The history of the donkey in Australia began almost as early as colonisation, the first arriving from Calcutta, India in 1793. Some died en route. The months at sea and the conditions on the sailing ships were arduous for man and beast. Only the strongest survived the journey. Many such ships brought to these shores donkeys sourced from amongst the world’s finest stock, from places such as Rawapindi, Chile and the Canari Isles. Maltese donkeys were imported in the mid 1800s. Californian gold miners, following the lure of riches on the Australian newly discovered gold fields brought donkeys with them.
The home of the donkey was to be the remote arid inland of Australia and the monsoon country of the Kimberley’s in Western Australia and Northern Territories. The donkey teamsters along with the camel teams supplied the remote outstations, settlements, beyond the reach of bullock and horse teams, being hardier for the harsh conditions, as well as being able to forage on the available herbage .The donkeys’ staunchness in harness, and his propensity to stay close to the wagon, not straying far, were qualities the teamsters valued. Another reason donkeys, and mules were indispensable was the ‘immunity’ they had to "Kimberly Walk-About disease" a fatal condition caused by ingestion of a poison weed. The ass either avoided or was immune to its effects.
The donkey teams were large, up to 4 abreast and commonly 20-40 or more per team. They were driven by voice alone, the teamster walking alongside his charges. The teams hauled loads as diverse as aromatic sandlewood, missionaries’ provisions, iron tanks and boilers for mines, wool bales and food supplies. To the people of the outback, until the coming of the motor, they and the camels were their one vital transport link to the "inside country" of the large towns and cities.
The coming of the motor saw the demise of the teams by the 1940’s they had been replaced. Many were turned loose into the uninhabited areas to breed up in the hundreds of thousands, becoming an environmental problem still being dealt with today. During the 1970’s there was something of a revival of interest in the donkey as a recreational animal, and many bush donkeys found themselves becoming the basis of hobby studs. The smaller jennies were used as foundation stock for the newly imported small standard English/Irish donkey. Some larger stock were also among the bush donkeys, a few up to 14 hands, more commonly 12-13 hands. These were said to have the blood of "Spanish’ donkeys.
It was known that 3 American Jacks were imported prior to WWII. The ‘common wisdom’ though was that these had only been imported for the purpose of breeding mules for the sugar cane fields. Beyond that, nothing was known of any imports.
It always bothered me, the thought that the importers would go to the considerable expense and risk of bringing the jacks here to breed only a terminal line of mules didn’t jell. With what I knew of the pioneers of the livestock industries of Australia, such short-sightedness was not typical. Probably what finally spurred me on to further research was a meeting with a rickety, ancient scarecrow of a donkey here in the south of the state of NSW. Looking beyond his age, his frame size, bone, colour and markings was exactly the stamp of the American Mammoth Jackstock I had seen in magazines.
Several patient years of research later, (probably only for my own historic satisfaction) a clearer picture has emerged. From at least the early 1900’s Jackstock from America (and Spanish stock) were being quoted in local journals as the finest asses in the world, and standing at stud in at least two states.
One stud, cited as the largest donkey stud in Australia, in 1909 ‘standing many Spanish and American imported jacks’ were also involved in the development of the Australian Merino, founding a famous mother line after which one of the American jacks were named. The station still operates today. The grandson thinks some of the jackstock came from Texas. I am hopeful of more details, as he has 95 years of family memorabilia, and believes the records are therein!!
The stock (registration and photos passed to AMJR) at the New South Wales Government farm were mentioned in a 1914 report thus- ‘half of the farm is given over to the purpose of breeding donkeys and mules’.
The next record found was of the 3 jacks brought to Queensland by the Government on behalf of the sugar cane industry, indeed to breed mules, but ‘Business‘ at least did breed donkeys. As late as the 1970’s stock descended from him were on at least one station. It is also possible the jack that went to Fairymead (a very large sugar company) also bred, as in the 1970’s large donkeys were sent down to southern states from Fairymead. Another report a few years later speaks of Fairymead as having several imported jacks.
These few records that I have found so far are probably by no means the only imports that were made prior to 1935. After that no further Jackstock were imported until the last 3 years when the jack Major Leo, bred by Cy and Major Cokely, was imported by P&H Streefkirk to Victoria, followed by Carousel Farms Bear Track Chuck and TJC Ginger who were brought to NSW by K&B Hoole. Unfortunately Ginger was lost due to foaling complications, but left a strapping young jenny sired by Carousel Farms Houston to carry on in her place.
Many fine youngsters are now on the ground from these fine Jacks, and new interest and excitement is growing in the donkey community in Australia. The availability of larger stock will allow the development of the donkey as a fine recreational animal suitable for adults to ride and drive. Until now the chance of an adult getting a mount suitable were almost nil. Now the wheel has turned full circle and we have regained that we had lost!
We have many good smaller animals in Australia, from the diminutive minature, either Mediteranean or Irish, small standards of English/Irish bloodlines imported in the 1970’s, and mixtures of the type, and the Australian ass descended from the teamster donkeys, now an average size of 11-1/2 to12 hands.