Bushrangers: Heroes or Villans?

To laud the thieves, runaways and sometime murderers who became bushrangers is uniquely Australian, for it is not only the outlaw heroes we romanticise, but the villains as well. Why do we find them so fascinating? Does it have something to do with our convict heritage, and our consequent attitude towards authority – are they merely larrikins writ large? Is that morally ambiguous attitude changing as our population diversifies? There’s no denying that the stories of these men (and a few women) make ripping yarns, which explains why they have featured in so many songs, paintings, and films over the years.

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  • Bolters: The term “bushrangers” was first used to describe runaway convicts, also known as bolters, who roamed the bush, scavenging what they could from settlers and Aboriginal communities – men such as “Black” Caesar, Matthew Brady, and Michael Howe.
  • Gold Rush: The Gold Rushes presented too much temptation with mail coaches travelling through unprotected areas just waiting to be held up. Frank Gardiner and Harry Power were among those who seized their chance.
  • After the Gold Rush: But even after the gold eased from a rush to a trickle, people like John Vane and Kenniff brothers continued to ravage the outlying settlements, the small town banks, and the rich travellers.
  • Heroes: In fact, the 1860s – when the increasing reach of railways and law should have made it more difficult – were the glory years of bushranging, giving rise to such folk heroes as Ben Hall and Captain Thunderbolt, Martin Cash, and, as a last hurrah, the Kelly Gang.
  • Villains: But they weren’t all the stuff of folk songs and subversion. Some, like Mad Dog Morgan and the Clark Brothers, were common thieves and thugs.
  • Out of the box: Not all these bushrangers were your standard Anglo Celtic men. Indeed, bush-ranging calls to the rebel, to the ones who don’t fit in, whether they be gay (Captain Moonlite), Chinese (Sam Poo), Aboriginal (Gosvenor Brothers), or female (Elizabeth Jessie Hickman).
  • Their chosen end: Like pirates on land, many of them wished for a short life but a merry one, and in that most of them had half their wish come through, ending in hangings, shootings, and, very, very rarely - ripe old age.
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<p>To laud the thieves, runaways and sometime murderers who became bushrangers is uniquely Australian, for it is not only the outlaw heroes we romanticise, but the villains as well. Why do we find

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15 Oct
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