In 2006 I was captured by a pirate. No, I was not sailing a luxury yacht in Somalian waters. Or visiting a film set in the Carribean. I was on a routine visit to the West Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle. There, while innocently walking around the whaling exhibit and writing in my notebook, Black Jack Anderson leapt out and grabbed me. There was no escape. He took me first to King George Sound, then to Middle Island and held me captive until his story was told.
Now administered by CALM as part of the Cape Arid National Park, Middle Island is still essentially the same as when Black Jack Anderson and his mate, John Bathurst, arrived there in 1826. Within a year others living on the wrong side of the law had joined them. They built a hut and sank a well, then proceeded to live, mainly on seals which provided food, oil for heating and lighting and skins for bedding and clothing. But they were pirates after all and passing ships were fair game.
Middle Island is just six nautical miles from the tip of Cape Arid and in the early nineteenth century, when maps and charts of the region were very basic, ships from England and Europe, bound for Hobart and Sydney, crossed the Indian Ocean with the Roaring Fourties then hugged the southern coast of New Holland until they reached Bass Straight. The Recherche Archipelago stretches like a chain across this shipping route so it was very difficult to navigate in the dark. The pirates on Middle Island only had to wait for a ship to anchor for the night in one of the many sheltered bays in the area before coming up under the stern, just on dusk, in their eight metre whaleboat. Swiftly and silently they would jam the ship’s rudder with a specially shaped wedge. With the ship immobilised the pirates would board her, overpower her crew and make off with whatever they could find in the way of money, jewellery, stores and equipment. It was said of Anderson that he could disappear into the Southern Ocean with the speed of a westerly breeze. But when the nineteen year old Dorothy Newell struggled ashore, with other survivors of a shipwreck in Thistle Cove, the location of the pirate camp was no longer a secret and everything changed.
Black Jack Anderson was hated and feared by many, but inspired love and loyalty in others. Certainly he was a complex character and he captured my imagination.
Black Jack Anderson by Elaine Forrestal, Penguin, Melbourne, 2008.
Photographs of Middle Island can be viewed in the Black Jack Anderson Book Trailer at