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.


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.



Emigration:  Scotland to Australia 1840-1870.  Was the Effort Really Worthwhile?

liverpoolOn 12th January 2017, the Graduate Workshop welcomed Jennifer McCoy of Federation University, Australia.  Jennifer is a part time first-year PhD student who currently combines research with teaching.  Her doctoral research considers the contribution made by immigrant Scots in the development of Eastern High Country Victoria in the mid to late 19th century. Family history has provided the stimulus for Jennifer’s formal academic research and, in her own words, has led to her asking “so many questions that (have gone) beyond the usual genealogical study of births, marriages, deaths and people connections”.   Her presentation considered the “loose ends” which have inspired her project and the lines of enquiry which they suggest.

At the heart of Jennifer’s research lie the big questions: Where had the Scots come from?  Where did they settle?  Moreover, was their effort worthwhile?  Existing research has tended to focus on the more well known, yet many early Scottish settlers remain strangely “invisible”.  Memorialisation,  gravestones in particular, have provided a useful starting point.  By way of case study, Jennifer considered her own McCoy ancestors. As the 1841 census records reveal, James McCoid (sic) and his wife Charlotte Dowie hailed from Girvan in Ayrshire.  In 1855, they made the perilous five month sea voyage from Liverpool to Hobart before travelling to South East Victoria.  The McCoy family clearly flourished.  In 1932, Mary, the daughter of Charlotte and James, left the considerable sum of £ 45,000 to her local Presbyterian Church.  Her sister Elizabeth ran a successful hotel.  What role then did women play in the settler society?  How did the Presbyterian  Church impact upon their lives?  How was such wealth generated in a comparatively short time?  In the long term, Jennifer anticipates broadening the scope of her research and considering the experiences of other Scottish families in the development of South East Victoria.

A lively discussion followed. The presentation provided a perfect opportunity for Jennifer to meet and exchange ideas with members of our own post graduate community.  We all wish her well with her continuing research.

Alastair Learmont

Spring 2017 Graduate Workshop Programme

We have now posted our spring 2017 Graduate Workshop programme. You can find full details of all five presentations on our programme page:

The  series  begins on Thursday 12 January 2017 at 1 pm in Room G16 in the William Robertson Wing, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Old Medical School, Teviot Place (Doorway 4).

 Jennifer McCoy  of Federation University, Australia,will speak on:

Emigration: Scotland to Australia 1840 – 1870. Was the Effort Really Worthwhile?’

Everyone is most welcome to attend.

Sophie Cooper on the Irish in Melbourne

Thank you to everyone who came along to our first seminar of this semester’s series. There was a great turnout for Sophie’s paper and some really interesting questions were asked.

In a fortnight’s time we have Sean Murphy from St Andrews speaking to us on Lowland language and the associational culture of the Scottish diaspora.

Everyone is welcome to join us in room G16 of the William Robertson Wing at 1pm.