Well I’ve certainly been busy over the last two weeks and it’s very exciting to see the story of Rodney Spencer come alive using the NT Archives photographs.
It’s a story I’ve been fascinated with ever since a friend pointed out the chapter called ‘Chokey’ in the wonderfully entertaining book by Ernestine Hill called The Territory (a must read for all you locals out there who want to know more about NT history and folklore).
I’ll give a very brief synopsis of the story below with some of my new images but for a full and fascinating version go into the Archives and read it for yourself in Ernestine Hill’s book.
The Crimes of Rodney Claude Spencer
Rodney Spencer’s first crime was leading a gang of disgruntled white men to slaughter 18 horses and 2 mules belonging to Chinese miners who were on their way to the gold fields. Most likely jealousy and hatred of the Chinese fuelled this heinous crime but sentiment against the Chinese in those days was strong so no jury would convict the white men and they walked free.
Above: my artist’s impression of Rodney Spencer. Original background photo from NTRS3158 item 3
Horses were very precious in Palmerston (as Darwin was called in those days) so the townspeople despised the horse murderers and one by one they left town. Spencer pursued the life of a buffalo hunter out on Scotts Plains co-ercing Aboriginal tribes to work for him for tucker and tobacco.
Above: my artist’s impression of Spencer ‘daylighting’ tribes to go buffalo hunting and skinning.
Above: The original photo NTRS 3420_P1 photo 46
Above: My artist’s impression of Spencer buffalo hunting. Original photograph NTRS 3154/P1 Herbert Postcards Item 230
In 1890 Spencer went to sell his hides to the customs agent E.O Robinson in Port Essington but Robinson was in China investigating the trepang business and so seeing no white man in charge, Spencer made himself at home.
It’s here that Spencer sees an aboriginal man, Mamialucum who he believes stole half a bag of rice from him the year before. He seeks revenge against Mamialucum and demands that his own workers Mamitpa and Narambil catch the man at the corroboree later that night.
When Mamialucum is caught, Spencer takes hold of him, puts the gun to his temple, and it’s reported he said “Goodbye, old man!” before shooting him through the temple. Spencer fired two more shots into the dead man’s back and apparently said “He’ll steal no more rice”.
When E.O Robinson returns from China he reports the crime to the police.
They send out the launch Victoria to Port Essington and return with a skull with a bullet hole through the temple.
Above: My artist’s impression of the launch Victoria being sent out to find evidence of the murder at Port Essington.
Above: The original photo of the launch Victoria from NTRS 3420_P1_photo 12
Rodney Spencer is charged and thrown into Fannie Bay Gaol.
No white man at this time had ever been convicted of killing an Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory although evidence shows that many Aboriginal people had been killed by white settlers (see Tony Robert’s book Frontier Justice for harrowing accounts of the frontier wars in the north).
The townspeople were outraged that a white man would be hung for killing an aboriginal person and Rodney Spencer’s sentence was commuted to life in prison with hard labour. He was transferred to Yatala gaol in South Australia to serve out the rest of his term.
The people of Palmerston petitioned South Australia for ten years to have Rodney Spencer released (they collect over 1000 signatures) and in 1899 he returns to the NT a free man.
In 1905 it’s reported that Spencer was murdered in Arnhem Land by spears and a tomahawk through his face but Ernestine Hill’s version of the story reports that years after his reported death, a sighting of a white man with red whiskers is scene yabbering like a mad man with his tongue cut out and his nose cut off living in Arnhem Land.