In the early years of the European settlement of Australia, a Bushranger meant simply a person with the survival skills needed to live in the Australian ‘bush’. It inevitably evolved into a term used to refer to those men (and women) who in the 19th-century abandoned all social rights and privileges to take up “Robbery under Arms” as a way of life, using the bush as their base. Many of these bushrangers gained considerable notoriety in their own short life-times, some even achieving the status of folk heroes, and the term has become overlaid with an aura of glamour from the songs, legends and films that have grown up around the name. Depending on one’s point of view (and economic/social status!), they were either unfortunate victims of hard economic times with an understandable contempt for authority, or glorified highway robbers who took to the roads as an easy way to exist.
THE EARLY YEARS
The early bushrangers were generally British convicts who had escaped from assigned service in the penal colonies of New South Wales (from 1788) and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania; from 1804). They had no respect for the rights of others and nothing to lose for their robbery and murder, depriving travellers and farms alike of money, horses, food, guns and clothing. Though greatly feared, many escapees had little chance of surviving in the bush and few lived long in freedom. If they didn’t die of starvation, sickness or exposure, they were either killed by the police and landowners .
THE SECOND WAVE
The glorious heyday of “bushranging” came after the discovery of gold in the 1850s. Many began ambushing gold shipments and raiding those wealthy squatters with properties near the gold towns. The police of the time (those that hadn’t already resigned the force to go after gold themselves) were frankly incompetent and corrupt, and had little hope of keeping things under control.
This second wave of bushrangers was considerably more at home in the bush than their escaped convict predecessors. They were generally native-born, bush-bred young men, often the sons of free poor settlers, who combined a contempt for authority with a spirit of reckless adventure. No one knows exactly how many there were, but at any time there were probably several hundred active bushrangers. Some of them were motivated by social injustice, and some were simply eager to acquire notoriety, though very few ever achieved the riches to enable them to escape their circumstances. Some like ‘Mad’ Dan Morgan were ruthless and vicious murderers, but others were almost admired for their reckless daring and gallant treatment of women, adopting such romanticized names as “Captain Moonlight” or “Captain Thunderbolt.”
By the 1880s the last of the bushrangers had vanished. Most of them died by violence at an early age; those who were not shot by the police were usually hanged. The most notorious names that stand out from the crowd include Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall, Fred Ward, and of course… Ned Kelly, who went on to become Australia’s unofficial (?) folk hero.