Bushranging played an indispensable role in the development of Australia’s identity.
Over time, the term ‘bushranger’ has evolved, but at all times defined outcasts, yet, attitudes toward bushrangers remain quite equivocal and complex. To understand the beliefs surrounding bushrangers and the perspectives of those considered marginalised and ordinary in nineteenth-century Australia, we must consider a range of sources such as those histories ‘from below.’ In this essay, I will be comparing Mary Ann Bugg’s petition for Clemency and Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter, and how each of them exemplify nineteenth-century beliefs about bushrangers.
Originally, ‘bushranger’ was used solely to describe escaped convicts in the outskirts of society, who took refuge in the Australian bush. However, after the Gold Rush’s influx of wealth, the inequality in social class it created, gave rise to a new type of bushranger. From the 1850s onwards, the definition broadened to include any criminals (including free settlers) who had run-ins with the police that lived in the bush. The bush, made crime possible and more efficient, as being distant from town made those coming into the bush to seek them, more vulnerable to attacks. Australia’s bushranging history comprised of a colourful canvas of individuals. For many, circumstance had forced them into bushranging, for others it was simply an opportunity for adventure and chance to imitate their heroes, while most saw it as a rebellion against colonial authority. Mary Ann Buggs and Ned Kelly were two completely different individuals, yet both represented the oppressed and fought for justice against an unjust system.
Mary Ann Bugg is just one example of a notable female in the bushranging narrative, who unfortunately did not gain much attention such as her male counterparts. Born in 1834 to a European Convict father and Indigenous mother, her early years were not associated with bushranging, however, she was a subordinate primitive woman, who became a victim of circumstance. In 1860, Bugg met a man named Frederick Ward, known as the infamous ‘Captain Thunderbolt,’ and from then she rose to fame, becoming the women who assisted Thunderbolt in becoming the legend he is today. Her partnership with Ward led to constant run-ins with the police, serving multiple sentences in gaol. In 1867, however, she was illegally imprisoned having suspected to have stolen some goods. It was during this time she composed a ‘Petition of Clemency’ that led to her release. In her petition, she claims unlawful conviction, stating that the goods in her possession were purchased and not stolen, despite her provoking behaviour: “That your Petitioner … last purchased a quantity of Drapery and other goods at the stores of Messieurs Wolfe and Gorrick and paid for the same.” For most of the time, she had no concrete evidence to support her innocence plea, however, her petition and an eye witness that identified her as having purchased the goods, allowed for her case to be further investigated. Her statement instigated an outpour of public support, which then forced the inspector-general to rule her arrest as a wrongful conviction.
The notorious Ned Kelly is the most renowned bushranger in Australian history, who was not the first Australian bushranger but rather was the last, who established his own period of bushranging. Born in 1855 to settlers of Irish descent, his teenage years were spent stealing, who took to the bush to evade arrest. Spending most of his life robbing, assaulting, and challenging authority, he felt that he and many others like him were victimised by the government. This led to his multiple arrests and his wanted status. It was the combination of his poor upbringing, economic hardship and harassment from the police, which influenced his criminal behaviour.
Kelly had multiple run-ins with the law, but, his most significant crime was the Jerilderie bank robbery. In 1879, Ned Kelly and his gang had dressed in stolen police uniform, executing raids in the town of Jerilderie, robbing the bank, burning bank documents, holding hostages, diverting police attention as well as confining police.
However, what is significant to historians today, is that after the robbery, Ned Kelly dictated a letter to his companion Joe Byrne, who wrote it, then gave it to a banker – Edwin Living, requesting to publish his letter. This became the Jerilderie Letter. Written in 1879, the 56 page, 8,000-word letter, outlines the reasoning behind his actions, where its historical significance dwells in the explicit account of his troubled relations with the law. In the letter, he justifies his resort to crime, the corruption of the law, and his grievances against the police. Whereby he constructed this narrative of himself as somebody who was unfairly persecuted for defending the common people, which engaged with the general public bringing in an outpour of support. His letter had a recurring theme where he created this idea that the police were dishonourable men, full of corruption and that his life of continuous police persecution appealed to the audience, as they too could relate to Kelly, as the community didn’t trust police either; “What would people say if I became a policeman and took an oath to arrest my brothers and sisters & relations and convict them by fair or foul means … The Queen must surely be proud of such heroic men …It takes eight or eleven of the biggest mud crushers in Melbourne to take one poor little half-starved larrakin to a watch house.” This highlights Ned Kelly’s main idea that many of the lower class people were abused by the police, that their ‘bad image’ was exaggerated by the authorities as a means to justify their actions. His letter also reflected and touched on recognised bushranging themes such as the need for the redistribution of wealth – the rich sharing their wealth with the poor; “it would suit them far better to subscribe a sum and give it to the poor of their district and there is no fear of anyone stealing their property.” His actions followed the ‘Robin Hood’ concept of robbing the wealthy to give to the poor, as there was evident inequality in society and social classes, and he was just doing something tangible in regards to that.
At the time, bushrangers were seen as criminals in the eyes of the law, and the authorities felt quite threatened by them. Conversely, most of the general public – typically the lower classes, felt that bushrangers were in fact heroes. They could be likened to activists, as they sought political and social change, being the only people doing something about it. Even during the bushranging period of the nineteenth century, many still had quite varying beliefs towards them. Ned Kelly’s letter can definitely relate to 19th-century beliefs on bushrangers as he fit the criteria at the time of a white male who defied the authorities, unlike Mary Ann Bugg who was just discriminated against for being an Indigenous woman, and wife of a bushranger/convict. However, the image of Bugg depended on her individually, she decided when she should display or hide her character – the civilised image of Mary was undermined by herself.
A significant piece of information to point out in regards to historians’ study of nineteenth-century bushranging beliefs is that Ned Kelly’s letter is easily accessible on the internet in the form of images of the letter or transcripts. Mary Ann’s letter, on the other hand, cannot be found online at all, rather, is only available in a state archival building.
This, therefore, can be a limitation as we are only provided with the perspectives and stories of those who had celebrity-type status, and nothing about those were not given mass attention such as female bushrangers or even bushrangers of colour. The reasoning as to why Ned Kelly gained more national attention throughout history than Mary Ann did, is because he fit into the narrative of the elite white male bushranger, Mary Ann Bugg, an Aboriginal woman, did not. Regardless, both greatly contributed to the bushranging narrative
To conclude nineteenth-century beliefs saw the bushranging movement as a symbol of freedom, pride and anti-authoritarianism, fighting for the good of those who were outcasted. Bushrangers have profoundly influenced Australia’s national identity, being a manifestation of rural poverty and political rebellion.