Last month we spoke with Barry Sinclair about the very popular book published by Allen & Unwin, Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady. We received an overwhelming response by locals asking us to interview the author, Carol Baxter.
How did you become a historian?
I graduated from Macquarie University with a BA majoring in linguistics; which probably seems like an odd degree choice for someone who wanted to be a professional genealogist, but I thought there were no careers in my desired field. As it turned out, I was soon appointed Project Officer for the Australian Biographical and Genealogical Record and edited numerous volumes of early colonial records. In 2002, I was voted a Fellow of the Society of Australian Genealogists for my services to genealogy. Now I am General Editor of the Biographical Database of Australia. I have also turned my love of history and writing into a professional history-writing career. Early this year I was invited to become an adjunct lecturer at the University of New England. As I have always felt a great respect for UNE because of its strong tradition in local, regional and family history, I accepted with great pleasure.
Why did you choose to write about Thunderbolt?
I first encountered Thunderbolt while researching my ancestor George Nash, who settled in Inverell during the Thunderbolt era. In fact, my Nash research led to my writing career, as one of George’s relatives was involved in the political-sex scandal at the heart of my first popular history, An Irresistible Temptation: the True Story of Jane New and a Colonial Scandal (Allen & Unwin, 2006). Another fascinating woman spurred me to write my third book, Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady (Allen & Unwin, 2011). I googled ‘female bushranger’ and discovered Mary Ann Bugg: beautiful, intelligent, feisty, educated, part-Aboriginal, and Thunderbolt’s lover. The perfect story! I particularly like women’s stories from the past, because their voices have largely been silent. Mary Ann’s Aboriginality alone meant that she should be granted her rightful place in the historical spotlight.
Did you make any interesting discoveries?
I always redo all the research using original historical records, and I soon discovered that many of the well-known Thunderbolt stories were error-ridden myths: like the story that Mary Ann helped Fred Ward escape from Cockatoo Island, and that she died in 1867. The truth is far more interesting. Indeed, the resilient and resourceful Mary Ann lived for decades longer and bore fifteen children. I like to imagine her sitting by her fireside on a cold Mudgee winter’s night regaling her wide-eyed children and grandchildren with tales of her Captain Thunderbolt adventures.
What has been the reaction to your discoveries?
My book has certainly caused an abrasive reaction from those who are attached to a particular version of the Thunderbolt story. Unpleasant letters have been sent to my publisher, my history colleagues at UNE and local newspapers. However, the unpleasantness is more than outweighed by the support and appreciation I have received, particularly from New Englanders, who are grateful that the district’s rich and romantic history is being brought to life so vividly and that Fred and Mary Ann’s true story has at last been told. I hope everyone enjoys reading Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady as much as I enjoyed writing it!