Buckley Ran Away from the Ship, by Tommy McRae, c1870; photograph taken from the Immigration Museum, Melbourne. The sketch was purchased by the Koorie Heritage Trust as part of a sketchbook in 1991.
There is some magical element in this magnificent black-and-white sketch. I was totally intrigued by the strange irony of the drawing when I first laid my eyes on it: an odd white man trying to blend into the mysterious community of the aborigines.
Who was this extraordinary man experiencing such a bizarre lifestyle? Was he a forgotten “Tarzan” being left in the wildlife and adopted into the enigmatic tribe of the Australian indigenous? Or was he the adventurous Peachey Carneha in the Rudyard Kipling’s novel, the daredevil that set up his kingdom within the dangerous Kafirs community and being idolized as the omnipotent god? What had become of him in the end? Did he survive? Or did his scam get exposed, and ended being banished away, like the poor Peachey Carneha who eventually died in an asylum?
This secretive man is William Buckley, an Englishman born in year 1780.
1. A runaway convict
Buckley was sentenced to transportation to the frightening and little known convict colony of Australia for 14 years in 1802, at the young age of 22. He was convicted of the offence of knowingly receiving a roll of stolen cloth, a crime that he protested his innocence throughout.
Buckley’s physical appearance probably did nothing to alleviate the harsh sentencing that he received. He was described as a “savage-looking”, “ungainly” and “low intelligent” man, a tall giant of possibly 6 ft 5 in height without shoes, and a face fit the image of a convict.
So the two ships of convicts arrived at Port Philip of Melbourne in 1803. Two months later, Buckley and several convicts did the astonishing stunt of prison break. Amongst the runaway convicts, some eventually returned, some were captured, and some were never heard from since then.
William Buckley, on the other hand, commenced his astounding journey with the indigenous that still left us awestruck centuries later.
2. The reincarnated warrior
|A sculpture of the aborigines by William Ricketts|
Several months after his escape, Buckley encountered a group of Wathaurung women. What better luck could a man have: Buckley, having found a spear from a burial mound and used it as a walking stick, was being mistaken as the reincarnated warrior of the tribe, and was joyfully welcomed and adopted into the family of the tribe.
And so began the new life of Buckley amongst the indigenous for the next 32 years, a life of great community and disturbing realities: the peace of nature versus blood feuds, the long-panted liberty versus the horror of cannibalism.
3. Return to the western world
On 6 July 1835, after a stunning 32-year of escape, Buckley, dressed in kangaroo skins, took a bold step out of the bush and greeted his countrymen at the campsite of John Batman’s Port Philip Association. He was subsequently granted a pardon, regained the skills of his own language, worked temporarily as an interpreter to the indigenous, disenchanted by his new life, left for a new place and died at the age of 76.
So that is the end of the life of the Robinson Crusoe of Australia; a man that survived against all odds, the giant that will forever be associated with the favourite Australian idiom- “You’ve got Buckley’s or none”, which means “You’ve got no chance or none”. Yet the irony is, Buckley survived splendidly and left a legacy of hope, despite the prediction of “no chance”.