Being somewhat of a sports nut I was a trifle surprised, when searching through information relating to the Toowong Cemetery, to come across a story previously unknown to me about an Australian boxing legend who is buried there. He was black, but not Aboriginal - he came initially from the West Indies, descended from African slaves - and he became a world famous sports figure in his own lifetime. His name is Peter Jackson.(Photo: courtesy http://cyberboxingzone.com/boxing/jackson.htm)
Jackson was born in the Danish West Indies in 1861 and arrived in Sydney at 17 years of age. He worked on the waterfront initially, and then started boxing around 1882, training under Larry Foley, a boxer and fight promoter. Jackson was a big man of about 187 cm and 90 kg, and fought as a heavyweight. In those times fights were often bare knuckle contests and had no maximum number of rounds - the fight was only finished when one of the contestants could no longer continue. Jackson first fought for the Australian title in 1884, losing to Bill Farnan, but two years later he won the title in a 30 round contest against Tom Lees. This fight was to propel him onto the world stage. After beating everyone in Australia game enough to fight him, Jackson travelled to America and Britain in 1888 in search of the world title.
The following extract from his biography illustrates the overt racism of the times that Jackson confronted: "Termed the 'darkey' or worse early on, Jackson became known as 'Peter the Great' or 'The Black Prince'. He was always deemed a 'gentleman' and a 'real whiteman'. His great sportsmanship and modesty reflected his nature, and also was a role forced on him by the exigencies of a black fighter in a white world. His deference, good looks, fine speaking manner and skill made him universally popular: he was one of the few boxers, black or white, allowed to move freely in the National Sporting Club rooms in London."
Although Jackson was undefeated after the Farnan fight right through to 1891, he was unable to secure a championship fight. The world champion was John L Sullivan, an American, who refused to fight "a negro". Some suggest that may have camouflaged the real reason - his reluctance to fight someone as good as Jackson evidently was. As a result of Sullivan's refusal to fight him, Jackson went on to fight "Gentleman" Jim Corbett in May 1891 (below). This contest was adjudged a draw when neither fighter could proceed - after 61 rounds! Corbett then defeated Sullivan and claimed the world title in 1892.
Peter Jackson's last notable fight was in London in May 1892, when he fought fellow Australian Paddy Slavin for the British title. Jackson won a fight that was reported as "vicious" in ten rounds. Unfortunately the years of punishment from his fights and his heavy use of alcohol then started to have a detrimental effect on Jackson, who went through the motions with exhibition bouts and stage productions in order to survive. He was hospitalised in Vancouver before coming home to live in the Queensland town of Roma where he died from tuberculosis in July 1901. He was forty years old. The London Sporting Times wrote: "Peter had a soul above all the miserable tricks that so frequently degrade the professional pugilist; in short, he was at heart a gentleman and Boxiana would be all the better today for a few more like him. Peace to his ashes."
Money was raised by public subscription to build a monument for Jackson's grave at Toowong cemetery. It stands on the top of a hill, and is inscribed with a Shakespearean quote: "This was a man". (Photo: © 2010 the foto fanatic)
In 1908 The American Jack Johnson became the first black man to win the world heavyweight boxing championship, and shortly thereafter he visited Australia, making a pilgrimage to Jackson's grave to pay his respects.
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