Chocolate maker, lumper and ex-soldier, Billy Blue (c1838-1834) was an African-American man who was transported to NSW as a convict in 1801 aboard the Minorca.
In 1796, Blue had been found guilty of stealing 20 pounds of sugar while employed as a ‘lumper’ on the merchant ships that plied the Thames River in London. In other words, his job was to manually unload cargo, a skilled and dangerous job, but one that was not well paid. To make ends meet, Blue worked as a chocolate maker on the side.
In the 18th century, chocolate was not eaten in the way we do today, but was taken as a drink. Ground cocoa beans were mixed with spice and sugar and melted into hot water to produce a stimulating and hunger suppressing hot beverage. The concoction was more sought after than coffee.
Following his conviction in 1796, Blue spent the next five years imprisoned on one of the hulks moored on the Thames. Although he was living in London at the time of his arrest, he originally hailed from a free black family living in New York. It is speculated that he ended up in England after the American War of Independence, having been recruited into the British Navy.
At the time of his arrival in Sydney in 1801, Blue was over 60 years old, but was fit, healthy and ready to start a new life. One observer described him as ‘herculean’. Within three years, he had a new wife – Elizabeth Williams was in her in her mid-20s at the time of their marriage – and was set to father six children with her.
Once settled in Sydney, Billy Blue became a waterman meaning that he transported cargo from ship to shore. His main claim to fame is that he pioneered the first ferry service across Sydney Harbour. In 1811, Blue was appointed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie as the ‘Watchman of the Heaving Down Place’: he was the constable and guardian of the watery domain that touched the shoreline in front of Government House at Sydney Cove.
As part of his remuneration, Billy Blue was given an eight-sided house within the grounds of Government House, where he lived with his wife and young family. He was the favoured ferryman for Macquarie, his wife Elizabeth and their young son, escorting them across the harbour and along the Parramatta River to Sydney’s second the Government House at Parramatta. As his esteem grew, Blue was granted vast tracts of land on the northern side of the harbour.
In 1818, Blue lost his job after he was caught smuggling 120 gallons of rum stored in drums that had been lashed to the side of his boat. By the mid 1820s, although he had land holdings and a lucrative ferry business, he soon gained a reputation as an eccentric.
Billy Blue was a regular fixture around town, attired in his top hat, carrying a carved walking stick with a sack slung over his shoulder. He regularly treated passers-by to a stream of colourful invective and abusive language. In 1824, Blue’s wife died and his eccentric behaviour increased, perhaps this was one response to his grief. When he died in 1834, he was almost 100 years old, but he was not forgotten by the citizens of Sydney.
Blue’s hexagon-shaped house remained a tourist attraction until it was pulled down in the mid 19th century. His name is perpetuated in the Sydney suburb of Blues Point, and in a number of streets in North Sydney.
Read more about Billy Blue and 11 African-American convicts who arrived to Sydney on the First Fleet in Cassandra Pybus’s, Black Founders: the unknown story of Australia’s first black settlers, UNSW Press, 2006.