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Bushrangers

Updated on August 16, 2014

From at least the early 19th century, this name was applied to robbers, especially highway robbers, who operated from the bush (thinly settled, undeveloped country). The earliest recorded use of the term seems to have been in the Sydney Gazeue of 17 February 1805, where it was reported that a cart had been stopped on the road to the Hawkesbury River by three men whose appearance sanctioned the suspicion of their being bushrangers '.

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Four years later the deposed Governor Bligh, while on the Porpoise (anchored in the Derwent River), wrote of "a set of Free Boaters (Bushrangers as they are called)", and claimed that "about Sixty, and some of them well armed, are now in the Woods."

During the convict period (that is, until the 1850s) nearly all bushrangers were escaped convicts. Tasmania, which received the greater proportion of hardened criminals, was the first part of Australia to be seriously troubled by bushrangers. Though Governor Macquarie kept urging Lieutenant-Governor Davey to use more vigor in suppressing them, he raised strong objections when in 1815 Davey tried to deal with them by placing the whole island under martial law. At this stage the most notorious of the 'Bandittis or Ruffians', or 'Atrocious Miscreants', as Davey called them, was the gang led by Michael Howe. Davey's successor, Sorell, succeeded in hunting down most members of this group, and after Howe's death in 1818 there was a short lull in bushranging. However, after the opening of a special penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour it became more serious than ever.

It was difficult for convicts to escape from Macquarie Harbour and reach the settled districts, but those who succeeded in doing so made very resourceful bushrangers, among whom Matthew BRADY, who was captured and hanged in 1826, was the most notorious. Within a few years of his death vigorous measures by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur had practically eliminated bushranging from the island, and it was never again a great problem there. Although Martin Cash attracted widespread attention in the 1840s, he presented a far less serious threat to the peace of the island than earlier bushrangers had done.

On the mainland, bushranging began within two years of the founding of the colony, with the escape of John ('Black') Caesar, a negro convict who escaped and took to the bush in 1789. It was only after Governor Hunter had offered a reward of five gallons of rum for his capture, dead or alive, that he was run down and shot dead in 1796. But the problem of bushranging did not reach proportions comparable to those in T AS until settlement began to spread beyond the Blue Mountains after 1815. Thereafter it flourished, and by 1830 the situation was so serious that police were given power to arrest suspects without a warrant and, if provided with a general search warrant, to enter, or even break into, any house. Particularly notorious about this time was 'Bold Jack Donohoe' (celebrated in the folk song of that title), who survived a number of encounters with police, but was eventually shot dead by a party of troopers near Campbelltown in 1836.

Most brutal of all was the maniac ex-convict John Lynch, who operated mainly in the Berrima district. Before being hanged in 1841 he confessed to murdering nine people with an axe, but claimed that he did so by divine guidance . Another bushranger of note was William Westwood, nicknamed 'Jacky Jacky'.

The abolition of transportation to eastern Australia in 1852 soon made bushranging by escaped convicts a thing of the past. At the same time the gold rushes provided a new motive and greater opportunities for highway robbery, since there were many more travelers and large amounts of gold were being transported by road. Many robberies occurred on the roads between Melbourne and the goldfields during the 1850s (the height of the gold rushes); as far as can be ascertained they were carried out largely by ex-convicts from Tasmania, though no particular individuals or gangs working from hideouts in the bush (and therefore justifying the name 'bushranger') stood out prominently.

The second great period of bushranging covers the 1860s and 1870s, and the famous bushrangers of the time operated predominantly in NSW. This was the era of free-born bushrangers, generally from the poorer classes and often of ex-convict parentage, who shared with the escaped convicts of an earlier time an attitude of hostility towards the police, the rich and authority in general.

The two most notorious bushrangers of the 1860s were Frank Gardiner, who operated in the central slopes and tablelands of NSW, and Ben Hall, who took over the remnants of Gardiner's gang in 1863 and of all bushrangers was probably the best organizer. Others in the same decade were Frederick Ward ('Captain Thunderbolt'), who operated mainly in New England, Thomas and John Clarke of Araluen, who were hanged in 1867, and Daniel ('Mad Dog') Morgan, one of the few loners, who operated from 1862 to 1864 in the Riverina and Monaro districts of NSW, winning an unenviable reputation for brutality before being ambushed and shot in Victoria in 1865 as he was leaving a station near Wangaratta which he had robbed.

The 1870s produced the most famous of all bushrangers, Ned Kelly. Kelly 's career, marked by a number of particularly daring raids, was short; he formed his gang in 1878 and was captured, after a spectacular battle with police at Glenrowan in Victoria, only two years later. Also notorious in this decade was Andrew George Scott ('Captain Moonlight'), who had taken to the bush with a gang of five others in 1879, after serving an 11-year jail sentence for bank robbery. A brilliant confidence trickster, he posed as a lay preacher as a cover for his activities; but his career, too, was brief, for he was captured near Wagga Wagga in NSW in 1880 and hanged in the same year.

Popular attitudes towards bushrangers, almost from the beginning, had inclined towards admiration of the alleged daring and courage of bushrangers, a tendency reflected in songs such as 'The Wild Colonial Boy' and 'Bold Jack Donohoe'. By the 1860s, many of the poorer settlers, resentful of the police, willingly provided food, shelter and information for criminals such as Frank Gardiner and Ben Hall; the effectiveness with which they provided bushrangers with information about police movements gave rise to the term 'bush telegraph'.

Another phrase, 'as game as Ned Kelly', indicates the awe with which that robber was regarded, and the dramatic nature of his exploits and final defeat has been widely featured in Australian literature and art.

All told, however, it seems doubtful that popular admiration for bushrangers in Australia has been stronger than the same tendency in other countries to glamorize certain types of criminals.

Do you have a favorite Bushranger?

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