WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article may contain images and names of deceased persons.
Long before a vision of a state arose in the heart and mind of Sir James Stirling, American ships regularly navigated the southwest coastal waters of Western Australia in search of their quarry: whales.
These American whalers had been visiting our coast since the late 1700s and often came ashore in order to replenish their water supplies. They were known to have traded with the Indigenous tribes and even took wives on their visits. Each season, upon returning to Western Australia, they reunited with the Indigenous tribes and again took up with the same wife; often finding that children had been born from the union.
So frequently did the Whalers visit our shores they deemed it necessary (or prudent) to sink wells either to establish a new well or to deepen an existing waterhole.
Crews often consisted of a mixing pot of ethnicities with a large number tending to be of Creole-Native American or African American descent. Conditions were harsh and it was a well-known fact that crew members regularly jumped ship at the places they visited. Perhaps it was after some time spent in Albany that African American, John Fisher, decided that he’d had enough of the whaling life and would stay in Western Australia.
Listed as being born in approximately 1821, it is not known when exactly he jumped ship. While he may have been here earlier, he is first recorded in the Inquirer in 1851 when he was convicted of sheep stealing in Kindenup [Kendenup] and sentenced to seven years transportation. He had been employed by Captain John Hassell and was in the company of a small group of Aboriginals when he was caught.
Despite the sentence being recorded in the newspapers as ‘transportation’ it would appear that John’s punishment stopped short of being sent out of the Colony. Perhaps the start of the convict era in Western Australia in June 1850 meant that there was no need for him to be sent interstate. He remained in Western Australia (the exact prison is unknown) and was instead sentenced to penal servitude – seven years of hard labour, most likely working on Government funded public projects.
Convict number 8178, John, or, as he was sometimes known, Jack, was listed in the Western Australian Convict Register as being 30 years old and standing at 5 foot 2 inches tall. He had dark hair, black eyes, an oval face and was considered a ‘healthy’ build. He was single with no children and his occupation was noted as ‘farmer’. In the special notes section it was written:
Coloured man; scar over left eye and on right arm.
The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News also picked up on the story but printed no details of John’s first name and simply reported that “an American black, named Fisher, had been sentenced at the Quarter Sessions to 7 years’ transportation for sheep-stealing.”
It seems John must’ve been a fairly well behaved convict, or, Western Australia was in dire need of labourers. Two years after his conviction, on 23 June 1853, he was granted a Ticket of Leave. This document enabled John to work within a particular district until his sentence expired. He kept his nose out of trouble (he certainly wasn’t mentioned in the papers from what I can tell) and on 7 October 1858, he was granted a Certificate of Freedom. John Fisher had served his sentence and was now effectively a free person to do as he pleased.
For about six years he stayed on the straight and narrow. After receiving his Certificate it appears he eventually moved towards the Vasse district and began working for Henry Yelverton on his sawmill in Quindalup. Henry himself had joined a whaling ship in the 1840s before reaching the Swan River so perhaps he’d taken pity on the wayward John and decided to give him a chance. It did not work out.
On 25 July 1864, John absconded from the employment of Henry Yelverton. The catalyst for such behaviour most likely came from his actions on the previous night; he had broken into the house of George Woods and had stolen a single-barrelled shotgun and ammunition.
Fisher immediately took to the cover of the bush and, with his weapon in tow, began to commit robberies in the district. These actions meant he was now considered a bushranger.
As the fellow was well armed and threatened to shoot any person who attempted to take him, he was generally feared in the district.
When he next came to the public attention, it was the 29th and John had decided to burgle the home of Alfred Bussell in Margaret River. He stole a double-barrelled shotgun, ammunition and rations and took (by force) a young Indigenous woman who was reported in the paper to be ‘half-caste’.
On the 14th August he came across a Noongar man (unfortunately named) “Monkey Legs” and threatened to shoot him if he got too close.
The next day Fisher was spotted by Mounted Police Constable Harrison and Native Assistant ‘Newton’ in a stockyard about two miles away from Mr Yelverton’s timber station.
A stand-off ensued. Harrison told Fisher to surrender and Fisher responded by pointing a gun at him, threatening to shoot if he moved. They remained in this position for several minutes when Fisher suddenly turned and ran into the swamp. Constable Harrison and Newton both shot at him but missed.
On the 6th September 1864, Inspector of Police, Frederick Panter, Police Sergeant Dyer and two Noongar men started searching for signs of Fisher. They came across his tracks about 15 miles from Busselton and after hearing that he’d been seen earlier in the morning, they bunkered down, hid near a swamp during the night and waited and watched some nearby huts.
Perhaps John Fisher was onto them. He didn’t show. Rain further hindered the search and the tracks that were previously visible, were lost. The search party kept looking but Fisher continued to evade them.
Finally, on 9th September, it was ascertained that Fisher had sent a Noongar man named “One-eyed Bill” into Busselton to purchase some bread. The search party made contact with Bill and asked him to draw Fisher out from his hiding spot. They followed Bill’s tracks from Busselton to a spot at the back of The Broadwater and there they saw Bill and John Fisher walking towards them. The party quickly hid themselves behind some trees and waited for Fisher to walk past them. When Fisher was a couple of metres away, they jumped out from behind the trees and ordered him to surrender.
John Fisher’s immediate reaction was to cock and raise his gun but, before he could take aim, Mr Panter had him in a chokehold and Sergeant Dyer jumped in to hold his arms. Perhaps an indication that he was never Fisher’s man, One-eyed Bill also turned on him during the capture.
He struggled violently, and it was found necessary to strike him over the head with a pistol, before he was sufficiently subdued to be hand-cuffed.
The Inquirer and Commercial News further touched on his previous conviction and background:
For some time past this man has been the terror of the neighbourhood, and he had sworn never to be taken alive. He came into the Colony in an American Whaler, and it is reported that he had received a sentence of seven years’ penal servitude for sheep stealing.
On 6th October 1864, John Fisher was brought before the Supreme Court charged with the larceny of Alfred Bussell’s gun. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years penal servitude. Before sentencing, Chief Justice Burt enquired after Fisher’s character in the Sussex District:
A ‘Colonial Convict’, he was recorded in the register as being 40 years of age (making his birth year now 1824 – perhaps they were estimating). While many of the details relating to his description were similar to his first conviction, there were however some differences. His eye colour was noted as being ‘dark hazel’ instead of black and his complexion was described as ‘negro’. Time had taken its toll and his build was now noted as being ‘stout’. The special remarks section stated:
Is a negro; two small scars left temple.
John Fisher was to serve his sentence in Fremantle Prison.
He was admitted on 11th October and the property he had to hand over was recorded in the Male Prisoners’ Property Book. John Fisher’s belongings included one pair of trousers, one cotton shirt, a belt and a sou’wester hat. The sou’wester hat is an interesting item on its own. It would’ve been collapsible and generally made of oilskin which was waterproof. It was longer in the back and the feature of this design was to keep the rain off your neck. The sou’wester was traditionally worn by sailors and would’ve been a vital garment during John’s whaling days.
Once again, John Fisher served his time. His sentence officially expired on 7 October 1868 and on 12 October 1868, he was granted his Certificate of Freedom. A free man, it appears he decided that this time, he would move north.
By the 1870s, it would appear that John Fisher was living in Northampton (Geraldton District) and working for the owners of the various stations in the area. While it seems he may have been occasionally in trouble, and he may have been shot in 1877 by John Drummond (so far unconfirmed if it’s him) generally, he kept out of trouble. His bushranging days seemed to be over.
Without adequate descriptors it is hard to confirm whether later articles in the papers relate to John Fisher. Further hindering the research is the fact that there also seems to have been another John Fisher living in the same area.
The smoking gun comes in 1884 when John Fisher wrote a letter to the Victorian Express explaining his actions in convincing an Aboriginal man who’d committed an assault to remain in Mr Shire’s house. In the original article printed on 26 March the reporter referred to John as an ‘African servant’. Quick to differentiate from this label, he ended his letter with, “I am not an African servant, as stated, I was born in America and am now shepherding for Mr. Frank Hall.”
Five years later, John Fisher’s story officially comes to an end. He was still working in the Geraldton District when he died in 1889. His death was registered and his age listed as 60 (a birth year of 1829). If calculating from his birth year stated in 1851, he would’ve been 68. Though I haven’t yet ordered the record (and will do so at a later date), the State Records Office of Western Australia holds within their archives a file from the Police Department:
Northern District, Geraldton Sub-district, Mt Gould Station. Report on death of John Fisher, an African Native caretaker for Mr Bush’s station.
- Image of the whaling ship courtesy of Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_whaling).
- 1851 ‘King George’s Sound.’, Inquirer (Perth, WA : 1840 – 1855), 2 July, p. 1. (SUPPLEMENT TO “THE INQUIRER.”), viewed 09 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65740309
- Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia. Jack Fisher; Convict Department; FCN42; ACC 128/40-43.
- 1851 ‘Domestic Sayings and Doings.’, The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864), 4 July, p. 2. , viewed 09 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3172560
- Information on Henry Yelverton’s early life courtesy of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yelverton-henry-4898).
- 1864 ‘GENERAL INTELLIGENCE.’, The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864), 16 September, p. 2. , viewed 09 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2935275
- 1864 ‘Local and Domestic Intelligence.’, The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901), 21 September, p. 2. , viewed 09 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66013942
- 1864 ‘Supreme Court— Criminal Side.’, The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901), 12 October, p. 3. , viewed 12 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66013643
- 1864 ‘West Australian Times.’, The West Australian Times (Perth, WA : 1863 – 1864), 22 September, p. 2. , viewed 12 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3367110
- Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia. John Fisher; Convict Department; FCN42; ACC 128/40-43.
- Image of Fremantle Prison (painted by Henry Wray) obtained courtesy of Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fremantle_Prison).
- Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia. John Fisher; Convict Establishment, Miscellaneous; ACC 1156/V14.
- 1884 ‘CREDIT TO WHOM CREDIT IS DUE.’, Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA : 1878 – 1894), 23 April, p. 3. , viewed 12 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article214094663
- State Records Office of Western Australia; AU WA S76- cons430 1889/0657.