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Digging deeper – where was Black Jack Anderson from?

Robert Gamble’s Statement about the death and burial of Black Jack Anderson

In 2018, I researched and wrote the 5 Minute History of Black Jack Anderson, Esperance’s notorious ‘pirate’, for an article that appeared in the Esperance Tide in July of that year (you can read that article here). Recently, I revisited the research on Anderson to answer a question about his origins. Black Jack Anderson had come to Esperance’s Recherche Archipelago from Kangaroo Island, and around the same time, there was a sealer called John Anderson, nicknamed Abyssinian Jack, living on Kangaroo Island. Were these the same person? There were conflicting reports about this, and in my article, I had mentioned that they might be the same person. But was this actually the case? I did some digging to find out. I have long been fascinated by the story of Black Jack Anderson, the sealer who lived on Middle Island with his crew in 1835. Anderson had been living on Long Island in the Bass Strait, north east of Tasmania, with a crew of sealers. He had two Aboriginal women living with him, after he kidnapped them from the Port Lincoln area, and murdered their husbands. Anderson and his crew went to Kangaroo Island, where they got passage on the Mountaineer to Middle Island. The Mountaineer was heading to Albany, and on its return journey, it was shipwrecked off Thistle Cove. The shipwreck survivors, including a sister and brother called Dorothea and James Newell, made a three day journey to Anderson’s camp on Middle Island.

It is unlikely that we would know much at all about Anderson, except for an incident that landed him in court in Albany later in 1835. Anderson was charged with stealing from one of his crew, a man named James Manning. Anderson had put James Manning and Dorothea’s brother James Newell onto the shore without any supplies, and they walked around the coast to Albany, only surviving due to the help of an Aboriginal tribe that came to their rescue. Anderson was acquitted by the Albany court, thanks partly to the testimony of Dorothea Newell, who had formed a romantic relationship with Anderson. The court records provide a wealth of information about Anderson. Also preserved by the Albany court is a sworn statement by Anderson’s crew member Robert Gamble, who said that Anderson was murdered by his own crew in December 1836, and buried on Mondrain Island.

Given the information that we know about Black Jack Anderson, could he be the same person as Abyssinian Jack from Kangaroo Island? Abyssinian Jack was the nickname of a man who was also called John Anderson, a sealer from Kangaroo Island. According to the early records of Kangaroo Island, Abyssinian Jack arrived there in 1813. Despite the nickname ‘Abyssinian’, which was the historical name for Ethiopia, this John Anderson was an Englishman. He is referred to in Friendly Mission: the Tasmanian journals and papers of George Augustus Robinson 1829-1834, which is an important source of a lot of valuable information about Tasmania and the surrounding islands at the time. In his papers, Robinson refers to Anderson as being an Englishman who came to Australia on board a convict ship called the Archduke Charles. Like Black Jack, Abyssinian Jack was a sealer, and lived on Kangaroo Island for around sixteen years. At the time, Kangaroo Island was mostly inhabited by sealers and drifters, and was a lawless, rough place, with poorly kept records. Abyssinian Jack lived with two Aboriginal women named Emma and Poll, with whom he had ten children. Abyssinian Jack and his crew then moved to an island in the Bass strait, north-east of Tasmania, which became known as Anderson Island.

There are many overlapping details between Black Jack Anderson and Abyssinian Jack – namely, both were sealers, both lived with two Aboriginal women, lived on Kangaroo Island for a time, and both also lived on the islands of the Bass Strait. These are almost certainly different men, though, as Abyssinian Jack was an Englishman, and Black Jack Anderson was an African American man. There is no reference in any of the information that we know about Black Jack Anderson to him having any children, whereas Abyssinian Jack had ten children with the Aboriginal women who lived with him. (As a note, these women were almost certainly not ‘wives’ to either Black Jack or Abyssinian Jack, as they were forced into these relationships, and were treated more like slaves than wives, in what is a horrific part of our country’s history.) Abyssinian Jack was still living in the Bass Strait in 1845, while Black Jack was murdered in 1836.

Information about the early history of Kangaroo Island also mentions one more John Anderson, who was a white man from Western Australia who sometimes traded with the men on Kangaroo Island. I also found a reference to a story about a man named Abyssinian Bob, who was a sealer on Kangaroo Island. He was a notorious bully, and treated other members of his crew cruelly. According to the story, Abyssinian Bob was lowered over a cliff on a rope so that he could hunt seals on the rocks below the cliff. His crew then cut the rope, putting an end to Abyssinian Bob and his bullying. As for Black Jack Anderson, the most likely story is that he came to Australia on board an American whaling ship. Any further information about his past is likely to remain forever a mystery.


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