Black Douglas: the Bushranger and the Man

Review by Devin Grier

On 31 October 2017, the Graduate Workshop welcomed Meg Foster of the University of New South Wales. Her current PhD research examines the legacy of Australia’s infamous bushrangers. Her focus on Black Douglas, a bushranger of African descent, challenges the identity of  the bushranger in Australian myth and folklore.

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McFarlane & Erskine, Gold escort attacked by bushrangers, 187-, print: lithograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an842045

The legacy of the bushranger in Australia is often associated with the vigilant white man, a figure who challenged law and authority, and blurred the distinctions of those who ruled the land. As with the Californian Gold Rush, the gold-seeking communities in Australia experienced disorder and crime.

In May 1855, reports circulated that a gang, led by a black man, was terrorising the small  mining community of Marybourgh in Victoria. The locals responded with an uprising; a group of vigilantes succeeded in capturing the notorious black outlaw, known as ‘Black Douglas”.The capture of Black Douglas was widely celebrated by the press as a outstanding example of vigilance at work.

Douglas’s physical features soon became synonymous with crime in the goldfields and in the bush. The colour of his skin represented trouble — ‘black’ was enough to label  him as a criminal. In turn, Black Douglas became a celebrity. Not only was he blamed for every unsolved crime in the gold fields, but it was even considered a mark of distinction to have a run-in with the man himself. With a focus on Douglas, disorder during Australia’s Gold Rush became  colour-coded.

Meg’s research has attempted to dislocate the myth from Douglas’s reality. While his exact origins are unknown, it is suspected that he was American-born and sailed to Bristol  in his early twenties. After a short stay in Britain, Douglas was subsequently shipped to Australia as a convict for shoplifting two woolen coats.

Although he was accused of murder, robbery, and trespassing during his lifetime, Douglas’s criminal record does not convey violent man.  Rather, as Meg revealed,  contemporary sources portray him as a drunkard, a depiction far removed from the dangerous dark figure who haunted the gold fields.

In the goldfields of Australia, it was easy to forge new identities. Miners and bushrangers disassociated themselves from their past and reinvented  themselves. But on closer examination, the  myth and reality of Douglas’s  identity are almost inseparable. He was ‘a symbol, more than a man’;  his skin colour had everything to do with it.

 

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This entry was posted in Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshop Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , by Alastair Learmont. Bookmark the permalink.

About Alastair Learmont

Alastair Learmont is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Alastair graduated in Classics from the University of Bristol in 1986 and was called to the Scottish Bar in 1993. For many years he worked as a criminal prosecutor. He returned to academic life in 2012 graduating MSc (with Distinction) in 18th Century Cultures at the University of Edinburgh in 2014. He has recently completed an MSc (Research) in Economic and Social History. He has considerable experience as an adult educator with the City of Edinburgh Council, the National Galleries of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh and the Outlook Project. He is also an experienced walking guide regularly leading walks of cultural interest in Edinburgh and the Borders. He has spoken and written on John Buchan. Recent adult education work includes Scotland and Slavery for the University of Edinburgh's department of Life Long Learning. He currently holds an ESRC research studentship at the University of Edinburgh and a McFarlane scholarship at the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies where he is jointly responsible for co-ordinating the lunchtime Graduate Workshop. In 2016 he tutored Economic History at pre-honours level. He is currently undertaking doctoral research into the Scottish West Indian Planter Class at the time of the British Abolition of the Slave Trade.

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