Recently I’ve been researching the early history of Australia as part of a script writing project, discovering many interesting facts and stories from this colonial period, particularly regarding the difficult life facing those arriving in the new colony under chains, and of those who became the first free citizens to be born in the new Australian nation.
After the arrival of the First Fleet into Botany Bay in 1788, the convicts were set to work building their own penal accommodation and the infrastructure required for the new settlement. Conditions were very harsh and punishment was brutally swift and extreme, which soon saw escapees bolting for the bush in the hope of surviving long enough to reach unknown settlements or to make their way across the seas to distant neighbouring countries. These ‘bolters’ were hopelessly inexperienced and ignorant of the vastness of the Australian bush and many perished from exposure, the lack of sufficient food, violence from their fellow absconders (including a number of victims who were killed and eaten by their desperately hungry freedom seeking mates) and deadly encounters with hostile natives.
By the 1820’s bushranging had become a widespread problem with many men choosing to take up arms and lead a life of horse, sheep and cattle stealing, raiding of settlers’ homesteads and farmhouses, and bold highway robberies. The Bushrangers Act was introduced in 1830 as a deterrent to those committing or assisting others to commit unlawful acts, giving powers to anyone to apprehend suspected criminals, or to search any suspicious individual thought to have firearms or other instruments of violent nature hidden or concealed about their person.
These brigands were often aided and supported by those who still sympathised with the plight of the outlaws after completing their own sentence and having been granted their freedom. Many citizens also continued to hold little respect for the authorities and governors of the colonies and were easily persuaded to help the bushrangers evade the lawmen, especially when they profited themselves from the goods looted and then offered cheaply.
The shocking, sensational and violent stories of men such as John ‘Black’ Caesar, Michael Howe, Alexander ‘The Cannibal’ Pearce, Thomas ‘The Monster’ Jeffery, Mathew Brady, Martin Cash, and Jack ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ Donohoe were eagerly devoured by a populace desiring for local stories telling true and engaging tales of undeserved injustice, criminal adventure and villainous acts to satisfy their need for diversionary entertainment from their lives of tiresome labour, constant struggle and hardship.
Gold was then discovered near Bathurst, New South Wales in 1851, and also in Victoria later that year, which soon saw many bushrangers taking to the roads to hold up the rapidly increasing numbers of ‘diggers’, gold convoys and coaches travelling across the country. Bail ups were now common across the goldfields and robbery under arms was a constant danger for everyone using the roads by foot, horseback or vehicle.
Gangs of bushrangers would stop travellers with threats of violence and death, rob them of valuables and then tie them up off the road so that they could not continue to raise the alarm at the next town. The bushrangers were often talented horsemen who stole the fastest horses and regularly led the police troopers on embarrassingly protracted and unsuccessful chases through their ‘home’ of endless mountain ranges and dense bush territory. Bushrangers like Frank ‘Darkie’ Gardiner, Black Douglas, Frank ‘Captain Melville’ McCallum, John ‘Bogong Jack’ Payne, and Daniel ‘Mad Dan’ Morgan had escaped from numerous attempts to apprehend them with their superior mounts and greater knowledge of the land. It was only when using the expertise of Aboriginal trackers that the police seemed to have any real hope of quickly catching their quarry.
The new colony was soon to see its first native-born bushrangers and amongst the locally born citizens feelings still ran deep against the English rule. The settlers were keen to see an end to further transportation of convicts to Australian shores and desired the federation of the individual colonies to form a commonwealth. These free Australians asked for greater personal rights and a larger say in the formation and direction of the nation, and as the gold rush continued to swell the numbers looking to find their fortune, unrest intensified at the high licence fee demanded by the government to access the goldfields and of the generally poor living conditions and often severe punishment handed out to the unlicenced diggers. This widespread disagreement would eventually come to a head in December 1854 when the ‘Eureka Stockade’ battle took place at Ballarat, Victoria.
The government responded to the escalating lawlessness of the bushrangers by introducing the Felon’s Apprehension Act, which decreed that any criminals named in a general summons were to give themselves up and to stand trial, or they could legally be brought in by any person – dead or alive. Wanted felons like Ben Hall, Johnnie Gilbert, John Dunn, Harry Power, and brothers Thomas and John Clarke would now be officially outlawed and face possible death from any meeting with the police or public.
By the 1860’s a new breed of highly popular bushranger had emerged due to the introduction of the electric telegraph. News and information now flowed quickly from communities across the nation and people were eager to hear the exciting tales of Andrew ‘Captain Moonlite’ Scott, The Kelly Gang, and Frederick ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ Ward. It was to be the Kellys who would come to define the Australian bushranger, with brothers Ned and Dan Kelly, together with friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne, providing a lengthy and ongoing saga that would famously culminate in a siege at the Glenrowan Hotel – the scene of Ned’s early morning attack on the police wearing his heavy suit of steel armour. Ned was captured alive for trial and the rest of his gang killed in the shoot-out and subsequent fire. Ned Kelly was found guilty of murdering Constable Lonigan and sentenced to hang on November 11th 1880 at the Old Melbourne Gaol in Victoria.
As the 19th century came to a close the bushrangers no longer frequented the Australian bush as they had before. A murderous gang of three, led by brothers Jimmy and Joe Governor, murdered and robbed their way across New South Wales until all were captured or killed by early 1901. The dramatic days of the colonial bushranger were all but over, although the young nation would continue to know many more rebellious outlaws and freedom fighting heroes for personal justice throughout the following centuries.
All images courtesy of Trove – National Library of Australia, State Library of Queensland (Ben Hall portrait) and the State Library of Victoria (Power capture).