A Ferry into the Past
The Story of Billy Blue
JB East's 1834 portrait of Billy Blue. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.
A historical quest becomes a journey into the blues.
- 1 of 2
When I was 17 my friend Chloe lived in Lavender Bay, just down the road from the Old Commodore Hotel. I lived nearby in Kirribilli, immediately across the water from the soaring sails of the Opera House that shimmered in my bedroom window at night. Chloe and I had been expelled from high school for chronic truancy and we were meant to be studying at home for the matriculation exams. Instead we were absorbed in a parallel universe of our own devising; a shadowy past world, suffused with loss and longing, that we stitched together from Wuthering Heights and mournful folk songs learned from Ewan MacColl and Alan Lomax.
We liked to hang out in the deep shadows of a big old Moreton Bay fig at the rocky end of Blues Point. The walk from my place was so familiar I could do it in my sleep, following the harbour wall under the dark pylons of the bridge, past Luna Park with its gaudy gaping mouth, around the tranquil bay to the grassy peninsula of Blues Point. Nestling into the dank hollows created by the buttressing roots we would smoke dope and dream and sing doleful songs. At that time we had discovered an unusually slow and anguished sea shanty that perfectly suited our mood:
Master’s going to sell me
Sell me to a Yankee
Sell me for a dollar
Great big Yankee dollar
I’m bound away to leave you
Oh Sallow Brown, Sallow Brown
Over the next two years our relationship fractured; Chloe committed suicide, and I repressed my memories of her. Only now, more than 40 years later, have I begun to vividly recall those lost afternoons with Chloe at Blues Point and link them to how in my later life I became a historian, obsessively haunting the archives for the loss and longing contained in the stories of runaway slaves.
Through all the intervening years, Blues Point held a special magic for me. I even lived in Harry Seidler’s brutalist apartment tower for a while and regarded the Old Commodore as my local pub. Yet I never thought to ask how these places came by their names. About eight years ago I found the answer in the etchings of the convict artist Charles Rodius. A frisson of excitement ran from my toes to my scalp when I saw his 1834 drawing of a ragged old tramp titled ‘Billy Blue, the Old Commodore’. Rodius had drawn just the sort of caricature of African men common in the slave societies of the Americas, but quite out of place in early Australia. Intrigued, I went looking for more pictures of Billy Blue. Lo and behold, in the State Library of New South Wales was a portrait in oils done in 1834 by the society painter JB East. Here Blue wore the same ragged clothing, but was depicted as a tall and graceful man with intelligent eyes and a beatific smile; he was still clearly African.
The portrait was to commemorate the death of Billy Blue on 6 May 1834. He was by then a Sydney celebrity who had endeared himself to all and sundry, despite having repeated convictions for smuggling rum and harbouring runaway convicts. His affectionate obituaries recounted how in his later years “the gallant old commodore” took to walking about the town twirling the carved stick he always carried and calling out in a peremptory fashion that men must salute him and women curtsy. Any who failed to respond with due respect suffered a cascade of ripe abuse. The Sydney Gazette devoted him two full columns, extolling Blue as a founding father of New South Wales, whose memory would be “treasured in the minds of the present generation, when the minions of ambition are forgotten in the dust”. Indulging in high-flown prose, the editor told his readers that “the reign of Billy is coeval with the foundation of the Colony”, while the editor of the Australian newspaper thought East’s portrait of Blue should be hung in Government House. It was astonishing that such extravagant praise, the use of the word ‘reign’, and a commemorative portrait suitable for Government House were given to a multiple offender who was poor, illiterate and black as the ace of spades. There was nothing for it but for me to find out just who this Billy Blue was.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography informed me that Billy Blue was transported in 1802, after he was convicted of stealing sugar. As the original ferryman on the harbour, he was known as ‘The Old Commodore’, which later became the name of the public house operated by his son-in-law, George Lavender. The convict indent that had accompanied him to New South Wales stated that he was 29 and was “a Jamaican Negro sailor”, a description that told me he had once been a slave. It was just like Chloe and I used to sing under the fig tree at Blues Point:
Master’s going to sell me …
Oh Sallow Brown, Sallow Brown
I didn’t have to travel far to find out that Billy Blue was much older than the age given on the indent and that he was not a sailor from Jamaica, though he probably was a slave. Billy Blue’s children did not know exactly how old he was, but he was universally believed to be a very old man, in his nineties, when he died. In 1823 he dictated a petition to the governor in which he gave his age as 89, and in the 1828 census he gave his age as 80. His petition made no reference to having lived in Jamaica and instead he laid claim to a long career with the British military in America and in Europe, which placed him at the battle of Quebec, where General Wolfe was killed in 1759, as well as the siege of Yorktown, where the war for the American colonies was lost in 1781. While Blue did not state his place of birth, his daughter Susannah, who married George Lavender, said her father told the family he was born in New York.
To New York I went to check out Blue’s claims, but I was unprepared for how many eye-straining days I would spend searching colonial records to find the smallest hint of tangible evidence. I located the records of a prosperous slave-owning Dutch family on Long Island with the surname Blaauw, later changed to Blue. While I could find no slave lists, it was a safe bet that Billy Blue was a slave of this family, given that male slaves invariably carried the names of their owners, and he was born around 1740. I also learnt much more than I wanted to know about the British army in colonial America before stumbling upon the explanation of how a young slave like Billy Blue could be in Quebec for the death of General Wolfe.
The massive British fleet sent to besiege Quebec in 1759 left England shorthanded and secured additional recruits by diverting to New York, where the ships moored off Long Island and sent the press-gang ashore. Billy Blue was an ideal recruit and may have gone willingly, since the Royal Navy paid a bounty for enlistment, as well as prize money and pensions, and British commanders consistently refused to surrender runaway slaves aboard their ships. He was probably recruited as a boatman, as these were in high demand to carry troops and supplies, feed the cannons and act as decoys to distract the French at the final assault. Immediately after the capitulation of Quebec, the fleet left for England, where the hands were paid off. Blue’s petition put him in England in October 1760 when George III became king, at which time he said he was sent as a marine to fight in Germany.
Reading military history had by now informed me that the war with Germany was over by the time George III was crowned. Could it be that my man was gilding the lily after all? I had become attached to this runaway slave, and wanted to believe his account of himself. So next I went to London to see what might be found.
I rented a studio apartment in Richmond, with a narrow garden running down to the Thames, and every day for weeks I airily strolled along the towpath to the archives in Kew, my senses intoxicated by a riot of flowers and birdsong. Every day I would call up box after box of dusty, brittle eighteenth-century papers and later trudge back along the towpath, dirty and discouraged. I never found what I was looking for, though odd references in unlikely documents convinced me that Blue’s jumbled account of his military exploits was true. The expedition to Germany turned out to be an obscure mission to a secret destination initially thought to be Germany and only much later revealed to be off the coast of France. As in other parts of his petition, Blue had provided crucial details that could have been known only to a direct participant. Almost certainly, this unlettered runaway slave had been involved in some of the most significant military engagements of the eighteenth century.
On a second trip to London, I managed to locate the court record of Blue’s trial in Kent in 1796, which did not give his age but did reveal that he was working seasonally as a lumper, unloading the cargo of ships from the West Indies in the Thames. This was one of the lowest paid jobs in London but came with the opportunity for small-scale pilfering, which was customarily regarded as an element of the lumper’s wage. Taking small quantities of cargo was acceptable, but taking larger amounts was regarded as plunder, which was how Blue came to grief: on a single day he took 80 pounds of raw sugar. In his deposition, Blue explained that he traded as a chocolate-maker for which he needed the sugar and cocoa beans imported on the West Indian ships. For 80 pounds of sugar he needed another 100 pounds of ground cocoa beans, which suggests a serious commercial enterprise. In modern terms we might say Billy Blue was an entrepreneur, engaged in vertical integration to create commercial opportunity from his lowly, life-threatening labour.
This marvellous insight into the man presented another conundrum, since his petition stated he was in His Majesty’s Service prior to his arrest. Many more walks along the Thames towpath were needed to confirm he was indeed employed in the King’s service, but not in a capacity a man in his right mind would boast about. His moniker gave him away. “I got the name of the Commodore for being in charge of the old Enterprise at Tower-hill,” he explained to the magistrate’s court much later, in 1832. At the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich I discovered that HMS Enterprise was a hospital ship moored on the Thames, below the Tower of London; in the archives at Kew I found ten very heavy and very grubby muster books from the Enterprise, each with a few pages listing some 20 crew, none of them named Blue. As I was lugging one filthy book back to the counter, I stumbled slightly and it fell to the floor, open at the back pages. Here I saw hundreds of names, each with the letter P beside it, and authorisation of a naval lieutenant. Cross-referencing with Admiralty records established that this was a half-pay officer responsible for the London press-gangs. I had literally stumbled onto the records of an impressment ship. In the back of those ten muster books I tallied 34,000 men forced into the navy between 1792 and 1796.
How this related to Blue was resolved by a search of the Old Bailey database, which revealed that ‘commodore’ was a term in use in the Port of London to describe the leader of a gang of labourers and also a gang of sailors ashore. So, in addition to other activities, Billy Blue must have been in charge of a press-gang of the Enterprise, making him one of the most feared and despised men in London. He had to have been strong and fearless and not have cared what people thought of him: a calculating, hard man. This was a far cry from the whimsical fellow described in his obituaries. Billy Blue had refashioned himself profoundly after he was transported to Sydney.
Just before Billy Blue died, the Austrian noble Baron von Hügel landed in Sydney to be confronted by an old black man with a sack over his shoulder shouting something crazy at him. On inquiring about this disreputable apparition, he could scarce believe his ears when told this was “the old commodore whom Governor Macquarie appointed port captain”. Billy Blue must have been delighted that in his final days he could insult a European aristocrat at will and have his portrait painted by the fashionable Mr East.
Chloe would have loved the story of this deft shape-shifter. I wish I could tell her about him.