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In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Before the glamorous flyers of the 1930s like Amelia Earhart, “Chubby” Miller and Nancy Bird Walton, another woman opened the way to the skies — and were it not for a tragic twist of fate, her name might now be just as familiar.
Her name was Millicent Maude Bryant, and in early 1927, she became the first woman to gain a pilot’s licence in Australia. She was also first in the Commonwealth outside Britain.
A boundary-pusher who met an untimely end
Millicent was born in 1878 at Oberon and grew up near Trangi in western New South Wales. Her family, the Harveys, moved to Manly for a period after a younger brother, George, contracted polio (one of the treatments was “sea-bathing”). She met and married a public servant 15 years her senior, Edward Bryant. They had three children but the couple separated not long before Edward died in 1926.
Later that year, Bryant began instruction with the Australian Aero Club at Mascot in Sydney. At the time, the site of the current international airport was just a large, grassy expanse with a few buildings and hangars.
Bryant was accepted by the Aero Club’s chief instructor, Captain Edward Leggatt (himself a noted first world war fighter pilot), soon after the club had opened its membership to women.
Even then, though, she was unusual: here was a 49-year-old mother of three taking up the challenge of flying which, in the 1920’s, was still as dangerous as it was exciting and glamorous.
She quickly progressed, ahead of two other younger, women students, and made her first solo flight in February, 1927. By this time, newspapers all around Australia were following her story, and in late March she took the test for the “A” licence that would enable her to independently fly De Havilland Moth biplanes.
She passed, and with the issue of her licence by the Ministry of Defence, Bryant was acclaimed as the first woman to gain a pilot’s licence in Australia.
Why, then, isn’t she better known in our day? While Bryant immediately began training for a licence to carry passengers and flew regularly in the months that followed, it was her particular misfortune to step onto the Sydney ferry Greycliffe on its regular 4.14pm run to Watson’s Bay on November 3, 1927.
Less than an hour later, she was among 40 dead after the ferry was cut in half off Bradley’s Head by the mail steamer Tahiti. It was Sydney’s worst peacetime maritime disaster. Bryant was still only 49.
Her funeral two days later was attended by hundreds of people and accorded a remarkable aerial tribute, as the Wellington Times reported:
Five aeroplanes from the Mascot aerodrome flew over the procession as it wended its way to the cemetery. As the burial service was read by the Rev. A. R. Ebbs, rector of St. Matthew’s, Manly, one of the planes descended to within about 150 feet of the grave, and there was dropped from it a wreath of red carnations and blue delphiniums … Attached to the floral tribute was a card bearing the following inscription:
5th November, 1927. With the deepest sympathy of the committee and members of the Australian Aero Club — N.S.W. section.
A pioneer in life as well as the sky
Bryant’s story quickly lapsed into obscurity. Fortunately, some 80 years later, the rediscovery in the family of a collection of letters and other writings has enabled Bryant’s life beyond her flying achievement to be rediscovered.
The letters were — and are still until they are added to the collection of Bryant’s papers in the National Library — held by her granddaughter, Millicent Jones of Kendall, NSW, who rediscovered them in storage at her home.
The main correspondence is a conversation with her second son, John, in England. It covers the period she was flying, though it only moderately expands on the flights recorded in her logbook.
However, her letters and writings reveal much more about Bryant herself, her relationships, her feelings and her leisure, business and political activities. And they make it apparent that she was as much a pioneer in life as well as in the sky.
For one, flying was not Bryant’s only unconventional interest. She was also an entrepreneur, registering an importing company in partnership with John, who went on to become a pioneer of the Australian dairy industry.
She opened a men’s clothing business, Chesterfield Men’s Mercery, in Sydney’s CBD. However, disaster struck when it was inundated with water mere weeks after opening, following a fire in the tea rooms upstairs.
Bryant then became a small-scale property developer, buying and building on land in Vaucluse and Edgecliffe. She’d been well tutored in this by her father, grazier Edmund Harvey (a grandfather of billionaire Gerry Harvey), whose own holdings eventually included a large part of the Kanimbla Valley west of the Blue Mountains.
An excellent horsewoman, Bryant was also an early motorist who had driven over 35,000 miles around NSW and who could fix her own car. She was a keen golfer and reader and even a student of Japanese at the University of Sydney.
Several fragments of a family saga she planned to write, based on her own life, are among her papers. One sheet, entitled “A Life”, summarises in a series of rough notes rather more than she might have told anyone about her inner world.
Marriage – mistakes – children – despondency. Ill-health. Great desire to “live” and create things…
She notes that a trip abroad was a complete success but
it furnished a heart interest which lasted for fourteen years until hope died owing to a marriage.
This fragment provides some background to her taking, in her forties, the unusual step at that time of leaving her marriage and family home to start life afresh with her sons.
This was not long before she took her first flight, probably with Edgar Percival, a family friend and later a successful aircraft designer whose planes won air races and were noted for their graceful lines.
Vigour, values and conflicts
Growing up in the NSW inland late in the 19th century, Bryant would have begun with a fairly traditional view of what it meant to be a wife and mother.
However, her early life was also “free-spirited” (as one newspaper described her upbringing) and her determination to make decisions and shape her own life put her on a collision course with gender role expectations common at the time.
Learning to fly, especially in middle age, was a breakthrough she pursued perhaps even more keenly after being denied work with the Sydney Sun newspaper solely because she was married.
Bryant clearly came to hold strong ideas about what a woman could and couldn’t do, and her life shows a determination to make her own path, despite confronting obstacles that are still familiar in our own time.
Bryant is not just a figure in aviation history. Her life — spanning the colonial period, the newly-federated nation and the tragedies of World War I — came to reflect the vigour, values and conflicts of Australia in the early 20th century.
In 1765, a young, peasant woman left a remote corner of rural France where her impoverished family had scraped a living for generations. She set out on a journey that would take her around the world from the South American jungles and Magellan Strait to the tropical islands of the Indo-Pacific.
Jeanne Barret (also Baret or Baré) was the first woman known to have circumnavigated the world. Abandoning her bonnet and apron for men’s trousers and coats, she disguised herself as a man and signed on as assistant to the naturalist, Philibert Commerson on one of the ships of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world.
During that voyage, Jeanne helped Commerson amass the largest individual natural history collection known at the time. Thousands of the plant specimens can still be found in the herbarium of the Paris natural history museum, although few bear Jeanne’s name.
Despite Jeanne’s singular achievement, she left no account of her journey or her life. She might have been entirely forgotten were it not for a dramatic revelation on a Tahitian beach in 1768.
Bougainville’s voyage famously promoted Tahiti as a utopian paradise of beautiful women and sexual freedom. But the Tahitian men were equally keen to meet European women and, despite her disguise, they swiftly identified Jeanne as one.
This revelation caused consternation on board and Bougainville was forced to intervene. He described Jeanne’s confession briefly in his best-selling narrative of the voyage. Having nothing but praise for her work, Bougainville ordered she be left alone to continue her work as a man.
Jeanne had done nothing wrong. French naval regulations did not forbid women from embarking, but there were penalties for men who brought a woman on board. Both Jeanne and Commerson insisted he was unaware of Jeanne’s ruse and that they did not know each other prior to the journey. As soon as the voyage reached French territory, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Jeanne and Commerson disembarked.
Jeanne’s adventure was soon retold in a book on celebrated women and in the philosopher Denis Diderot’s famous Supplement to the Bougainville voyage. She was ultimately awarded a French naval pension for her services.
The only known image of Jeanne appeared in a book of famous voyages, drawn long after her death. The image is probably allegorical. Loose sailor’s clothes represent her voyage, a bunch of flowers represents botany and the red cap presents her as Marianne, an iconic revolutionary symbol of liberty and the new French republic.
In reality, a servant and botanist like Jeanne would have worn gentleman’s clothes, carrying an assortment of pins, knives, bags, weapons and papers for collecting. Plants were pressed in the field in a portable plant press.
Despite such early renown, details of Jeanne’s life beyond her famous voyage were scarce. For many years, little was known about her past, what happened when she left the expedition in Mauritius in 1768, how she returned to France or what she did with the rest of her life.
Writing the biography of a woman about whom we knew so little was always going to be challenging. I found myself searching for a pre-existing model to base Jeanne on — in fiction or in history. But in literature, as in reality, women, the poor, the illiterate, the nonconformists and those from other cultures and languages are poorly represented.
When they appear, they are simplistic stereotypes — supporting characters for a lead role reserved for a wealthy, white man. A woman like Jeanne could be a peasant or a servant, a wife or a fallen woman — there was no conventionally acceptable opportunity for her to be an adventurer or an independent woman of her own means. She had to create that opportunity for herself.
Initial accounts of Jeanne focused on her work, appearance and sexual conduct. She was described as being indefatigable, an expert botanist and a beast of burden who carried heavy provisions while plant collecting. Men noted she was neither attractive nor ugly, but she behaved with “scrupulous modesty”.
Commerson suffered from an incapacitating leg injury during his journey, which limited his mobility. Jeanne was probably responsible for collecting most of the South American plants, of which over a thousand are still found in herbariums today.
When museum scientists began posthumously publishing some of Commerson’s species descriptions, pioneering evolutionary biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck was the only one who mentioned Jeanne’s contribution and courage. She was a servant, after all, so hardly warranted acknowledgement.
Commerson himself rarely mentioned Jeanne. It was not until after they left the voyage that he named a plant after her: Baretia bonafidia (now known as Turraea rutilans).
In his description of this plant, Commerson recognised her “thirst for knowledge” and that he was indebted to “her heroism, for so many plants never before harvested, all the industrious drying, so many collections of insects and shells”.
Nineteenth century accounts of Jeanne appeared as footnotes in the biographies of great men. Avoiding all impropriety, she was presented as Commerson’s “faithful servant”, like Crusoe’s Man Friday, or Phileas Fogg’s Jean Passepartout. An early biographer, Paul-Antoine Cap recounted a family story in which Jeanne loyally cared for Commerson on his deathbed in Mauritius and that she returned to live in his hometown in France.
“By way of remembrance and veneration for her former master, she left all she possessed to the natural heirs of the famous botanist,” he wrote. It was a story of boundless devotion much repeated in subsequent accounts.
It has been left to female researchers to uncover the details of Jeanne’s life. Attention has shifted to Jeanne as an individual, rather than an addendum to Commerson’s or Bougainville’s story.
In the 1980s, a local historian from Burgundy, Henriette Dussourd, uncovered the parish record of Jeanne’s birth in 1740 to a poor peasant family in the town of La Comelle. She also found a declaration of pregnancy (obligatory under French law) signed by Jeanne when she was 24-years-old. When she was five months pregnant, Jeanne had fled to Paris with Commerson, travelling under a new surname, as his housekeeper.
The circumstances are suspicious. Jeanne had presumably been working as a servant for the recently widowed Commerson and they moved to Paris to escape a local scandal. Early Parisian parish records were destroyed in the Commune fires of 1871, but Dussourd suggests a son was born, left in the Foundling Home and died young.
Since then, I have found that Jeanne had a second son while in Paris, who appears to have died while she was away on her voyage.
More recently, a biography in English has attempted to fill in the gaps left in the archival record. Glynis Ridley’s popular biography has been criticised for scientific errors and speculation, but her version of Jeanne’s story has propagated widely across the internet.
Unlike the loyal servant trope of the 19th century, Ridley utilises a modern cautionary tale to fill out Jeanne’s story – the well-rehearsed narrative that adventurous women inevitably come to a sticky end.
Ridley’s biography seeks to give Jeanne an agency that she lacked in 18th and 19th century accounts. She argues Commerson sought Jeanne’s advice as an expert herbswoman. Was an unsigned list of medicinal plants among Commerson’s archives, she asks, actually Jeanne’s work?
Appealing though this idea is, Commerson was, however, renowned for his medicinal teas, and herbal remedies were a staple of medical treatment at the time.
Nor is there any evidence Jeanne was taught to read and write by her mother, as Ridley suggests. My archival research found her mother died when Jeanne was 15- months-old. It seems more likely Commerson taught her to write and trained her in botany.
More controversially, Ridley contends that the story of Jeanne’s revelation as a woman in Tahiti was a cover for a gang rape on New Ireland, off Papua New Guinea. And that Jeanne fell pregnant and gave birth to a son in Mauritius.
This story originates from a description by the doctor on board Jeanne’s ship, Francois Vivez. Vivez disliked Commerson and intended to publish a salacious account of his servant when he returned to France.
In his manuscripts, Vivez describes Jeanne being attacked by her crew mates and her gender exposed after her identification by the Tahitians. While Vivez greatly embroiders his accounts, there is enough confirmation from other journals to suggest they are based on facts. On balance, it seems likely that Jeanne was identified as a women in Tahiti and some of the crew decided to confirm this for themselves when they were next ashore.
But was there a rape? It is difficult to interpret these 18th century accounts, written in either French or Latin and laden with historical contexts and classical metaphors that have long since lost their associations for modern readers.
Bougainville had ordered that Jeanne was not to be harassed. Rape was punishable by death in the French navy. Could a naval commander tolerate such a serious crime and insubordination to go unrecorded and unpunished?
It seems unlikely. In his only comment on the subject, Commerson noted Jeanne “evaded ambush by wild animals and humans, not without risk to her life and virtue, unharmed and sound”.
In any case, there is no evidence that Jeanne, suffering from scurvy and malnutrition, conceived a child on the voyage, nor of the obligatory declaration of pregnancy, or a child born in Mauritius.
A woman of means
Jeanne’s life in Mauritius and her return to France were actually more interesting than dramatic denouements that fulfil conventional expectations. The adventurous woman did not come to a sticky end.
She was not the faithful servant, comforting Commerson on his death bed. She was not left “alone, homeless, penniless” after his death, waiting for a man to rescue her. She did not return to Commerson’s hometown or remember him in death.
The archives tell a different story. I found Jeanne was granted property in her own right in Mauritius. When Commerson died, Jeanne was running her own profitable business. She bought a license to run a lucrative bar near the port.
By the time she married Jean Dubernat, a soldier in a French colonial regiment, she was wealthy enough to require a pre-nuptial contract. Her husband brought 5000 livres to the marriage while Jeanne brought a house, slaves, furniture, clothes, jewellery and a small fortune of 19,500 livres – two thirds of which would remain in her control. She was a woman of means.
Further research by Sophie Miquel and Nicolle Maguet in Dordogne, where Jeanne lived out her life after her return to France in 1775, has revealed more details. She purchased various properties including a farm, which is still recognisable today.
Her husband signed another legal document acknowledging these properties were shared equally with his wife. Jeanne gathered her family around her, including her orphaned niece and nephew, and ran a successful business as a landowner and trader – a far cry from her illiterate, impoverished childhood in Burgundy.
If we need a conventional story arc for Jeanne’s life, it should be rags-to-riches, rather than the loyal servant or road-trip tragedy. But better, surely, to construct Jeanne’s story with an objective attention to the archival record.
Jeanne was full of contradictions. She was a devoted aunt, yet left her own children in Paris to an unknown fate. She struggled to escape the constraints of France’s rigid class system and patriarchy, but also owned slaves. Her life does not always fit a comfortable familiar narrative structure.
What we do know reveals Jeanne as a confident, capable, resilient woman — neither victim nor hero but a complex, inspiring and unconventional role model.
Danielle Clode’s new biography of Jeanne Barret, In Search of the Woman who Sailed the World, is published by Picador Australia.
Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.
In 1970, the bicentenary of the Endeavour’s voyage along the east coast of Australia contributed to a renaissance of storytelling about Captain James Cook.
While government-sponsored commemorations celebrated Cook as an Enlightenment explorer and national founder, Aboriginal people provided their own viewpoints on Cook and his legacy.
During this commemorative period, Indigenous stories about Cook were recorded in the Kimberley region, Arnhem Land and the Wave Hill region in the Northern Territory, along with places on the Queensland coast.
Coinciding with an emerging national movement for Indigenous land rights, these renditions of Cook provided radically different accounts of colonisation and its enduring structures and effects.
These stories questioned the settler mythologising that rendered Cook’s actions as heroic, benign or of historical interest only. And they politicised in unprecedented ways the figure of Cook and the longstanding traditions around the ways Australians remember and celebrate him.
In time, these alternative accounts transformed the ways we understand Cook in Australia – both his own time here in 1770, as well as the cultural production of him as a historical figure in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The stories told by Hobbles Danaiyarri
I began thinking quite differently about my own research on Cook’s encounters at Botany Bay in 1770 after reading the stories told by Hobbles Danaiyarri, a senior Aboriginal lawman and knowledge holder, to the ethnographer Deborah Bird Rose.
Danaiyarri considered Bird Rose a consummate listener, faithful recorder, intelligent interlocutor, incisive interpreter and generous executor. And as Bird Rose later recounted, almost from the moment she arrived to do anthropological fieldwork at Yarralin in the Northern Territory in 1980,
Hobbles had been telling me about Captain Cook and the hidden history of the north.
For nearly three decades, she wrote about the gifts of knowledge – and ways of knowing – he shared with her. Danaiyarri’s spoken-word poetic history – which focused quite extensively on Cook – is one of the great pieces of Australian literature, yet it is still not as widely known as it should be.
The power of a greeting
There’s one section in Danaiyarri’s epic narrative – or saga, as Bird Rose calls it – in which he describes Cook’s failure to say “hello” to the people whose territory he had entered on the east coast. He explains:
[Cook] should have asked him – one of these boss for Sydney – Aboriginal people. People were up there, Aboriginal people. He should have come up and: ‘hello’, you know, ‘hello’. Now, asking him for his place, to come through, because [it’s] Aboriginal land. Because Captain Cook didn’t give him a fair go – to tell him ‘good day’, or ‘hello’, you know.
This sharp accusation that Cook’s monumental failing during his initial trespass into Aboriginal territory was “not saying hello” – rather than, for instance, opening fire – draws attention to the social and cultural expectations, values and dynamics that should have governed such an event.
Danaiyarri’s account peeled back the curtain to show us how this first encounter might have looked from “the other side of the beach”.
Until this time, such critical Indigenous knowledge had not penetrated the vast amount of settler storytelling devoted to Cook’s first landing on the shores of Botany Bay.
The stories we inherited of this episode had cast the Aboriginal people Cook encountered as either ferocious warriors or pathetic cowards. They were not properly seen as bosses for the country, who would expect a stranger to recognise them in that way and act accordingly.
Without acknowledgement of that fundamental principle, our interpretations of Cook’s landing were lacking a full understanding of this moment, specifically what motivated the local people’s responses to his forceful entry onto their land.
Responding to the crew’s presence
What does it mean to accuse Cook of failing to say hello? Why was this such a blunder and what were the implications of this impolite behaviour?
Curious about the implications of what Danaiyarri said, Bird Rose asked Yarralin people what would have happened if Cook had asked properly to enter the local people’s land. She explained,
I was told that either he would have been denied permission and therefore would have gone way, or he would have been allowed to stay but only on terms decided by the owners of the country.
Cook was in Botany Bay for eight days, and throughout that time, the local people sought to impose the terms on which the crew stayed.
They kept their distance from the strangers and never opened up direct communication with them. But they also did not abandon the country to Cook’s crew. Rather, they orchestrated as best they could the crew’s presence – keeping them contained within a limited space.
They behaved, as Danaiyarri would put it, as bosses should.
Understanding why the ‘beach’ is so important
the view from the ship and the view from the shore.
While it implies equal weighting would be given to understanding both sides of the story of Cook’s landing, it’s a wrong-headed idea. It suggests each party remained – and can remain still – suspended in their own separate worlds: on the ship or on the shore.
Missing from the tagline is the “beach” – the literal and metaphorical space where cross-cultural encounters, misunderstandings and, too often, violence has taken place.
As Danaiyarri reminds us, Cook did come ashore and the way he did set some of the terms for future colonial-Indigenous relations.
These encounters are challenging and complex to understand. Aboriginal stories, like those told by Danaiyarri, tell us what ought to have happened on the beach. And they ensure none of us forget where, how and why the troubles between Indigenous and other Australians began.
This year’s 250th commemoration provides yet another occasion to grapple with this difficult history – but the opportunity will be lost if we remain blinkered in seeing things only from one, or other, vantage point.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
In 1839, George Augustus Robinson arrived in Melbourne as Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Port Phillip District, bringing with him a select group of Aboriginal guides from Tasmania, including a woman called Truganini. He could never have foreseen the dramatic and tragic consequence.
Sometime in August 1841, Truganini left Melbourne with her new husband Maulboyheener travelling toward Westernport, working for food and shelter at stations along the way.
On September 4, they were on James Horsfall’s Ballymarang station, where they were joined by their companions, Peevay, his wife Plorenernoopner, and Maytepueminer, wife of their friend Lacklay who had gone missing. All five were on a mission to find out what had happened to Lacklay, last heard of heading into Lower Westernport in May 1840.
On a mission
Negotiating the mangroves at the top of Westernport was torturous. The Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp spread for miles to the north and east making it near impossible to find a way through. Truganini and her companions were obliged to make a wide detour around it to find higher ground, where they followed the course of the Lang Lang River to the coast, where massive tide fluctuations had created an extensive inter-tidal zone providing a rich harvest of scallops, mussels, oysters, abalone, limpets, marine worms, crabs and burrowing shrimp.
Despite the evidence of long-standing occupation in the exposed shell middens, the place was empty. When Samuel Anderson and Robert Massie first sailed from Launceston to the eastern shores of Westernport in 1835, they had found the Boonwurrung owners had been extinguished by the cumulative effect of encroachments from Van Diemen’s Land, endemic warfare with the Kurnai from Gippsland and attacks by sealers who “stole” women, all compounded by epidemic disease.
On September 15, Anderson and Massie became aware that Truganini, Maulboyheener, Peevay, Plorenernoopner and Maytepueminer had established camp on their pastoral lease on the Bass River. The two squatters knew members of the group very well from their time working for the Van Diemen’s Land Company, where Anderson had been a bookkeeper and Massie the engineer. If anyone in Lower Westernport knew what had happened to Lacklay, it would be these two squatters.
While at Anderson and Massie’s station, the five almost certainly heard the same information they’d given to Assistant Protector William Thomas when he had come looking for Lacklay — known to him as Isaac — in the previous year: that he was last seen in the company of settler who lived at the end of Westernport Bay. Further inquiries by Thomas established the man in question was the skipper of a cutter that had sailed away from the far eastern tip of Westernport Bay. On board where a woman and her three children, plus Lacklay and an unnamed German man as the crew.
The night they sailed, a heavy squall had swept in from the Tasman Sea and the boat was presumed to have capsized, with everyone drowned, though no bodies or pieces of wreckage had been recovered. Thomas was not convinced, noting in the margin of his journal “the death of Isaac supposed”.
Thomas was right to have reservations about this narrative of death by drowning. The truth, only established 176 years later, was that the cutter did not capsize, but sailed all the way to the remote whaling port of Kororareka in New Zealand. At the time, there was no conceivable way that anyone in Port Phillip could have known the boat had managed to sail across the Tasman Sea.
Lacklay’s disappearance was left to speculation. A story that made much more sense than drowning was that he had been shot by a settler, a narrative everyone in Port Phillip was familiar with. Truganini and Maulboyheener had heard that version of the story too, and now were in Lower Westernport to investigate.
After a leisurely stay at Anderson and Massie’s run, the five moved off on September 29. They crossed the Powlett River and made camp close to the home of William Watson. He was the sole settler below the Bass River, having very recently arrived with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, Walter Ginman, in May 1841. Watson was employed by a consortium of investors to work the seam of coal that Anderson had discovered. He had sunk a shaft into the coal seam near the mouth of the Powlett River, where he built a rudimentary hut just above the high-water mark.
Watson welcomed Truganini and her friends, giving them tea and sugar and even lending them a kettle. On October 2, the fourth day of their visit, Watson and Ginman departed for the mine, and the five approached the hut and lingered in the yard until Mrs Watson came out to give them some more tea and sugar.
Some time later, the women began to scatter the bark from their shelters and pack up their belongings, while the men went to the hut to return the kettle.
Once the men gained entrance to the hut, the tone of their interactions suddenly shifted. The reasons why would only become clear much later.
Peevay went to look for Watson’s guns, while Maulboyheener took Mrs Watson and her daughter by the shoulders to propel them outside. There Truganini and Maytepueminer pulled them into the bush and pointed them in the direction of safety at Anderson and Massie’s station. Meanwhile, Peevay and Maulboyheener systematically stripped the hut of food staples, blankets, clothing, an axe, two guns and a supply of buckshot. After setting fire to the hut, the five loaded up their plunder and followed the river towards the coast.
Early that evening, Peevay and Maulboyheener lay concealed in the low coastal heath watching Watson and his son-in-law returning from the mine. When the two men came into range, they fired a volley of shots from several guns, hitting Ginman in the calf and slightly wounding Watson in the foot and elbow. Hobbling towards their hut, the two men saw their home was a smouldering ruin and their wives had vanished. It was well after dark when they reached Anderson and Massie’s station and found their wives unharmed. The next day, Massie supplied Watson with a brace of firearms and two of his workers for a search party.
Peevay and Maulboyheener must have known that Watson would come looking for them, and that he would likely shoot them on sight, yet they lingered at the Powlett River mouth for another four days.
Blood on the beach
Staying low, with the heath to provide cover, the five kept careful watch for Watson’s search party. From a high point on the sand dunes, they had an excellent view of the flat country to the north and east, the direction they knew danger would come from. They managed to avoid detection until the evening of October 5, when Watson caught a glimpse of Maulboyheener standing on a high dune. Several shots were fired, failing to wound Maulboyheener, although a bullet came close enough to make a neat hole in the coat he was wearing.
Alert to the danger from Watson’s party, Truganini’s group failed to notice six unarmed men approaching from the south, walking along the beach to Watson’s mine in the late afternoon on October 6. The six men had walked overland from the whaling station at Lady’s Bay, on Wilson’s Promontory, more than 50 miles away. Two of the whalers, known as Yankee and Cook, had set out to locate the miners while their companions entered the hut to rest. Minutes later, two shots rang out in quick succession.
Maulboyheener and Peevay had each fired, first one then the other, in such quick succession there was no time between to reload with powder and shot. Having seen the two men fall, Maulboyheener kept watch from the top of the dune while Peevay, Truganini, Plorenernoopner and Maytepueminer went down to the beach to check the fallen. Lying on the beach were two men they had never seen before: a shot had hit one in the head, killing him instantly, while the other had entered the second man’s side, leaving him grievously wounded and in agony.
The four returned with this terrible information to Maulboyheener, who pulled up a couple of strong tree roots and went alone to the beach to dispatch the wounded stranger with heavy blows to the back of his head. Watching from above, the three women cried in distress.
They were not the only ones watching. Having been woken by the gunshots, two more whalers, Robbins and Evans, stepped outside the hut to look about. They saw a party of four or five people, with what looked like two guns visible on a high dune some 200 yards away. The whalers could not distinguish whether these figures were male or female, but they observed some of the group going down to the beach, leaving a person with a gun watching from above. When they returned, the one who had been watching went down to the beach alone.
Believing they had seen a group of miners hunting birds or kangaroos, Robbins and Evans concluded there was no reason to be alarmed and went back inside to sleep. Waking about an hour later, Evans was disturbed to see his companions Yankee and Cook had not returned. This time he went to search for them. He was a few yards from the hut when Watson’s search party materialised, with their guns aimed right at him. Evans talked quickly and established that none of these men had fired the shots he’d heard earlier.
Alarmed, he enlisted Watson’s party to help search for Yankee and Cook and found their bodies on the beach, their blood staining the sand. Yankee was already cold, with a bullet wound behind his ear. Cook had a deep wound in his side and had been bludgeoned on the back of his head.
‘What could make you do it?’
It was another six weeks before the five were captured before dawn on November 20, in the coastal heath just south of the murder site. The search party was led by Land Commissioner Frederick Armand Powlett, after whom the river was named. It was comprised of 18 soldiers and policemen, reinforced by four settler volunteers with seven Kulin men as trackers.
Once caught, Truganini, Peevay and Maulboyheener were taken by Powlett to point out the exact place of the murders. On locating the spot, Truganini explained only one shot had been fatal and Maulboyheener had used sticks to beat the wounded man’s head.
“What could make you do it?” Powlett demanded. “We thought it was Watson,” Maulboyheener volunteered, and then fell silent.
Truganini and her companions arrived in Melbourne in chains on November 26. They were taken to the watchhouse, where committal proceedings commenced almost straightaway. Statements were taken from the whaler Evans, from Watson and his wife, from Powlett and members of the search party.
When the display of damning evidence concluded, Maulboyheener made a garbled attempt at a defence. Watson had tried to kill him, he explained, and when he saw the whalers he thought it was Watson and had fired his gun.
On December 2, Robinson and the Methodist minister Reverend Joseph Orton went to speak with the accused men. Peevay remained silent, but Maulboyheener gave an explanation for their otherwise inexplicable actions. Both Robinson and Orton separately recorded in their journals how Maulboyheener explained that James Horsfall of Ballymarang station had told them Watson had in fact killed their friend Lacklay. The men were sentenced and publicly hanged on January 20, 1842.
Edited extract from Truganini: journey through the apocalypse by Cassandra Pybus, published by Allen & Unwin.
NZ was first to grant women the vote in 1893, but then took 26 years to let them stand for parliament
Today marks the passing of the much celebrated 1893 Electoral Act, 126 years ago, which made New Zealand the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote.
But it would take 26 years before the often twinned step of allowing women to stand for parliament happened. On October 29, it will be a century since the passing of the 1919 Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act, which opened the way for women to enter politics.
Women’s suffrage and women’s right to stand for parliament are natural companions, two sides of the same coin. It would be fair to assume both happened at the same time.
Early women’s suffrage bills included women standing for parliament. But, in the hope of success, the right was omitted from the third and successful 1893 bill. Suffragists didn’t want to risk women standing for parliament sinking the bill.
The leader of the suffrage movement, Kate Sheppard, reluctantly accepted the omission and expected that the right would follow soon afterwards. But that didn’t happen.
After women won suffrage, agitation for several egalitarian causes, including women in parliament, continued. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) and, from 1896, the National Council of Women (NCW) both called for the bar to be removed.
Women including Kate Sheppard, Margaret Sievwright, Stella Henderson and Sarah Saunders Page kept up the battle. But the unity found in rallying around the major women’s suffrage cause was lacking and the heady and energetic climate of 1893 had receded.
From 1894 to 1900, sympathetic male politicians from across the political spectrum presented eight separate bills. Supportive conservatives emphasised the “unique maternal influence” that women would bring to parliament. Conservative MP Alfred Newman argued that New Zealand must retain its world-leading reputation for social legislation, but he downplayed the significance. He predicted that even if women were allowed to stand for parliament, few would be interested and even fewer would be elected.
Left-leaning supportive MPs George Russell and Tommy Taylor saw the matter as one of extending women’s rights and the next logical step towards societal equality. But contemplating women in the House was a step too far and all attempts failed.
The failure in the pre-war years was largely because any support for women in parliament was outweighed by enduring prejudice against their direct participation in politics.
At the beginning of the new century, Prime Minister Richard Seddon was well aware of public opinion being either indifferent to or against women in parliament. A new generation of women with professional careers who might stand for parliament, if allowed, comprised a small minority.
Much to the chagrin of supporters, New Zealand began to lag behind other countries. Australia simultaneously granted women the right to vote and stand for parliament in 1902 at the federal level, with the exception of Aboriginal women in some states.
Women in Finland were able to both vote and stand for election from 1906, as part of reforms following unrest. In 1907, 19 women were elected to the new Finnish parliament.
The game changer: the first world war
Importantly, during the first world war, women’s status improved rapidly and this overrode previous prejudices. Women became essential and valued citizens in the war effort. Most contributed from their homes, volunteering their domestic skills, while increasing numbers entered the public sphere as nurses, factory and public sector workers.
Ellen Melville became an Auckland city councillor in 1913. Ada Wells was elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1917. Women proved their worth in keeping the home fires burning while men were away fighting.
In 1918, British women, with some conditions, were enfranchised and allowed to stand for parliament. Canada’s federal government also gave most of its women both the right to vote and stand for parliament.
Late in 1918, MP James McCombs, the New Zealand Labour Party’s first president and long-time supporter of women’s rights, opportunistically included women standing for parliament in a legislative council amendment bill. It was unsuccessful, mostly due to technicalities, and Prime Minister Bill Massey promised to pursue the matter.
Women’s wartime work, renewed feminist activism and male parliamentary support combined to make the 1919 act a foregone conclusion. Introducing the bill, Massey said he did not doubt it would pass because it was important to keep up with Britain. The opposition leader, Joseph Ward, thought war had changed what was due to women, and Labour Party leader Harry Holland pushed women’s role as moral citizens.
The Legislative Council (upper house) held out and women had to wait until 1941 for the right to be appointed there. It took until 1933 for the first woman, Elizabeth McCombs, to be elected to parliament. The belief that a woman’s place was in the home and not parliament, the bastion of masculine power, endured.
Between 1935 and 1975, only 14 women were elected to parliament, compared to 298 men. It was not until the advent of a second wave of feminism and the introduction of proportional representation in 1996 that numbers of women in the house began to increase.
Katie Pickles, Professor of History at the University of Canterbury and current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
When Grata Flos Matilda Greig walked into her first law school class at the University of Melbourne in 1897, it was illegal for women to become lawyers. But though the legal system did not even recognise her as a person, she won the right to practice and helped thousands of other women access justice. In defying the law, Greig literally changed its face.
That she did so is a story worthy of history books. And how she achieved this offers key insights for women a century later as they navigate leadership roles in the legal profession and beyond.
Flos, as she was known, grew up in a household full of possibilities unlimited by gender boundaries. Born in Scotland, as a nine-year-old she spent three months sailing to Australia with her family to settle in Melbourne in 1889. Her father founded a textile manufacturing company. Both parents believed that Flos and her siblings – four sisters and three brothers – should be university educated at a time when women rarely were.
She grew up firm in the knowledge that women could thrive in professional life, and witnessed that reality unfold as older sisters Janet and Jean trained to become doctors. Another sister, Clara, would go on to found a tutoring school for university students. The fourth sister, Stella, followed Flos to study law.
Women could not vote or hold legislative office, let alone be lawyers, when 16-year-old Flos began to study law. Yet she did not let this deter her. As she approached graduation she focused on, “the many obstacles in the path of my full success. I resolved to remove them”.
Other feminine aspirants, she noted, had previously wished to enter the profession, “but the impediments in the way were so great, that they concluded, after consideration, it was not worthwhile”.
Flos felt otherwise. She declared, even in 1903 when women were largely excluded from public life: “Women are men’s equals in every way and they are quite competent to hold their own in all spheres of life.”
‘The Flos Greig Enabling Bill’
Six years after entering the University of Melbourne, Flos witnessed the Victorian Legislative Assembly’s passing of the Women’s Disabilities Removal Bill, also known as the Flos Greig Enabling Bill. Suddenly, women could enter the practice of law. How had she made this happen?
While childhood had provided Flos with role models from both sexes, she did have to rely upon a series of men to navigate her entry into the exclusively male club of the legal profession. Her male classmates had initially questioned the capabilities of a woman lawyer and resisted her presence, but she soon persuaded them otherwise.
Not only did Flos graduate second in her class, but the men took a vote to declare – affirmatively – that women should be allowed to practice law. Their support undoubtedly fuelled her ambitions.
Next, Flos turned to one of her lecturers, John Mackey, who happened to also be a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Together they worked with other supporters to craft the legislative change. Mackey argued that by passing the law, Parliament could ease the concerns of women who believed they could not get justice from a legislative body made up only of men.
Still, Flos needed to complete a period of supervised training known as “articling” before she could be sworn into the bar. No Australian woman had ever engaged in the “articles of clerkship” before. A Melbourne commercial law solicitor Frank Cornwall employed her, and she was officially admitted to the practice of law on August 1, 1905.
At her swearing-in ceremony, Chief Justice John Madden described Flos as “the graceful incoming of a revolution”. He also expressed some scepticism about her future success:
Women are more sympathetic than judicial, more emotional than logical. In the legal profession knowledge of the world is almost if not quite as essential as knowledge of the law, and knowledge of the world, women, even if they possess it, would lie loth to assert.
Flos would prove him wrong about her knowledge of the world, both in law and in her other passion, travel.
‘What did I wear? Don’t ask me!’
At the ceremony, her name was the third called – in alphabetical order – before what was reportedly an “unusually large gathering of lawyers, laymen, and ladies … seldom seen in halls of justice”. Attendees noticed smiles that “flickered over the faces of the judges as they entered the crowded chamber” at the sight of Flos among her “somberly-clad male” counterparts.
News accounts focused more on the physical attributes of the first lady lawyer than her qualifications. When questioned by a reporter about her clothing choice for the occasion, Flos blushed, “What did I wear? Don’t ask me!” But then confessed, “Well, if you insist! I wore grey, with a greenish tinted hat, trimmed with violets!”
Another news reporter critiqued the flower-adorned hat as “a most unlegal costume”. As if there was any basis for making such an assessment – until that moment the nation had never seen the “costume” of a female lawyer. The media’s fixation with female lawyers’ appearance endures more than a century later.
Flos soon established a solo practice in Melbourne focusing on women and children. Among other endeavours, she represented the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in lobbying to establish the Children’s Court of Victoria.
Media fascination with Flos’s attire did not diminish once admitted to practice. She delivered a speech in 1905 to the third annual National Congress of Women of Victoria on a paper she wrote titled, “Some Points of the Law Relating to Women and Children”.
The reporter noted that Flos “treated her subject in a masterly manner, and gave an immense amount of useful and, at times, startling information”. But Flos’s “stylish, yet simple, gown of grey voile, with cream lace vest” was equally newsworthy as were “her pretty black hat and white gloves”. The fashion choices of other (male) speakers went unmentioned.
Flos also helped open the legal profession to other women. She founded The Catalysts’ Society in 1910. Two years later it became the prestigious Lyceum Club in Melbourne, devoted to advancing the careers of women and offering networking opportunities.
After the launch of the Women’s Law Society of Victoria in 1914, Flos was elected its first president. She cared deeply about the right of all women to vote, arguing in a 1905 debate that if “politics were not fit” for women, “the sooner they were made so the better.” (In 1908 Victorian women won the right the vote.)
Law was not Flos’s only pursuit. She travelled extensively. Two decades after graduating from law school, she took a lengthy trip through Asia, spending time in Singapore, China, Bali, Java, Malaysia and two weeks in the Burma jungle. She stayed in local homes and on her return, spoke to audiences about the experience, delighting them with tales of “leopards, tigers, wild pigs, peacocks, … and wild jungle fowl”. She lectured publicly and on radio stations about the geography, religion and race.
The end of her career took Flos to Wangaratta in Northern Victoria. She practised at a law firm headed by Paul McSwiney, and was known to explore the countryside in a “Baby Austin” tourer. She remained an activist, supporting higher education for women and the Douglas Credit Party, a political party that aimed to remedy the economic hardships of the 1930s depression.
Flos died in 1958. While she did not live to see other female firsts, such as the appointment of the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 2003, Flos’ capacity to envision women as equals under the law places her among the profession’s greatest innovators.
Renee Newman Knake’s book Shortlisted: Women, Diversity, the Supreme Court & Beyond will be published by New York University Press in 2020.