The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter by Adam Courtenay

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Early colonial history is rich in stories that are as varied as they are fascinating. The people from the 18th/19th century, who arrived from Britain to begin their lives anew in this foreign land, provide countless stories of what it took to survive. Many left the poverty of Industrial England but challenges in this new world found them ill prepared.

One survivor of this transport to another world is William Buckley. He was outstanding in the literal meaning of the word, standing six foot six inches in the old scale. This obviously contributed to his survival in the Port Phillip settlement as well as his living for thirty-two years with the Wadawurrung people.

As was the case with most convicts, Buckley focused on surviving the harsh conditions. Starvation faced them in the early years as the supplies from the Home Country were erratic and attempts to farm in the colony often failed.  At the back of the mind of many was a burning desire to escape the oppression and somehow find a better life.

In Adam Courtenay’s fine account of early Port Phillip, and later Melbourne, history, he presents details of Buckley and then John Batman’s contribution to the establishment of one of Australia’s most popular cities.

He minutely traces Buckley’s escape and then life with the Aborigines. In those years, the convict learned how to survive by following the ways of his generous new community. The Aboriginal culture is regarded by many anthropologists as one of the most egalitarian to have existed so far. Buckley was welcomed into the local Wadawurrung tribe because they thought him a ghost. Burial practices for eminent tribal members, chief or brave warrior, dictated their bodies be placed in a tree, covered and left, where the sun and weather faded the dark skin to almost white. His height and colour convinced them he was a spirit of a dead warrior and his carrying a spear he’d found sealed this idea.

William Buckley lived for thirty -two years with the tribe. He learned their language so he could communicate – but not with fluency. While living with them, he enjoyed the healthy and often palatable food, married twice, learned of their community rules, and benefitted from the medicinal skills of the women. The ceremonial corroboree he found very entertaining. The Aboriginal people, he learned, had a deep sense of spatial awareness. Contrary to his previous life in Britain, he discovered they possessed no idea of private ownership, except clothes, spear(men) and cooking pots (women). Land was shared. Never fenced. If a source of food failed, they moved to another area.

While Buckley was living his new- found life, having been saved from starvation when he had been found by the Wadawurrung, John Batman, the bounty hunter of the title, was in Tasmania. It was plagued by desperate and ruthless bush rangers. The cleverest was the infamous Brady. Batman, having successfully captured the felon, was renowned as a bounty hunter. He was then part of Tasmania’s darkest chapter. He was responsible for the death of many natives, mainly because of the White man’s hunger for land.

So, when he crossed the Strait to Port Phillip in 1835, the land grab for land around the colony began. Later this area became Melbourne.  The people in this area were the Kulin.

The latter half of the book is devoted to establishing how it seems the Aborigines in the region were deceived. In exchange for about $200 worth of trinkets, a vast tract of land was ‘signed’ over to the greedy Batman. With there being no concept of land ownership among the Aborigines, this was both a farce and a gross betrayal.

The book is a sad testimony of the stark contrast in what took place between peoples at this stage of our history. Buckley, near death after wandering in the bush for three months, mostly alone, was welcomed and cared for and became a contented member of the local tribal community of the Wadawurrung.

Batman, having cruelly and mercilessly murdered native men, women and children in Tasmania, to ‘clear’ the land, then turned his insatiable eye on the colony of Port Phillip. He ‘purchased’ the land, destroying the lives of the people who had lived there for millennia.

Adam Courtney gives an unflinching account of these years and the different experience of the original inhabitants to the advent of the ‘ghosts’.  He has relied on extensive research, and added significantly to our knowledge of our early troubled history since 1788.

The Ghost and the Bounty Hunter


By Adam Courtenay


ISBN   9 780733 340390

$29.99; 306 pages     


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