OPINION: Australia Day should reflect on the negative, too

MURDER, sexual assault, drugs and a dramatic escapes from police custody — ingredients of a ripper story, don’t you think?

With Australia Day almost upon us, our leaders will soon be telling again the stories of our splendid history.

I think it’s important we also know the darker side, including some local events.

The story of the “Dora Dora Blacks” is not just a murder story but reveals much about how the justice system once treated Aboriginal people.

The compassion of some Albury citizens helped save the two Aborigines from the gallows, one of the arguments in their defence being that they were Fraser Island “savages” forced to work for the Victoria Police.

Here’s the story, based on newspaper reports.

In 1891, Boolyal (Jackey) and Thunimberi (Willie), had been working as police trackers at Benalla for more than a year.

They fled town after Boolyal abused and struck a grandmother, Mary Smith, 77, with a candlestick. Before she died on April 5, the pair started going home — that is, walking to Queensland.

They swam the Murray, bought opium from a Chinese man they met and stumbled on an old Polish settler, Leveryn Mursczavitch at Dora Dora.

He gave them food, but when they saw him carrying a gun, Boolyal speared him in the back, then robbed him.

Seeing how badly hurt he was, the pair apologised, returned most of his money back and took off in a hurry.

Mursczavitch was rushed by mail coach to Albury hospital, where, on his deathbed, he described the pair.

After weeks eluding a police hunt, they made it to Queensland, though then lost each other.

Thunimberi hid in Bundaberg, where he claimed to have run in St Patrick’s Day races, until Queensland Constable Nat King arrested him on December 8, 1893, but not without a fight.

From Bundaberg, he was sent in shackles to Brisbane, then went by boat to Sydney and train to Albury, where King put him in the Albury Gaol.

The Crown chose to proceed with a Dora Dora murder charge under NSW law as they had a better case than in the Benalla incident.

Detective Sgt Alfred Sainsbury came from Benalla to identify Thunimberi, 23, and secured a full confession from Thunimberi, blaming the older Boolyal for the actual murder.

On January 26, Boolyal was captured near Seaforth, north of Mackay, by the same Nat King and his brother Tom, with the help of some Aborigines.

Despite wearing handcuffs and a rope around his neck, Boolyal escaped briefly, though King caught him on Pigeon Island, near Airlie Beach, still with the handcuffs on.

Boolyal made a similar journey to Albury and confessed to assaulting the Benalla woman and killing the Pole.

The pair had been fugitives for more than 2½ years.

On April 11, 1894, a jury in Albury found them guilty of murder and they were sentenced to be hanged at Albury Gaol.

Clemency petitions were supported by a defending solicitor, John Wilkinson, and Dr Cleaver Woods, who had treated the Pole in hospital, while the Border Post demanded reprieves because the men were “savages” taken from their natural surroundings.

A journalist reported: “Their long flight from the law, clinging for two or three years to the miserable but incriminating remains of the robbery ... is a striking episode in the life of a savage man.

“Should the (Cabinet) decide against them, those who witness the end of the tragedy will not have much to boast about.”

Cabinet commuted the death sentences and Thunimberi was released from Grafton Gaol in 1909 and Boolyal from Maitland in 1914.

By then, former detective Sainsbury had moved a long way from Benalla — to become Chief Police Commissioner of Victoria .

Howard Jones

Howard Jones