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”.’

ash heddle