William Buckley's escape

The man known as the ‘Wild White Man' was born William Buckley, in Macclesfield, England, in 1780. As a young man he worked briefly as an apprentice bricklayer, but soon joined the army and became a respected soldier.

However, his military career came to an abrupt end in 1802, when he was accused of theft and sentenced to 14 years in the convict colony of Australia. In George Langhorne's account of his life, Buckley describes the event:

One day, crossing the Barrack Yard where our regiment was quartered, a woman whom I did not know requested me to carry a piece of cloth to a woman of the Garrison to be made up [into clothing]. I was stopped with it in my possession, the property had been stolen. I was considered a thief and though innocent sentenced to transportation.

– William Buckley

Buckley, W 1837, Reminiscenses of James Buckley, Manuscripts collection, State Library of Victoria, MS13483.

Buckley's experience of a simple crime leading to a life-changing sentence of transportation was common to many convicts sent to Australia in the 19th century.

In October 1803, Buckley arrived at the convict settlement at Sullivan Bay, on the Calcutta. However, a lack of fresh water and difficult conditions made the settlement less than satisfactory, and many convicts attempted escape. Buckley was one of the few that succeeded.

On Christmas Eve 1803 – knowing that the officers had been drinking and would be less alert than usual – some of the convicts stole a kettle, a gun, boots and medical supplies. At 9pm on 30 December, the group made its escape. One convict, Charles Shaw, was shot and severely injured, but the others escaped into the bush.

Buckley and his companions made slow progress on foot but managed to walk around most of Port Phillip Bay. They survived on shellfish, succulent plants when they could find them. But hunger and fear of the Aborigines wore down Buckley's companions, who soon decided to return to Sullivan Bay. Buckley stayed behind:

...to all their [...] entreaties to accompany them I turned a deaf ear, being determined to endure every kind of suffering rather than again surrender my liberty.

– William Buckley

Morgan, J 1852, The life and adventures of William Buckley, Archibald MacDougall, Hobart, Tas.

This quote comes from John Morgan's account of Buckley's life, which was written when Buckley was an old man. With so many years between the writing of this text and the events described, you have to question how well Buckley would have remembered what happened, and how much Morgan had to 'fill in'.

Buckley continued his journey alone until he reached the area near Barwon Heads, where he lived with the Wathaurung Indigenous people for the next 32 years. Over this time he was accepted into the Aboriginal community and culture, and made a crucial first step towards understanding between white settlers and the Indigenous people.

Portrait of William Buckley painted some time after his return to Melbourne.
Engraving of William Buckley.
Page excerpt from the book The life and adventures of William Buckley.
The title page of John Morgan's account of William Buckley's life.