The term “bushranger” can conjure up many images. The dashing hero rebelling against a harsh system. The blood-thirsty villain roaming the bush on a mission to steal and murder.
To this day, we still struggle with a fundamental question – were bushrangers cold-hearted violent offenders or victims of their circumstances?
It all began with convict John Caesar (known as Black Caesar) who escaped in 1970 and survived by hunting, fishing and accepting gifts from sympathetic settlers. From there, the legend of the mighty bushrangers began to take shape.
While Black Caesar’s bushranging career was not filled with violence, the same cannot be said for those who came after him, leaving a trail of horror and destruction everywhere they went.
Alexander Pearce, caught with human flesh in his pocket, was hung for eating a fellow convict. Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan, called “the most bloodthirsty of all highway robbers” by a Victorian newspaper, was known for torturing his victims.
Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan commits a hold-up [Image: State Library of Victoria]
Charles “Black Douglas” Russell terrorised diggers travelling to the goldfields, and there are multiple reports of him tying up naked victims with their boots full of fiery bull ants, leaving them to die a slow and excruciating death.
“It’s easy to forget that every death – be it bushranger, victim or police pursuer – represents a human life, with all its potential, aspirations, hopes and dreams,” says Evan McHugh, author of Bushrangers: Australia’s Greatest Self-Made Heroes.
Is it a disservice to those they harmed to glamorise their acts? Perhaps, say curators at the National Library of Australia.
“But in many 19th century accounts of life in Australia, bushrangers were seen as yet another trial that the immigrant had to survive so they could prosper. There were deadly snakes and spiders lurking in the bush, the destructive power of cataclysmic bushfires – and the terrors of facing bushrangers on remote roads.”
Bushrangers sprang to fame at a crucial time, an era when Australia was a group of colonies looking for an identity.
“We still hadn’t been through the bloodbath of Gallipoli, where we actually got heroes in every conceivable sense,” explains McHugh.
“While we were casting around for a true Australian-born heroic figure, bushrangers were one of the groups that fitted the bill.”
Resilience and an anti-authoritarian attitude are as Australian as Vegemite, and no one stuck their nose up at authority, or triumphed through adversity, quite like the bushrangers.
The death of Frederic Ward AKA Captain Thunderbolt [Image: State Library of Victoria]
Throughout history, oppressed societies have always found hope in daring heroes who battle against injustice, and our romanticising of bushrangers is no exception.
In the early settlements, punishments were severe, with sentences of hundreds of lashings for seemingly minor crimes. Even for voluntary settlers, life was difficult – food was scarce and the land was hard.
So its little wonder bushrangers developed a reputation as Robin Hood-esque figures – underdogs who fought against an unfair system and stole from the rich tyrants.
Today, we still overlook the crimes of these murderers and mad men, holding them up as symbols of national pride, despite being a generally law-abiding society and viewing modern criminals more harshly.
“Although we’re now removed from bushrangers and the threat they posed, we seem to still be drawn to people who defy the system yet were ultimately beaten by it,” say curators at the National Library of Australia.
“One thing we know for certain is that bushranger beards are back in fashion.”