One of the most perplexing tales to come out of Norfolk Island in the nineteenth century is the story of Bennett and Balsto. A story that beautifully illustrates both the complex difficulties that historical researchers can face, and the oft-stated advice to not believe everything you hear, it appears, not in a newspaper or in a book, but on the engraved horn of a bull.
There is a piece of scrimshaw held at the State Library of New South Wales enscribed with text that reads:
‘This horn belonged to Traveller who was calved at Cow Pastures 1819 worked for 12 years at Norfolk Island for Government. Here he was killed by two bushrangers who absconded for purposes of making a boat with his hide to escape from the island on 23rd day of Decr. 1838 - Bennett and Balsto’.
It’s a great story, the opposite of the trope of the criminal genius. But how much of it is true? Sure, escape attempts were not uncommon during the convict era, but two blokes thinking they can turn a bull into a boat and make a bid for freedom is unusual. If Bennett and Balsto were trying to escape, then presumably they were convicts.
Now, the Prisoners’ Barracks was on the southern side of the island, much closer to the water than the Military Barracks which was north of Government House. Sure, the water would have been monitored, but the water also offered ready-made vessels which several men took advantage of when executing their plans to abscond in the same period. To steal a bull, slaughter him and then turn him into a seaworthy vessel — one capable of a journey of about seven days if the goal was to make it to Port Jackson — is hardly a surreptitious plan. It all seems a bit unlikely.
Yet, Cow Pastures was a real place and bulls, like Traveller, were available on Norfolk Island. In 1788, two of the bulls and five of the cows brought out on the First Fleet decided they were not happy with local conditions and they wandered off from Sydney Cove. Years later, in 1795, wild cattle were found, alive and well, south of the Nepean River in a place that was named Cow Pastures. There were several hundred head of cattle by 1801 and thousands of bulls and cows by 1804. The lush grazing area was later re-named Camden, the site eventually becoming better known for sheep rather than cattle. Livestock were relocated to Norfolk Island to support the penal settlement when it reopened in 1825 and by November 1839, less than a year after the scrimshaw’s story is set, there were ‘396 horned cattle’, amongst other beasts, on the island. It is entirely possible that a bull named Traveller, a young public servant west of Sydney, took up an involuntary
opportunity to work for the Government on Norfolk Island.
We also know that Norfolk Island was a place of conflict, but the crimes, mutinies and rebellions that happened there are well documented, and this alleged escape attempt does not seem to appear in the official records. Balsto (and its variant spellings) is an unusual name and appears only infrequently in our colonial records, and none appear to have any ties to Norfolk Island in the 1830s.
There was however a bushranger by the name of John Bennett on the island at about the time of this fantastic escape attempt; he had been charged with highway robbery, alongside five others, in July 1834. The gang members were found guilty and sentenced to death. All were reprieved and set to serve ‘hard labor in the irons on the Public Works of Norfolk Island for seven years’.
Another incident on the island earlier in the same year was the 1834 rebellion. This event was a large-scale and ‘violent affair that left one soldier, one guard and six convicts dead’. There were multiple trials with thirty prisoners convicted and sentenced to death. Twenty-two men were recommended for mercy, but a total of thirteen men went to the scaffold. One of the men who escaped the noose was also a John Bennett.
Bennett is a common name in early Australian records so we can’t be certain that our Bennett and either of these other Bennetts are one and the same. Perhaps though, having been lucky in 1834, John Bennett decided in 1838 that there was no such thing as safety in numbers; a low-key escape, with just one collaborator (and a dead bull), was the way to go. Repeat offenders, those who stole precious livestock and escapees often had an appointment with the hangman. Yet, there are no records of a ‘Bennett’ or a ‘Balsto’ being sentenced or hanged around the time of this crime.
Perhaps, looking carefully at the wording on the scrimshaw, our lads are actually the artists. The horn does not tell the story of Bennett and Balsto ‘two bushrangers’, rather it tells the story of ‘two bushrangers’, gives some details and then there is a dash before ‘Bennett and Balsto’. Were they the story, or were they just telling this tale? Is this a case of one man undertaking the task of the lettering with his colleague doing the illustrations? Are our men of scrimshaw not convicts, but overseers, bored by the constant watching and waiting? Or sailors on ships running between the mainland and the island? Men who were just killing time by making art (and making stuff up)?
Perhaps only Traveller knows if this is a terrible true tale or just fake news…
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship at the State Library of New South Wales and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She's appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel! For more, listen to the podcast with Rachel & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.REFERENCES
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