained that the nulla-nulla is formed by affixing to the end of a club a circular piece of a very hard wood 8 to 11 inches in diameter with a sharp edge and of a mushroom form. It is frequently carried as a weapon of defence, but the natives seldom execute it against each other.[ii] While formidable, the Native’s preferred offensive weapon was the spear, whose design depended on the owner’s skills and intended use: the one carried currently by the guiding Native had barbed ends for fishing.
The well-armed man before them also fulfilled the reputation of Hunter Natives being taller, fiercer and more fightable than their Sydney cousins. Fortitude was no match for the reality of metal guns though and after colonists began arriving during the 1790s local tribes compromised by sharing or ceding parts of their coastal hunting and ceremonial grounds. That said a relationship evolved that for the most part encouraged non-violence and respect of each other’s space. By 1808 this was semi-formalised through meetings between Camp Commandants and the Native chief, Bungary. It included a business arrangement in which runaway convicts were hunted and returned by the Natives as tradeable commodity. The three visiting sailors had no reason to suspect ill will from their current meeting. They had even less reason than that to suspect their guide was a legendary, local renegade Port Stephens Robert, exiled from his people and on the run for repeated and depraved transgressions of Native law. Robert had never knowingly contacted or interfered with the outstation or whites before. No gubba had seen him. With his infamous forehead scar he was considered a ghost story used to frighten Native women and children.
The four walked amiably together along the shoreline, until the dinghy disappeared from sight around a bend and Robert veered into the clear, quiet water. He was followed by Bosh, leaving Spillers and the boy to stroll the shoreline. Robert glided knee-deep without seeming to break the surface, an effect quickly broken by the clumsier Bosh splashing in behind him. Robert scanned the water with his spear poised, which Bosh took as a fishing lesson. Robert soon turned and faced Bosh with a considered smile, and then drove his spear clinically into Bosh’s shoulder. Stunned by the suddenness of the attack Bosh cursed and grabbed hopelessly at the weapon firmly entrenched in his flesh by the barbs. Robert quietly studied Bosh’s reaction before turning — nulla-nulla gripped firmly in his hand — and sprinting over the water towards the still unsuspecting Spiller and the boy. A disembodied viewer of this scene might have thought Port Stephens Robert had fleetingly stopped time for all except himself as he rudely met the back of Spiller’s head with his club. Taken unawares like Bosh, Spiller was soon foetally curled in the wet sand, his arms and hands barely able to protect his head from further blows. The young boy was yelling hysterically for Robert to stop. Robert turned from his work and stared briefly at the boy, his club raised threateningly. The boy frantically scanned back along the beach. Unable to spot Bosh he ran heart in mouth towards the cabbage trees.
Robert simply ignored the boy — that hunt could wait. He leaned down over Spiller and replaced his nulla-nulla with an axe Spiller had been carrying in his belt. Robert juggled the new weapon between his hands, as if testing its weight. He had spied on gubbas using them for building and clearing. He would now experiment with it by circling Spiller and releasing a set of final, emphatic swings at helpless man’s head. The sound of metal splitting skull bone sounded unremarkably normal, an almost banal counterpoint to Spiller’s last convulsive and abnormal screams. Meanwhile Bosh, almost petrified with horror and astonishment[iii] at witnessing this, had found a miraculous surge of energy and wherewithal. After twisting the spear from his bloodied, messy flesh he made for deep water. As he had with the boy, Robert watched the escaping gubba indifferently; Bosh would be left to the water spirits.
Watching Bosh thrash away, and before turning his attention to hunting the boy, Robert was left alone with the last few incomprehensible series of moments. An almost debilitated silence hung in the air, broken finally by quarrelling seagulls. Their agitated, argumentative squawks seemed unreasonably directed at the water gently and meditatively lapping the shore. Robert had finally proved to himself that gubbas were no more dangerous than possums or women when separated from their weapons. He now followed the track of the boy’s footprints, trampling their existence beneath each one of his forward steps. Spiller was left to the scavenging seagulls and the incoming tide.
Out on the harbour and unsure if he had been paddling for ten minutes or an hour, the exhausted Bosh offered up his jellyfish limp frame to the harbour current. It carried him away from the anchored ships, but mercifully delivered him towards the settlement shore. After being found by passing convicts on a small inlet downstream from the main wharf Bosh was tended with bandages and laudanum in the camp hospital. Hazily reassembling his experience into a coherent narrative would only reproduce an image of the attacker’s forehead scar, a phantom feeling that the spear was still dislodged in his flesh, and Spiller’s final screams. Bosh could not recall if he had yelled out to warn his companions or whether they had heard him. He did not know what had happened to the boy. He almost forgot his escape into the water. John Spiller had been in drunken melees and seen berserk men pull knives, but the Native’s mechanical calmness made this attack coldly unreal. He would never understand or explain why it had happened. Reason was as empty as the young boy’s sea biscuit.
Bosh’s mention of the scar identified Robert as the likely attacker. Bosh wound later find out it was a wound inflicted by the local Native Chief, Bungary, who had men in the search party arraigned to set off across the harbour. Bungary knew finding someone so skilled at disappearing and surviving in the bush was unlikely. This was not some lost croppy convict. Bungary had to trial a lot of magic before Robert was conclusively kept clear of their women and camps.
For the gubbas a Native ghost story had crossed worlds. The outstation’s immediate concern was for the isolated convict limeburning gangs working down stream from the attack. What Bungary could never fully translate to them was that Robert’s communion with bad spirits strengthened his will and intensified his mistreatment of living things. Astutely self-sufficient and beyond a respect of fear, Robert’s violence was as refined and sharpened as the gubba axe he now possessed. Like the famed, but honourable Hawkesbury warrior Pemulwuy, guns or gaols would not be enough to stop him.
Making quick time across the harbour the posse claimed John Spiller’s corpse before the crepuscular tide. A search of the cabbage tree forest found no trace of Robert or the boy. He would be found days later floating peacefully in nearby mangroves. His head wounds suggested to Bungary a quick kill, even a hint of deranged clemency for the victim. He was buried alongside Spiller in the outstation cemetery just beyond the camp’s pigsty. A gentleman’s agreement between Bungary and the Commandant to hunt down Port Stephens Robert proved perfunctory. He was never heard from again and like Captain Cummings’ elephant tusk, Port Stephens Robert would be discarded by the young outstation’s changeable and fickle collective memory.
The coal heavy Halcyon left for Sydney the following week only to be forced back to Newcastle by a sudden storm around Broken Bay. Just inside the harbour its notorious rip dragged the vessel like a toy towards the sand and oyster banks and the Dundee. The storm eased in time and the Halcyon was pulled to safety, though not before convict assisting Thomas Shirley drowned during the rescue.
Newcastle was Thomas Shirley’s final option after three years of determined misdemeanour in Sydney Town. He first came to public notice stealing from his employer, businessmen Simeon Lord, in 1805. He was arrested along with his de facto Jane Jones (also employed by Lord as a house servant) after constables found the house occupied by the delinquents tolerably furnished with articles mostly recognized as having been borrowed from their benefactors by Jones … this included a cabinet of curiosities which contained a number of toys. Shirley had been no less assiduous in his exertions; and not less than from a thousand to fifteen hundred weight of sugar appeared in evidence of his industry.[iv]
Shirley and Jones were connected to a disparate flash gang who filched mostly from fellow convicts and visiting sailors around The Rocks. The Lord robbery would add seven years to Jane Jones’ transportation sentence and a few months in the town gaol (Thomas Shirley mutinously turning King’s evidence at the trial did not help her case). Jane was back on the streets by the following year of 1806 where prostitution and further petty larcenies topped up her charge sheet and left a magistrate with the stark option of hanging or banishing her to His Majesty’s Settlement at King’s Town, there to be kept at hard labour, and to wear a badge of infamy.[v]
The intimate social and utilitarian patterning of the prison colony ensured there was no cosmic design or fate involved in Thomas Shirley following Jane to Newcastle in early 1808. His attempts at reconnnection with her were dismissively referred to a formidable garrison corporal who had claimed Jane and now ran her as a concubine and whore; if Thomas Shirley did have lingering animal desires, Jane might be available at a suitable price. Knowing a pimping-soldier would be more dangerous than a wrathful ex, Thomas mostly avoided drink-dice-and-fuck nights, though he never gave up kiddy-fingering tobacco, slops and rations from less wise convicts.
Jane would sneer unbelieving when told Thomas Shirley had redeemed himself and died bravely helping others. She had already boasted about having serviced John Spiller in the nights before his murder, suggested the blackey must have been some man because Stiller had been very physically capable.
Jane’s abandoned disdain was to some extent forced by the hardened boundaries of a penal existence. True feeling was weakness, while honesty to oneself was a tramp taxing his imaginary kingdom. In their different and extreme ways, Jane Jones and Port Stephens Robert reflected back a darker, orphaned corner breeding in the new colony’s infant soul: where life was heartless survival and the rest already damned.
Coal River N.S.Wales, 1807, I.W. Lewin.
The Coal River or Port of Newcastle New South Wales, (drawing possibly by John William Lewin. PXD 942 / 2. 1808).