a.k.a. Black Mary
Born in 1798 or 1799, Mary was a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman most likely of the mouheneener people of nipalunaa (Hobart). All records related to Mary only provide her English name, given to her by the colonial Cockerill family with whom she lived and worked as a young teenager.
While staying with the colonists, Mary maintained close ties with her traditional culture and community. She was depicted by her contemporaries as articulate, brave, and resolute. She wore clothes that mixed items from the two cultures, described as “neither Native nor European, but a very pretty sort of costume made of skins, feathers and white calico.”
When she was only 15 or 16 Mary met Michael Howe, a convict transported for highway robbery and assigned to a merchant living near the Cockerill family. By April 1815 both Mary and Michael had absconded from their respective assignments to join the infamous Whitehead Gang.
Given Mary’s age, and that Michael was in his late 20s, there is some speculation as to how strongly Michael influenced Mary’s decision to join his life on the run. Some researchers describe Mary and Michael as a dedicated couple, though Michael was overly possessive, allegedly shooting one of his companions for giving Mary a stolen shawl.
Mary quickly became crucial to the success of the Whitehead Gang and Michael’s career as a bushranger, using her bush skills to steer the group through the unforgiving Tasmanian landscape and helping them evade capture. In 1817, a contingent of the 46th Regiment was sent to pursue the bushrangers. Mary and Michael were found at Jericho, some 75 km from Hobart.
As they fled, Mary wasn’t able to keep up with Michael, so he shot her. Perhaps, as has been suggested, he didn’t want her to be taken alive. It’s also possible his possessive and jealous nature led him to attempt to kill her as they were about to be separated. Mary was reportedly severely injured and outraged by Michael’s betrayal.
Determined to see his gang captured, once she had recovered Mary joined the regiment and led the military party another 17 km inland across rugged terrain. The hunt lasted for two days until the trail grew cold. Mary then led the regiment to the discovery of 56 stolen sheep and provided enough information for Michael to eventually be captured.
Michael only survived about a year without Mary to guide his steps. In October 1818 he was tracked to his hut near the Shannon River in the highlands. He was cornered, killed, decapitated and his body buried on the spot. His head was taken to Hobart and displayed as proof he was dead.
Mary, on the other hand, received a full pardon. At her own request, she was sent to Sydney to begin a new life. Sadly, while there, she contracted a pulmonary disease and returned to Hobart where she was admitted to hospital and died in June 1819, barely twenty years old. Mary is buried in St David’s Cemetery, Hobart.
While Mary’s time with Michael Howe and the Whitehead Gang was brief, and she later helped to hunt and capture them, for a period she lived the wild and dangerous life of a wanted outlaw. As much as Jessie Hickman and Mary Ann Bugg, Mary Cockerill deserves to take her place in history alongside Australia’s band of female bushrangers.
Capture the spirit of one of Australia’s female bushrangers to win the:
Terror Australis Festival Art Awards 2019 (with prizes worth $2000)
Children’s Writing Competition 2019 (open to all children up to age 16), or
Scarlet Stiletto Awards 2019 - Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival Award for Best Bushranger Story (Open to all Australian female writers, regardless of age)
Saunders, Kay Notorious Australian women. Harper Collins, Pymble, N.S.W, 2011.
Boyce, James K Van Diemen's Land. Schwartz Publishing Pty. Ltd, Melbourne, 2010.
Hobart Town; SATURDAY, APRIL 12, 1817. (1817, April 12). The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter (Tas. : 1816 - 1821), p. 2. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article652576