Bushranging its origins


BUSHRANGERING – its origins


When the early settlers started to move into the interior they needed a word to describe the contrasting environment which included coasts, river gullies, plains, mountains and often seemingly impenetrable scrub. Their English words wood and forest seemed too gentle and inappropriate so they adopted the word bush to describe anywhere other than the cities. In the 19th century when the majority of Australians lived in what we now refer to as regional Australia they described themselves as country folk living in the bush. This included the coastal areas which, because of creeping urbanism, we now usually call coastal Australia, implying that anything so close to water, even sea water, couldn’t be the bush.

Sidney J Baker in The Australian Language cites the first use of the word bush as 1801 in the form bush native. It also occurs as a noun two years later in the Sydney Gazette. Baker confirms that by 1826 it was being used to describe the country in general outside a capital.

The word comes from the Dutch bosch which explains why the word also has some history in Africa.

The next stage of the word’s life in Australia came as it attached itself to all manner of colonial activity and description including to go bush, bush brotherhood, bush craft, bush clobber, bush telegraph, bushwalker, bushman and bushfire being some examples.

To be a bushranger or go bushranging was akin to being a highway robber however, in Australia, it also implied you had a certain knowledge of the bush. The earliest bushrangers were escaped convicts, also referred to as bolters. In truth few had the skills to survive and that inevitably led to holding up travelers and homesteads and this, in part, explains why there was a certain amount of sympathy for the early bushrangers. There was a general thought that only an Aborigine had the knowledge to survive in the bush and anyone else who managed it was considered clever and daring.

The first reference to bushranger appeared in the Sydney Gazette, in 1805, but had already been adumbrated in a letter by George Suttor to Sir Joseph Banks (1804) in which he remarked: “Surely it cannot be aid that the country is in safety while the most abandoned convicts have permission to range the country at large.”

It didn’t take long before the description bushranger was applied to any felon at large. One of the most widespread crimes in early Australia was cattle duffing – simply because there were no fences and straying cattle were usually rebranded. We know that several bushrangers started out escaping from prosecution for cattle stealing.

The following account, not that long after the capture and execution of Ned Kelly, discusses various bushrangers and myths relating to them. Includes references to Ned Kelly, Dan Morgan, Frederick Ward, Ben Hall and William ‘Jackey Jackey’ Westwood. – WF.

Brisbane Courier Mail. 1890. May 8th

Among the books which have still to be written is a history of bushranging. Such a history would find a ready public. To Englishmen the work would be especially interesting. No form of outlawry, whether it be the highwayman’s exploits on the roads of old England, the brigandage of Southern Europe, of Tartar depredation, can boast a record more extraordinary than that of the men who set the ordinances of society and the resources of civilization at defiance in the land of the Golden Fleece. The annals of bushranging were brief, brilliant-if one may use that word in such a connection – and bloody. They show human nature some-times at its best, more often at its worst, and frequently at both its best and worst at the same time. They would supply a Harrison Ainsworth with situations and combinations almost unrivaled, mid would afford the preacher of an optimistic turn ample opportunity for sermonizing on the redeeming qualities which humanity seldom lacks, even in its most abandoned moods. Bushranging has already become a thing of the past. The rising generation in Australia knows it through the printed page and not as the result of experience.

Every year tends more and more to remove it from the actual, and to give it a place among those events which increase in fascination in proportion as they disappear from view. The bushranger bids fair to supply Australasia with that necessary element of the “legend of romance,” which clings about the early days of older lands. What Robin Hood was to England, a Ned Kelly will probably be in the dim and distant future to the Antipodes. The more revolting side of the bushranger’s career will not perhaps be forgotten, but will be modified in the stories which will be told of his deeds of daring, of his chivalry, his wrongs, his powers of endurance, his impudence, his ingenuity. As Lord Carnarvon said in a recent account of Australia in 1888, his courage and resource were often worthy of a better calling. His life was characterised by all those attributes which assist the generations of a legendary lore; it was solitary, picturesque, romantic, wild. He put food into his mouth and the sinews of war into his pocket by his wits and his muscle, and his habitation was often of the troglodyte description. In bushranging, it has been said, Australia sowed her wild oats, and there is much aptness in the simile.

Stories of the bushranging order go largely to make up the ” dreadful” element in literature, and the exciting character of the adventures described has not seldom been responsible for turning the brain of the urchin. Wild and improbable though the situations in the majority of these fictions are, however, they only exceed the fact in number and in degree. Desperate encounters with the police, prison escapes, the ” sticking up” of houses, and even of towns, the betrayal of women, long and arduous rides, and many other things, con-tribute to the romance which clings about the rangers of the bush. The best known among them may be divided into two classes -the human and the inhuman. As a rule, they showed themselves very human, and took another’s life only when to appear the victim mount to spoil their own chances. One such as Daniel Morgan, who was a veritable fiend in human shape as he was, found a delight in shooting down helpless people in the most cowardly and unprovoked fashion, wore happily rare. His murderous exploits are said to have been unequalled in Australia. For instance, as the Rev. J. II. L. Zillman tells in his admirable little volume in ” Pent and Pro sent Australian Life,” once ‘ Stuck up’ a station, and shot at several of the inhabitants in his usual brutal manner, until, at last, he wounded one of them seriously.

Upon this another man asked for permission to go for a doctor to a town a few miles away, promising, if permission wore granted, to give no warning to the police. Permission having been granted, the man had hardly mounted his horse when ho was followed up by the bushranger and shot dead, and tills as ho was starting on a mission of mercy for a suffering fellow-of-nature.” Morgan was himself subsequently shot by a police party which was apprised of the fact that he had ” stuck up” a station near Wangaratta, and was enjoying himself in the house of a Mr. M. Thorson, whose wife was compelled to play to him. For audacity and bloodthirstiness combined, the Kelly gang would probably carry off the premiership in bushranging. The leader of the gang, Edward Kelly, was only 27, and his three chief followers were respectively 21, 20, and l8 years of ago, They tried their apprentice hand early and horrified Victoria suddenly by murdering two policemen and a settler in cold blood.

They did many remarkable things, but none more remarkable than the “sticking up” of a township of which they had possession for two whole days. They held the police prisoners, helped themselves to the host provisions the town supplied, robbed the bank of £2000, burned valuable documents, and isolated the place by cutting the telegraph wires. They might have enjoyed the result of their depredation longer, had they been more reasonable. Having captured a railway station and secured control of the line, they arranged to wreck a train, and would, no doubt, have succeeded, had not, to quote Mr. Zillman, ” a brave young fellow risked his life by escaping from their custody and giving the signal to the train as it was approaching.” The train brought a strong body of police, and the Kelly reign of terror came to an end.
Ned Kelly’s adventures, with embellishment, have been told ad nauseam, in the form of penny dreadfuls. He is the Antipodean prototype of our English Dick Turpin.

The barbarous doings of the Morgan and Kelly gangs were, as has been said, an exception in the general conduct of bushranging. Usually the outlaw was, whatever the crimes ho might ho led into by the position he had taken up, as kindly disposed as ho was fearless. Lord Carnarvon tells a good story of a bushranger who evidently looked upon his vocation as sacred.

“On one occasion”, writes Lord Carnarvon, “one of the gang gave his victim the usual alternative of his money or his life, and when the latter declined to surrender his property, the bushranger stepped aside, knelt down, and prayed earnestly that it might be put into the traveller’s heart to give up all he had, and be spare him the necessity of shooting him.” In the ” Australian Dictionary of Dates” – now out of, print-it is recorded of Frederick Ward, who took to the bush and rejoiced in the name of Captain Thunderbolt, that he once robbed a German band, who pleaded so hard to be let off that he promised he would return them their money if he succeeded in relieving the principal winner of the Tenterfield races of his gains. The Tenterfield winner was successfully mulcted, and the German band received back the 20 pounds taken from them! A bushranger named Westwood, better known as Jackey, committed the most extraordinary acts of daring, but was sensitive on a point of honour. As a convict, in order to secure his liberty, he did not hesitate to shoot down his overseer, but he nobly defended a married woman from the wrong which a cowardly comrade would have done her, and finally left him in disgust on that account.

A Mr. Robert Wardell was cruelly murdered by bushrangers, who nevertheless had the humanity to cover his body with brambles in order to prevent its being mutilated by the native dogs, Ben Hall was a famous bushranger some twenty-five years ago. He seems to have been driven to the bush by the persecution of the police and the infidelities of his spouse. Mr. Zillman records having personally heard from the “son of the wife of the owner” of a large station how Hall and some companions once appeared at her door with a “Good morning, Mrs. C.” She had the tact and courage to treat them politely. She gave them wine and played the piano whilst they danced a jig in the drawing room. They departed with profuse thanks for the enjoyment she had afforded them, and years afterwards she spoke of the gentlemanly behaviour of those men who had her completely at their mercy. Ben Hall was betrayed by a confederate, and it is said that the police were so anxious to secure him that they continued to shoot at him after he was dead. Thirty-four wounds, one account says, were found on his body. Hundreds of similar incidents of extreme interest might be brought to light by a little research, but the foregoing is sufficient to justify the statement with which this paper opened, romance is always popular, and bushranging is romance from beginning to end.