Real-life Man From Snowy River was Aboriginal, new book argues

There is “overwhelming evidence” that the legendary stockman featured in The Man From Snowy River was Aboriginal, a new book argues.

Did AB “Banjo” Paterson “paint his stockman white to appease the literary tastes of the times”?, the journalist Anthony Sharwood asks in The Brumby Wars.

Paterson’s famous poem, published in 1890, tells the tale of a courageous “stripling” stockman chasing brumbies where others feared to tread. It was immortalised in the 1982 film, where “The Man” was played by Tom Burlinson.

For decades various groups and historians have claimed to know who the inspiration was for the stockman in Paterson’s bush poem, while others believe the character to be an amalgam of various people.

In The Brumby Wars: The battle for the soul of Australia, Sharwood delves into the fiery debate between those who see brumbies as part of Australia’s cultural and historical heritage, and those who see them as feral pests, destroying the mountain environment.

He says you can’t research brumbies without also looking at their almost mythical role in Australian identity, and therefore at Paterson’s work.

“This is a book about brumbies in the mountains but it’s not a book about horses, really, it’s a book about Australians competing over their vision of Australia,” he says.

“Part of the cultural reckoning that we’re going through at the moment is … to look at the way history was written through a certain lens. History is written in history books but it’s also written in literature and through storytelling and one of our great national stories is The Man From Snowy River.”

River guide and Wiradjuri man Richard Swain – born and bred in the mountains – showed Sharwood the Byadbo area, and told him a tale of an Aboriginal stockman’s heroic deed there, which convinced Sharwood to look into the history of “The Man”.

In Corryong, Victoria, The Man From Snowy River Museum tells the story that Irish immigrant Jack (or John) Riley, or a combination of him and other stockmen inspired the character.

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Sharwood says he is a “suburban white man who has walked and skiied the High Country all his life”.

He has studied the topography in the poem – “the pine-clad ridges”, the flinty stones, the “torn and rugged battlements” by Kosciuszko, and says they all point to the location of the poem being around Byadbo, on the New South Wales side – not the Victorian.

Byadbo is the only part of the mountains with “anything even remotely resembling pine-clad ridges”, he writes, and the only place with flinty rocks and ragged, rather than smooth peaks.

If the ride did happen there, it’s an area where all stockmen were Indigenous, he says.

In 2018 Ngarigo and Djiringanj elders Ellen Mundy and David Dixon told the Bega District News about their people’s affiliation with brumbies.

“The best stockmen up there would have been our people,” Dixon said. “But Banjo Paterson would not have been able to make a hero out of our people in his day.”

Curator of the Banjo Paterson Museum in Yeoval, Alf Cantrell, says “there is a story around that he could have been Aboriginal”, and points to a 1988 article quoting Victoria’s state historian Dr Bernard Barrett. Barrett wrote that a well-known volume published in 1887 – three years before The Man From Snowy River was published – told the tale of a “horseman hero … a slightly built Aboriginal lad named Toby” who was always able to track brumbies.

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Cantrell, though, says he has an “entirely different point of view”.

He thinks historian Cliff Crane might be right – that “The Man” was in fact an 11-year-old school mate of Paterson’s called Edward Hall.

Sharwood says that others might be right, that The Man was white, but that there is plenty of evidence to suggest they’re wrong.

“The simple fact is that a lot of stockmen, not least in the High Country of NSW and Victoria, were fully Indigenous or had Indigenous blood,” he says.

“The people whose land was taken from them, and were forced into this sort of work, people who had a natural affinity with the land and once they learned to ride horses could do so more effectively than a lot of white people.

“The best stockmen back then and even today had Indigenous blood.”

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