- Peter Jackson: A Biography of the Australian Heavyweight Champion, 1860–1901
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch once introduced Peter Jackson as “the Australian-African actor-pugilist” (p. 170). In an updated and renamed revision of his previous Jackson biography (Gentleman Bruiser: A Life of the Boxer Peter Jackson, 2005) Bob Petersen’s extensive research demonstrates that this slew of descriptors only scratches the surface of Jackson’s multifaceted identities. Although the end result is a book more fixated on specific details than broad analyses, Peter Jackson: A Biography of the Australian Heavyweight Champion, 1860–1901presents the most complete reconstruction of Jackson’s life available.
Petersen draws primarily from mainstream and sporting newspapers and magazines from St. Croix (then-Santa Cruz), Australia, New Zealand, England, and Hawai‘i as well as local and African American newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, to inform his detailed chronology of Jackson’s life from a Cruzan sailor to Australian boxing champion to American actor (playing Tom in a traveling production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to his premature death from tuberculosis in 1901.Petersen also looks outside of traditional sources, mining [End Page 195] the census data preserved on genealogical websites to make sense of the myths surrounding Jackson’s early life. Throughout the book Petersen does not shy away from identifying the discrepancies between competing periodicals’ reports on certain events in Jackson’s life, and he keeps his research transparent by identifying his sources in the text as well as in the endnotes.
Despite the fact that Petersen does not directly engage with existent scholarship, many of the documents he uncovered speak for themselves and complicate the traditional narrative of “Peter the Great.” Jackson was denied his opportunity to consolidate both fame and fortune as a world heavyweight champion largely because his career coincided with the invention of a “color line” by American champion John L. Sullivan. Since Sullivan and his successor, James J. Corbett, refused challenges from black fighters after they became recognized as champion, Jackson’s boxing career reached its plateau in the 1890s. Thus his story is often held up as an example of the politics of race in prize fighting at the turn of the twentieth century. But there is more historical value to a biography of Jackson. Petersen suggests that Jackson spent most of his life in Pacific port cities such as Sydney and San Francisco where white residents “were less concerned about the few blacks in their city than about the influx of Chinese” (p. 26). This might explain Jackson’s class-based justification for avoiding the American South: “I could not live at good hotels, in the surroundings I have been used to. I would have to go into low and dirty surroundings, into company I don’t care for. A respectable white man doesn’t want to travel with low whites. In the same way I don’t want to associate with the low of my own race and color” (p. 182). Jackson concluded by saying, “I couldn’t even ride in the first-class cars,” a particularly salient comment coming less than two months after Homer Plessy was arrested for challenging the racial segregation of Louisiana’s rail cars. Jackson’s comments in this episode indicate his value as the subject of a more nuanced study of inter- and intra-racial tensions in the Victorian era.
The documents Petersen examined also show a remarkable flexibility in Jackson’s ethnicity and nationality. He was alternately Cruzan, Danish, British, and Australian, as well as a resident of the United States, and his allegiances as well as his accent seemed to change with his surroundings. In Adelaide, Jackson self-identified as an Australian who was “taken” to the “West Indies” when he was five years old; in Melbourne he claimed to be a British-born Australian and specifically disassociated himself from the “colonies” of New South Wales and Victoria. However, in many of his fights Jackson wore the colors of the Danish...