Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Howe, Michael (1787–1818)

by K. R. Von Stieglitz

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Michael Howe (1787-1818), bushranger, was born at Pontefract, Yorkshire, England, the son of Thomas Howe and his wife Elizabith. He served two years on a merchant vessel at Hull before deserting to join the navy. About 1806 he joined the army, but again deserted. On 31 July 1811 he was sentenced at the York Assizes to transportation for seven years for highway robbery. He arrived in Van Diemen's Land in October 1812 in the Indefatigable, and was sent to service with the merchant, John Ingle. Next year he absconded and took to the bush as joint leader of a band of twenty-nine convict escapers and army deserters, but the amnesty offered in May 1814 to bushrangers who gave themselves up by the following December encouraged many of the gang to report to the authorities. However, by March 1815 Howe had gathered a new and well-armed band, which soon attacked Adolarius Humphrey at Pittwater and ransacked the New Norfolk settlement. They killed one and wounded others who opposed them, and so induced some settlers to give them secret help in the hope of preserving their property. Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey then declared martial law, which had some effect in subduing the gang until it was disallowed by Lachlan Macquarie six months later.

Next year Howe began to call himself 'lieutenant governor of the Woods' and to address provocative letters to Davey. The gang moved to the north of the island. In August they were surprised by a party of soldiers, but escaped and became even more aggressive. During the summer three of the gang were killed, and by March 1817 the others were becoming suspicious of Howe's frequent absences. He decided to leave them, taking his devoted Aboriginal companion, Black Mary; advanced pregnancy prevented her from keeping pace, but his wounding her was probably an accident when he was firing at soldiers who were in hot pursuit. Soon afterwards Davey's successor, William Sorell, offered Howe a conditional pardon for all his offences except murder, and a promise of a strong recommendation to the Crown for mercy, in return for help against his erstwhile companions. Howe had accused Rev. Robert Knopwood and many others of being connected with his gang, and to prove it, had set out with Mary and a party of soldiers in pursuit of those still in the bush. The expedition failed largely through the men's inexperience and Howe returned to await Macquarie's decision on his pardon. Hearing a false report that it had been refused he fled in September, thus preventing the further examination of his charge against Knopwood. In a remote stock hut on the River Shannon, pestered by Aboriginals and haunted by dreams, he committed his forebodings to a kangaroo-skin diary, written, it is said, in blood; at the same time he made a list of the flowers he had known in Yorkshire, and which he hoped to grow in his last hiding place. A reward of £105 was offered for his capture; tricked once, he escaped by murdering his captors. For a year he eluded his pursuers by keeping to remote areas and threatening the stock-keepers with instant death if they did not help him, but finally his ammunition and pistol were taken and on 21 October 1818 he was cornered and clubbed to death near his hut on the banks of the Shannon River. He was buried on the spot, but his head was exhibited in Hobart.

An extremely powerful man of only middle height, Howe was both cunning and callous; his whole career from childhood indicates a half-insane antagonism to authority in any form, which helps to explain, if not to excuse, his actions. Curiously he retained throughout his life a surprising love of flowers. His name is commemorated in a marsh near Oatlands and a gully on the Derwent River, but more famous is the pamphlet by Thomas Wells, Sorell's secretary, Michael Howe, the Last and Worst of the Bushrangers. Published in 1818 in Hobart Town by Andrew Bent in a limited edition of one hundred copies, this was the first work of general literature printed in Australia, and it has become, as predicted by the Quarterly Review, 1819, the 'Reynarde Foxe of Australian bibliomaniacs'. It was reprinted in 1926.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vol 2
  • J. E. Calder, ‘Tasmanian History … Illustrated by a Sketch of the Career of Michael Howe’, Mercury (Hobart), 17-27 Nov 1873.

Citation details

K. R. Von Stieglitz, 'Howe, Michael (1787–1818)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/howe-michael-2206/text2857, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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