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‘I feel honoured I can help him tell his story’: the death-row drawings of Charlie Flannigan | Art

“I may be a stoker in hell, or I might come back with wings on and look over the people at the prison.”

Charlie Flannigan’s words – recorded in the final week of his life – were light, contemplative, even playful: in direct contradiction with the grim finality of his circumstances, shackled on death row in Darwin’s Fannie Bay Gaol in the 1890s.

Historical records inform us Flannigan emerged from the confines of his maximum-security cell like “a man going to his freedom”. He was about to become the first person in the Northern Territory to be executed by hanging.

It wasn’t the first time Flannigan had made history. Born on Marion Downs station in central west Queensland in the 1860s, he proved himself a gun stockman as an adolescent and was believed to have been selected by the renowned pastoralist Nathaniel Buchanan to drove the first cattle herds across Queensland to the Northern Territory in the 1880s.

Upon his arrival, Flannigan would make his name as one of the Territory’s first champion Aboriginal jockeys, counting the coveted Palmerston Cup (now the Darwin Cup) among his numerous wins. The demands of droving life pushed him further west to Auvergne station, the place where Flannigan’s fate would take its definitive turn.

In 1893 Charlie Flannigan was convicted of the shooting murder of Auvergne station’s acting manager, Samuel “Greenhide Sam” Croker. As a prisoner sentenced to death, he exhibited an insularity and self-possession that led wardens to suspect he may kill himself first. Guards issued the largely illiterate prisoner with a steady supply of pencils and wrapping paper to occupy his mind just long enough to attend his own execution.

Drawing of a man on a horse.
Fearing he might kill himself, prison guards gave condemned man Charlie Flannigan a steady supply of pencils and wrapping paper to occupy his mind. Illustration: Charlie Flannigan
Drawing by Charlie Flannigan
The resulting drawings have resurfaced, and are currently being exhibited in Darwin. Illustration: Charlie Flannigan

Over the next 10 months on death row, Flannigan devoted himself to drawing, documenting the circumstances of his short life and looming death in a series of 82 postcard-sized sketches. This account is now on display for the first time in the exhibition A Little Bit of Justice: the Drawings of Charlie Flannigan at the Library & Archives of the Northern Territory in Darwin.

The drawings were uncovered by accident. Curator and historian, Muran man Don Christophersen had been researching another prisoner when he found them at the South Australian Museum. Official records from the time portray Flannigan as a cowardly and cruel man, citing a dispute over a card game as his motive for Croker’s murder – but Christophersen believes there was something deeper at play. “It wasn’t the card game, the card game was just the spark. There was something underlying and we will probably never know what it was,” he says.

Perhaps, for instance, Flannigan knew Croker’s reputation from working Wave Hill Station: that he had been involved in a retribution massacre of an unknown number of Aboriginal men in Limmen. Flannigan supplied no defence to the court during his trial, only registering a plea of “not guilty”. “I just feel honoured I can help him tell his story,” Christophersen says.

Drawing of Wave Hill Station.
Flannigan spent some time working Wave Hill Station, of which he had a ‘seemingly photographic memory’. Illustration: Charlie Flannigan

A Little Bit of Justice gives a strong sense that Flannigan wished for his story to be told. As in comic strips, his subjects often face right in a narrative-temporal relation to their environment. These drawings chart the travels of both a young and older Flannigan, camping or on horseback, traversing panoramic landscapes the length of the Top End. Precise architectural perspectives of homesteads, stockyards and ships also feature, and details as sophisticated as the grain of timber, the structure of cliff faces and the direction of smoke are all accounted for.

Scattered throughout these renditions from Flannigan’s seemingly photographic memory are more unpredictable elements from his imagination: three-dimensional stars spin over scenes, Flannigan’s face hovers over stations, kooky characters loop around the defining moments of his life. Together these works tell the story of a spirited, talented and perceptive adventurer.

Drawing of a ship.
The drawings chart the travels of both a young and older Flannigan. Illustration: Charlie Flannigan
Illustration by Charlie Flannigan.
Precise architectural details are a feature of the drawings. Illustration: Charlie Flannigan

A Little Bit of Justice posthumously challenges the claims to civility of a legal system that, in condemning Flannigan to death, instrumentalised execution as a legitimate vehicle of justice. This form of justice was met with public outcry, as it was disproportionately administered to Aboriginal offenders in a “punishment as pacification” strategy mirroring the legal systems of South Australia and Victoria at the time. A cautionary example was to be made of him, one to keep the wider body of Aboriginal station workers in line. But despite turning himself in for his crime, Flannigan would see the sentences of his white cellmates commuted to life in prison.

Flannigan’s comments on death row convey a resignation to his fate. Maybe he saw a correlation between his sentence and the life-for-a-life sense of justice that compelled the fugitive to turn himself in. Perhaps he was responding laconically to a wider sense of justice unserved for Aboriginal prisoners. Viewing A Little Bit of Justice in an institution that occupies the Northern Territory’s Parliament House, 130 years later these works pose a question to the legitimacy of colonial justice that remains unanswered.

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