Today – 15 March 2019 – is a special anniversary in the annals of Australian printing and publishing. Two hundred years ago in Hobart Town emancipist printer Andrew Bent published Australasia’s first work of general literature – a now extremely rare and virtually priceless little book about notorious Van Diemen’s Land bush-ranger Michael Howe.
Although the authorship of Michael Howe has been commonly attributed to Thomas Wells, Bent’s own later statement makes it clear that he (Bent) was the person responsible for compiling as well as printing and publishing the work. He had conceived the project shortly after Howe’s death the previous October, intending at first to publish an account of Howe in his weekly newspaper, the Hobart Town Gazette. He found he did not have enough space.
Howe had been leader of the marauding bandits who had terrorized the island for years. The self-styled “Lieutenant Governor of the Woods” was the last man standing after Lieutenant Governor William Sorell, immediately after his arrival in 1817, embarked on a ruthless campaign to stamp out bush-ranging for good. When Howe was bashed to death in the bush and his severed head displayed in Hobart Town it generated a minor sensation and a collective sigh of relief.
The circumstances of publication were quite remarkable. Bent had arrived only seven years earlier under a life sentence for burglary. He soon established himself thanks to his printing skills and capacity for hard work and innovation (aided some thought by a bit of skulduggery and an eye to the main chance). In 1819 the colony was a mere fifteen years old and, to use Bent’s own later description, still in a “sickly and protracted infancy.” There were only about 3,000 souls in Hobart Town. Roughly half were convicts and many inhabitants could not even read. The only printing press was the very small one brought out at first settlement by Governor David Collins; the meagre stock of type was old and mostly worn out; paper was in short supply, and from as early as 1818 Bent had to experiment with making his own ink. The tiny 36-page book was indeed the “first Pamphlet from a very confined Press” as the preface described it when asking for the “indulgent consideration” of readers.
Publicity in Britain
The impact the little book had in Britain was perhaps even more remarkable than the circumstances of publication. Little more than a year after its appearance in remote Hobart Town it was the subject of an article in London’s Quarterly Review. The writer obviously had a copy of the pamphlet in hand. He recognized the work’s literary limitations but nonetheless exclaimed in wonder at “the greatest literary curiosity that has yet come before us.” He predicted (correctly) that it would become highly collectible and (incorrectly) that it would be reprinted in London – although his comment suggests there were plans afoot.
The review article was most probably written by a regular contributor to the Review, John Barrow, but incorporated a detailed description of Van Diemen’s Land written by Sydney judge Barron Field. Field had been in Hobart Town while Michael Howe was in the press. This favourable publicity for the then little known island, highlighting as it did the demise of bush-ranging, did much to encourage interest in the colony among potential emigrants.
The book became an object of desire for famous writer Sir Walter Scott, who, in 1821, asked Governor Macquarie in Sydney if he could send him a copy. Macquarie had received two copies from Sorell soon after publication and so was able to oblige.
Howe the bush-ranger featured in at least two productions on the London stage. This poster for an 1821 melodrama (the second season in that year) states that the information came from W. C. Wentworth’s book on New South Wales (published in London in 1819). Its timing and lurid title, however, may well have been influenced by the publicity so recently accorded to Bent’s pamphlet.
The four known extant copies of the pamphlet (in the Bodleian and British Libraries, National Library of Australia and Sir Walter Scott’s library at Abbotsford, Scotland) all probably survived because they were sent or taken to Britain fairly soon after publication.
Conditions in early Van Diemen’s Land were far from optimal for the preservation of literary rarities.
The unfortunate printer probably never recovered these thirteen precious copies lost from the very first small print run, which may explain why in July, with all that hard work down the drain despite the offer of a most generous reward, he advertised that he had printed some more.
The narrative was cobbled together in a straightforward but rather naïve and clumsy style with much heavy-handed moralizing laid on top. The London reviewer, who would have liked more plainness and simplicity, hoped that the next publication from Hobart Town would be “more pleasing in the manner and less tragical in the matter.” But while the literary merit of the work is questionable, it is of great bibliographical significance. This “queer little book” was the first privately printed book in Tasmania and the “first work of general literature printed in Australasia.” Bodleian Library records describe it as a “volume of interest in typographical history.” It was listed as one of the 300 notable books acquired by the British Museum in 1890-1899, appearing on the same page as a Caxton imprint. When the third surviving copy, as it was then thought to be, surfaced in 1944 Maggs Bros. described it in their catalogue as “one of the rarest books in existence.”
Although it contains some factual errors it has value as the first of many works on Australian bush-rangers, because it was written contemporaneously with the events described and was based largely on eye witness accounts. The compiler’s rejection of information obtained from Howe himself “as proceeding from such a man” might now be regarded as a missed opportunity, and some set piece confrontations fall very flat. Nonetheless it is from this pamphlet that we learn what Howe looked like
Howe was of athletic make: he wore at the time of his death a dress made of kangaroo skins; had an extraordinary long beard, and presented altogether a terrific appearance. His face … exhibited strong marks of a murderer …
and about the curious little “journal of dreams” found in his knapsack.
From this little book of kangaroo skin, written in kangaroo blood, it appears that he frequently dreamt of being murdered by natives, of seeing his old companions, Whitehead, Jones, Geary, and Collier, of being nearly taken by a soldier; and, in one instance, humanity asserts itself even in the breast of Michael Howe, for we find him recording that he dreamt of his sister.
It also appears from this memorandum book, that he had always an idea of settling in the woods; for it contains long lists of such seeds as he wished to have, of vegetables, fruits and even flowers!
The book was published anonymously, and since 1925 the authorship has generally been attributed to Thomas Wells, chief clerk to Governor Sorell. However, Andrew Bent clearly stated in his 1829 Tasmanian Almanack that he, Mr. A. Bent, was the compiler as well as printer and publisher.
My research confirms that although Wells certainly wrote out a close manuscript copy of Michael Howe around the time of Bent’s first printing, he is much more likely to have been copyist than author. The claims made in Angus and Robertson’s 1926 printing of the Wells manuscript, which have become entrenched through frequent repetition, simply do not stand up to critical examination. This question is explored more fully in my article “Spruiking Van Diemen’s Land,” forthcoming later this month in Script & Print v. 42, no. 1. This also tells the fascinating story of how the little bush-ranger book came to have such an impact in Britain, and examines the power players involved.
The only copy of Michael Howe now known to be in Australia is one of the treasures of the National Library’s collection (view online). It was previously in the library of a major British collector, Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth (1870-1937). Its earlier provenance is unknown but its excellent condition suggests it made the hazardous journey to England quite soon after publication and was well cared for thereafter. Copies of Michael Howe known to have been in Tasmania in the mid nineteenth century – one was definitely in the Royal Society Library and another probably in the private library of R. C. Gunn – have disappeared without trace. While unlikely, it is perhaps not altogether impossible that one day another copy of this antipodean Reynarde the Foxe might turn up – possibly somewhere in Britain. What a sensation that would be!