Talmalmo and ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’

Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) is a novel based on the life of Jimmy Governor, an Aboriginal man who in 1900 was on the run after committing murder.

A similar tragedy predates this, however, and has received far less attention than the story Keneally put into his novel. This earlier event happened in a little pocket of Talmalmo, in a place called Dora Dora, and is the story of two Aboriginal men.

Whether because of being driven into a desperate corner, addiction, trying to start over and get home, or in retaliation for what had happened to their people, Bulyal and Tinamburra killed a white settler, who was a Polish exile living alone in the Dora Dora foothills.

The settler, whose name was Mursczkewicz, had made money in mining and would send some of it to his two nephews, his only relations, in Russia.  A myth grew up around this Polish exile, that he had a hoard of gold hidden in fence posts.  The belief (for no motive was ever ascertained) was that Bulyal and Tinamburra murdered the settler for his gold.

Bulyal was from around Mackay and Tinamburra’s home was Fraser Island. Authorities sent them to the foreign south-eastern countries of Victoria, enlisted them as trackers for the colonial government, and gave them the Anglo names of Jack and Willie, respectively.  They were then placed under the supervision of Detective Sergeant Sainsbury at Benalla.  This was early in 1891.

But then, after a month or so, Bunyal and Tinamburra, Jack and Willie — two of four Queensland trackers assigned to police in Benalla — suddenly went missing.  There had been an attack on a Benalla resident who lived alone, an elderly widow. Old Mrs Smith would later die from her injuries. She didn’t know her attacker, and in her deposition, she gave this description of his appearance: ‘He was a black man … rather slim built, tall’. This scant, and indeed stereotypical, description would be used to identify Jack.  Mary Smith also said that her assailant was well-known around the district and ‘full of villainy’.

And so Sainsbury set out to find Jack and Willie. He spent a good month or two trying to hunt them both down, but unsuccessfully. Then news came that a settler had been speared and robbed.  It was the Polish miner.  Badly wounded and taken by coach to the hospital in Albury, a journey that took eight or nine hours, Mursczkewicz lost a lot of blood.  In his deposition he said that there were ‘two blackfellows’. I was speared, he said, and as I was being robbed by one man, another came out from behind a tree and took the money. A few days after giving his sworn evidence Mursczkewicz died.  It’s certainly debateable whether Bunyal and Tinamburra intended to kill Mursczkewicz.  The spear wound wasn’t necessarily fatal.  The circumstances were.

What happened next was a two-and-a-half-year manhunt in pursuit of Bulyal and Tinamburra through New South Wales and deep into Queensland. Troopers, armed civilians, many police from several different stations in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and, of course, Detective Sergeant Sainsbury — all involved in hunting down Jack and Willie, or, as they came to be known in the news reports, ‘The Dora Dora Blacks’.

Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld. : 1867 – 1919), Wednesday 31 January 1894

Trying to get home, Bulyal and Tinamburra had both made it to Queensland.  But police eventually apprehended them: Bulyal on Pigeon Island, north of Mackay, and Tinamburra at Bundaberg.  They were then tried for the murder of Mursczkewicz.  The sentence given was death.  

There was quite a bit of coverage in the news about all this, and remarkably, from our later perspective, there was noticeable public sympathy for ‘Jack and Willie’.  ‘The courage and cunning of the Dora Dora blacks’, wrote one sympathiser in the Maryborough Chronicle, 20 February, 1894, ‘is a welcome bit of sunshine in the dull dreary darkness of humiliation of the Australian aborigine’. In April, 1894, an open meeting was held in Albury in support of reducing the sentences passed on Bulyal and Tinamburra.  The day after the meeting, the Albury Border Post reported that, ‘Strong opinion had been expressed in town and outside against the execution of the aboriginals’. The Border Post also published supportive statements made by people at the meeting: ‘[T]hey are not criminals in the sense murderers are’, said one person. ‘[A]s civilised people [we] should extend mercy toward the blacks.  There was no envy or malice in their attack’, said another.  Moreover, someone suggested that, ‘The men might reasonably have thought Mursczkewicz intended to attack them, having a gun in his hand’. (Were Bulyal and Tinamburra acting in self-defence?).  In May of the same year, the sentences were commuted: Bulyal’s was reduced to life imprisonment, and Tinamburra’s to 15 years.

Then the two men were quickly forgotten.

But in July, 1900, when the Governor Brothers (of Keneally’s novel) were being hunted down for murder, Bulyal and Tinamburra returned to the public’s attention. Newspapers mentioned similarities between the crimes and the circumstances which led to them, and left it at that.  The individual fates of Bunyal and Tinamburra were never mentioned.  Given that the life expectancy of an Indigenous Australian in confinement was at the time less than Tinamburra’s term of imprisonment, they were conveniently forgotten about.

One thing that was never discussed at the time was that Bulyal was addicted to opium.  Let’s not forget that opium was a very ‘British’ drug.  The British had controlled its production in the early 1800s and pushed it on the Chinese in order to increase trade revenue.  Bunyal had confessed to Sainsbury that he needed opium and had been getting it from ‘a Chinaman’s place’. I wanted the last words here to be Bulyal’s, but unfortunately, research reveals only others speaking for him. According to Sainsbury, Bunyal told him he ‘boiled this opium in a billy can and drank it every morning like tea. The effect of this was to make his head “cranky”.’

Talmalmo Landscapes

Talmalmo began as a place of dispossession and massacre, but with the passing of a century it regained innocence and beauty in the eyes of children.  There are a remarkable number of archived letters written by children describing the landscapes of their home.  Children were asked by the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express newspapers to write letters for a Children’s Corner column.  Many of the letters are little nature articles written by Talmalmo teenagers.  These letters take pleasure in describing wildflowers and wild raspberries, emus and their eggs, the snow-covered hills, the change of seasons, the snakes seen in the paddocks, the vegetables growing in the gardens, the curing of tobacco, the rains flooding the river and washing away the footbridge, birds building their nests in the roof of the school, a plague of grasshoppers, and so on. 

You sometimes get the impression, however, that some of these letters might have been written (or helped along) by the parents wanting to put the astounding country in which they lived into words, to have it documented.  One letter from 1922, written by George Le Guier, delves into local history by stating that the name Talmalmo derives from ‘an aborigine word meaning “tall man”,’ and that the road which passes the public school (no longer there) ‘has a cutting named Abraham’s Bosom,’ which was named after Abraham Miller, an emancipist.  

But mostly these letters are written through the eyes of children, revealing pastoral landscapes of enchantment and adventure.  As such, these letters are the ‘Songs of Innocence’ as opposed to the ‘Songs of Experience’, to use the poet William Blake’s contrary states of being.  The ‘Songs of Experience’ are of course the documented historical truths of dispossession of First Peoples from their homelands by white settlers (though they are hardly songs).  And so perhaps we could say that these letters document a different kind of discovery.  The first, more than a century earlier, was violent and horrific.  It was discovery seen through an imperial, conquistadorial eye.  The other, the one we see through children’s eyes, naively, is not a discovery by conquest but one which makes room for the astonishment of nature and the free-play of imagination.

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There is also the romantic Talmalmo landscape.  These accounts were written between the wars and often appeared in The Farmer and the Settler.  They described the valley as delightful, and provided a narrative of gorges, spur crests and alluvial flats, where mile upon mile travellers could encounter a fresh picture of beauty.  Such descriptions were a romance of the settler past, with an eye for spotting, for example, a long-gone cottage’s crumbling chimney, or old charred posts and traces of stockyards. The writers of this romance had set out with an English kind of fantasy in mind.  In Talmalmo and Upper Murray landscapes they sought out the picturesque beauty of the moment, yet also wanting to romanticise a pastoral ruin and the sentimental achievements of the past.     

Then there’s the landscape seen through the painter’s eye. Few artists have painted the region.  One of them was William Piguenit (1836-1914).  His most renowned works are those of the Darling River floods (see below). 

Flood in the Darling, 1890 (1895), by WC Piguenit. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au

Piguenit’s only work of our Talmalmo region is called Mount Kosciusko and the Valley of the Upper Murray (c1883).  It depicts impressive skies, wide landscapes and low horizons.  The ranges are soft, the land meadow-like.  But unfortunately, Piguenit’s painting of the Upper Murray is very hard to come by.  No image of it was available to display.

Arthur Streeton’s Storm over Corryong (1910) shows pastures and a darkening sky. The hills are low and blue, a cosy strip of settlement can be seen, and in the foreground sheep are grazing.

Arthur Streeton, Storm over Corryong (1910).

Though there is in the painting a sense of protection from the harsh Australian sun, this is not a bright, ‘sun-drenched’ land.  The landscape here is rich and green.  Moody, too. But the mood, or storm, is passing.  

With both Piguenit and Streeton, the point is always the appearance of something glorious. There’s nothing ‘close-up’.  There’s not much in the way of farm buildings and habitation.  In Streeton these are dwarfed by the land and sky. The point is invariably one of an indelible impression of grandeur, and of wide panoramas. This kind of landscape has nothing to do with the past because it’s supposed to be a timeless one, glimpsed and brought to life by the painter’s visionary eye.  Yet this kind of landscape still exists today.  You can see it for yourself.

On a Sunday drive from Albury to Tindaldra or Corryong, through the mountains and down into the valley following the course of the river, you will see it, eyeing vistas as you go.  But this kind of landscape doesn’t capture what no longer exists. It is a landscape of familiarity; it is a recognisable one; it is an easy pleasure and comfort.  For the romance writers and painters of the Upper Murray, to look at the land and see countryside was not to see the past.  Or if there was a past to be seen it was the Settler’s and not the First People’s. This past was never readable in the landscape, as it was for Indigenous Australians.  The settler past, the past of the pioneers, merely floated on the surface; it was never embedded in the land.  And it was always at threat of vanishing (nature intervening in human history).  The old crumbling chimney, the charred posts and the traces of stockyard that were written about between the wars — they’re all gone.  They were fugitive scraps.

Talmalmo – Historical Beginnings

TALMALMO, of Upper Murray country.

Talmalmo is a mountain-locked valley in Upper Murray country.  Its beginnings occur within the colonial context of the early decades of the nineteenth century, when there was a movement for inland settlement and a search for country suitable for grazing. Once a route south from Sydney across the Blue Mountains had been achieved by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813, the idea of (or desire for) pastoral settlement away from the administrative centre was gaining in reality. And reports of inland exploration continued to add to a general fervour for land. Attention was being drawn to the value of the country, which, according to explorer Charles Sturt, was ‘yielding support to an industrious and moral population’.  A way was being made open. The country could be traversed. There were a great number of applications made for grazing country now. Hungry for land, men could set out, make a go of it, graze Crown lands. That was the enthusiasm. An enthusiasm for ‘new’ country.

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Image: Elders Real Estate

In the late spring of 1824 Hamilton Hume and William Hovell journeyed just north of the mountainous and densely forested country that lay to the west of the Great Dividing Range and which today forms the Woomargama National Park; and the land on the other, southern, side of the mountains and forest — the land which squeezes down tightly into a horseshoe bend in a river, a river that was for a brief few years called the Hume but then named the Murray in 1830 by Sturt— this is the land that became Talmalmo, land first taken up (or stolen) by settlers in 1838 (other areas of land in the Upper Murray region had already been settled a few years earlier).

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Image: Feral Walker

Talmalmo began as a run, or open land used for pasture and the raising of stock. It was a small run compared with others in the region, particularly those on the opposite — what would become the Victorian — side of the river, where land was more suitably expansive for an entrepreneurial kind of grazing. In its first few decades Talmalmo changed many hands. And in the years that followed people came, had brief stints at living off the land, and left. Settlers had gone there with high hopes, looking for an agrarian bounty. Land-hungry pastoralists were out to make money from meat, wool and grain and wanted to establish impressive homesteads. But the country was not fit for large-scale ventures. It was too rough and mountainous (the roads were almost impassable in a big wheat-bearing dray) and the river flats were too poor for sizeable grazing. Only self-sustaining ventures would be viable. Hardly was there a profit to be had. For the ambitious, for the greedy (of whom there were many), disillusionment quickly set in.

The cost of all this pioneering is too easily forgotten today.

By the 1860s Indigenous Australians of the river valley were all but gone, or being forgotten. Talmalmo was on the northern side of the river. Tribes were confined, mostly, to their respective sides, as A. W. Howitt noted in The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (1904). So those who utilised this particular tract of country belonged not to the southern Jaitmatang but to the large Riverine clan whose language root was Wiradjuri. The last Indigenous Australians of Talmalmo and surrounding runs most likely died on Bringenbrong Station, which was owned by John Francois Huon Mitchell. Mitchell owned at least three stations on the Upper Murray: Khancoban, Bringenbrong and Towong, all upriver from Talmalmo. His life on the Murray began when he was eleven. As a child he frolicked with the local Aborigines and picked up on their language. In 1906 he produced a dictionary of ‘Woradgery Tongue’, a compilation of words and phrases related to birds and fishes, weapons and timber, and also to tribal ceremonies and customs. Looking back on the early days of his life spent on the Murray he wrote:

It may be noted as significant considering the popular notion nowadays of the utter worthlessness of the blacks, that the whole of our old pioneers, the men who had come into personal contact with them when the country was almost still in its primeval state, spoke with more or less affection of the native race — more than one of the white boys of the early days learnt the language of this tribe and spent many days of their time hunting and fishing with them, and obtaining a knowledge of their tribal habits, etc. — they had great influence over the blacks and so suffered but little from their raids.

So that’s J. F. H. Mitchell. But then downriver from Talmalmo, at Cumberoona, there’s John Jobbins. Cumberoona was a principal camping ground for the First Peoples in the Upper Murray. Jobbins set up station there in 1836. He intimidated the Aborigines off their land. And he was out to make an example of his self-proclaimed authority. It was reported that he had used a cutlass to hack a Wiradjuri man to death after catching him trying to milk a cow. Moreover, in the same year, upriver a few miles and on the southern side, another settlement was being made.  Here two settlers were killed by Aborigines. Jobbins retaliated. Settlers banded together under him. And as a mob they killed anyone with black skin they could get a shot at: men, women, and children. More than twelve or thirteen people were murdered. In a series of articles written for The Border Morning Mail in 1936, C. A. Smithwick noted that the Cumberoona Aborigines ‘composed a song or poem about Jobbins which they introduced into their corroborees’. Smithwick calls this poem or song, a ‘hymn of hate’, and notes,

The late J. F. H. Mitchell could repeat the whole of this song and also a translation that he made of it; he said a good many of the words had no equivalent meaning in English, being “blackfellow curses”. One line went something like this: “Nein-mudder, Bel-mudder, Jobbin, Jobbin merijole”. Mitchell said the meaning of the first two words was quite unprintable, and the balance signified that Jobbins was a wicked rascal.

Forced from their land, the First Peoples of Cumberoona moved far downriver, to a site adjacent to Albury, which was managed more compassionately by Mitchell (though many here would die from diseases such as whooping cough, measles and small pox). For every Mitchell there’s a Jobbins.

Mitchell’s brother-in-law was Elliot Heriot. He came to the land on the western side of Talmalmo (what would become known as Dora Dora) in 1837. He was engaged there as an overseer, gaining ‘colonial experience’. At Dora Dora it was said that Heriot had ‘considerable experience of the ways of the blacks’.  He had befriended a chief, and he was supposedly tipped off by this chief about an attack on his men, none of whom were killed or injured, but seven or eight Aborigines were.  Heriot refused to join the fight against the local indigenous population. He did not ride with Jobbin’s mob and took no part in the massacre. The Aborigines of Dora Dora had made use of the land at Talmalmo. There were lagoons which contained the delicacies of catfish and mud turtles. C. A. Smithwick — who lived most of his life at Talmalmo station, his father having purchased land there as both run and freehold in 1868 — writes that,

Talmalmo was undoubtedly a much used central camping ground for the natives before the advent of the whites, for there was no place along the river that showed more visible traces of their habitation. Dozens of gum trees round the lagoons had had canoes stripped from their trunks and before the land was cleared of timber by burning off, almost every hollow tree carried the marks of a row of toe holes, made with tomahawks while in pursuit of opossums or bird eggs.

This is not the case today. Smithwick refers back to the 1870s. In the late 1850s, his father Robert Smithwick had observed of the Aborigines that they were not seen anywhere ‘between Albury and Ournie; higher up the river there were a few living at the different stations, where they were used as horse and cow boys.’ ‘Whatever cause, death had been busy with them’, wrote Charles Sturt of the First Peoples in the 1840s.

And I could not but contemplate the remnant of these unfortunate people without a feeling of Melancholy. The hand of destiny had fallen upon their retreats; and the silence of their forests had been invaded. A new era was dawning and a fearful change was coming for them. Whether for good or for evil God only knows. 

Forget God.  It’s the study of history and literature and the work of historians and writers who bring light into the darkness of Australian ignorance.