AE 635.2 – Aussie Fact: Bushrangers

Learn Australian English in this Aussie Fact episode of the Aussie English podcast where I talk all about Australia’s outlaw bushrangers.

AE 635.2 - Aussie Fact: Bushrangers transcript powered by Sonix—the best audio to text transcription service

AE 635.2 - Aussie Fact: Bushrangers was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the latest audio-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors. Sonix is the best way to convert your audio to text in 2020.

G'day, you mob! And welcome to this episode of Aussie English. This is going to be an Aussie English Fact episode following on from the episode for the expression 'to lose your touch'.

So, today I want to do something a little bit different. I want to tell you about bushrangers in Australia, and I wonder if you already know what a bushranger is? I wonder if you've heard of some famous bushrangers? Maybe some called Ned Kelly or maybe Dan Morgan, 'Mad Dog'? Anyway, I thought I would do something different where today I'm going to read out the Wikipedia article on Bushrangers because I was reading this article to do a little bit of research on Bushrangers to try and, you know, get the main facts correct for you guys. And instead of reinventing the wheel, I saw that Wikipedia allows you to republish their content as long as you give attribution. And this article was particularly well written, concise and not too lengthy. So, I thought it'd be great to read this and to give you a bit of background on Australian bushrangers, ok? So, let's get into it.

So, bushrangers were originally escaped convicts in the early years of the British settlement of Australia, who used the Australian bush as a refuge to hide from the authorities. By the 1820s, the term 'bushranger' had evolved to refer to those who took up robbery under arms as a way of life, using the bush as their base. Bushranging thrived during the gold rush years of the 1850s and 1860s, when the likes of Ben Hall, Frank Gardner and John Gilbert led notorious gangs in the country districts of New South Wales. These wild colonial boys, mostly Australian born sons of convicts, were roughly analogous to British highwaymen and outlaws of the American Old West, and their crimes typically included robbing small town banks and coach services.

In other infamous cases, such as that of Dan Morgan, the Clark Brothers, and Australia's best known bushranger, Ned Kelly, numerous policemen were murdered. The number of bushrangers declined due to better policing and improvements in rail transport and communication technology, such as telegraphy, the telegraph machine, right? Although Bushrangers appeared sporadically into the early 20th century, most historians regard Kelly's capture and execution in 1880 as effectively representing the end of the bushranging era. Bushranging exerted a powerful influence in Australia, lasting for almost a century and predominating in the eastern colonies, with several notable bushrangers operating elsewhere on the continent.

Its origins in a convict system bred a unique kind of desperado most frequently with an Irish political background. Native born Bushrangers also expressed nascent Australian nationalist views and are recognised as the first distinctively Australian characters to gain general recognition. As such, a number of bushrangers became folk heroes and symbols of rebellion against the authorities, admired for their bravery, rough chivalry and colourful personalities. However, in stark contrast to romantic portrayals in the arts and popular culture, bushrangers tended to lead lives that were nasty, brutish and short. While some were notorious for their cruelty and bloodthirst. Australian attitudes towards bushrangers remain complex and ambivalent, and this is definitely true. So, as a Segway guys here, I'm just talking, obviously not reading off the article, bushrangers are very romanticised now in Australia where people think of Ned Kelly as a hero, you know, you'll see people wearing Ned Kelly T-shirts or having stickers on their cars, you know, it's on brands.

I actually played for a little kids basketball team when I was a kid up in the Dandenong Ranges, the mountains outside Melbourne, that was called the Bushrangers, right? It was called the Olinda Bushrangers.

So, they are definitely romanticised today. The average person is probably going to have a positive view of bushrangers like Ned Kelly. But when you really read into it, they were quite often, well, criminals, right? Murderous criminals who, through no fault of their own, sometimes ended up in these horrible situations, but through their choices ended up committing some horrible acts. So, yeah, that's just a little bit on, I guess, contemporary viewing of what bushrangers are. So, let's go through the etymology.

The earliest documented use of the term appears in a February 1805 issue of the Sydney Gazette, which reports that "a cart had been stopped between Sydney and Hawkesbury by three men whose appearance sanction the suspicion of their being bushrangers.".

John Big described a bushranging in 1821 as 'absconding in the woods and living upon plunder and the robbery of orchards'. And even Charles Darwin weighed in on this and said that 'a bushranger was an open villain who subsists by highway robbery and will sooner be killed than taken alive'.

So, let's go through a little bit of history.

Over 2000 bushrangers are estimated to have roamed the Australian countryside, beginning with the convict bolters and drawing to a close after Ned Kelly's last stand at Glenrowan.

'Bolter' here is like someone who runs away, right? A horse bolts if it gets scared. So, you might say that, too, to say run really fast, you know? I've got to bolt. I've got to leave. I've got to run away, I've got to bolt, I just bolted.

Convict era: 1780s to the 1840s. Bushranging began soon after British settlement with the establishment of New South Wales as a penal colony in 1788. The majority of early bushrangers were convicts who had escaped prison or from the properties of landowners to whom they had been assigned as servants. These bushrangers, also known as 'bolters' preferred the hazards of wild unexplored bushland surrounding Sydney to the deprivation and brutality of convict life.

The first notable bushranger, African convict John Caeser, robbed settlers for food and kept a tempestuous alliance with Aboriginal resistance fighters during Pemulwuy's war.

Now, was a side note here, Pemulwuy was a... obviously a resistance fighter, an Aboriginal resistance fighter, and he is one of the most famous early Aboriginals during the communist period because he led quite a successful series of sort of guerrilla warfare skirmishes against the colony in Sydney. So, definitely look up Pemulwuy if you're interested in that sort of stuff. Let's continue.

While other bushrangers would go on to fight alongside indigenous Australians in frontier conflicts with the colonial authorities, the government tried to bring an end to any such collaboration by rewarding Aborigines for returning convicts to custody. Aboriginal trackers would play a significant role in the hunt for bushrangers. Colonel Godfrey Mundy described convict bushrangers as 'desperate, hopeless, fearless, rendered so perhaps by the tyranny of a jailer, of an overseer or of a master to whom he had been assigned'. Edward Smith Hall, editor of early Sydney newspaper The Monitor, agreed that the convict system was a breeding ground for bushrangers due to its savagery. With starvation and acts of torture being rampant. 'Liberty or death!' was the cry of the convict bushrangers, and in large numbers they roamed beyond Sydney, some hoping to reach China, which was commonly believed to be connected by an overland route.

Side note here, remember too, guys, during this period of Sydney being settled and a few of these other colonies on the east coast of Australia, the rest of Australia, the interior, let alone the circumference of Australia, right? The coast all around Australia hadn't been mapped, so people didn't know what was there for a long time. They thought that China was connected to Australia. They thought there was an inland sea, so it wasn't fully explored for maybe another hundred years. Let's continue on.

Some bolters seized boats and set sail for foreign lands, but most were hunted down and brought back to Australia. Others attempted to inspire an overhaul of the convict system or simply sought revenge on their captors. This latter desire found expression in the convict ballad 'Jim Jones at Botany Bay', in which Jones, the narrator, plans to join bushranger Jack Donahue and gun the floggers down. Donahue was the most notorious of the early New South Wales Bushrangers, terrorising settlements outside Sydney from 1827 until he was fatally shot by a trooper in 1830.

That same year, west of the Blue Mountains, convict Ralph Entwistle sparked a bushranging insurgency known as the Bathurst Rebellion. He and his gang raided farms, liberating assigned convicts by force in the process, and within a month, his personal army numbered 130 bushrangers. Following gun battles with vigilante posses, mounted police and soldiers of the 39th and 57th Regiment of Foot, he and nine of his men were captured and executed.

Convict bushrangers were particularly prevalent in the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land, now the state of Tasmania. Established in 1803, the island's most powerful bushranger, the self-styled lieutenant governor of the woods, Michael Howe, led a gang of up to 100 members in what amounted to a civil war with the colonial government. His control over large swathes of the island prompted elite squatters from Hobart and Launceston to collude with him, and for six months in 1815, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Davey, fearing a convict uprising, declared martial law in an effort to suppress Howe's influence. Most of the gang had either been captured or killed by 1818, the year soldiers shot Howe dead.

Vandemonian bushranging, I like that word, Vandemonian, right, 'of Van Diemen's Land', Vandemonian bushranging peaked in the 1820s with hundreds of bolters at large. Among the most notorious being Mathew Brady's gang and cannibal serial killers Alex Pearce and Thomas Jeffries.

Man, side note again, definitely look up the bushranger, Alex Pearce. This guy was interesting to boot, so I think he arrived in the early 1800s as a convict, could be the late-1700s too, but he ends up escaping with a group of men into the bush in Tasmania. They run out of food, and Alex Pearce and Tom Jeffries end up eating everyone who escaped with them, right? And they're the only survivors. There's a really interesting movie out on that topic, he ends up going to jail, escapes again and eats another guy. So, Alex Pearce, the cannibal convict of Australia, of Van Diemen's Land, Tasmania, definitely has an interesting story. Let's keep going.

Originally a New South Wales bushranger, Jackie Jackie, the alias of William Westwood, was sent to Van Diemen's Land in 1842 after attempting to escape Cockatoo Island. In 1843, he escaped Port Arthur and took up bushranging in Tasmania's mountains, but was recaptured and sent to Norfolk Island, where as leader of the 1846 Cooking Pot Uprising, he murdered three constables and was hanged along with 16 of his men. So, you've probably seen by now that quite often most of these convicts die at the end of a rope.

The era of convict bushrangers gradually faded with the decline in penal transportations to Australia in the 1840s. It had ceased by the 1850s to all colonies except Western Australia, which accepted convicts between 1850 and 1868. The best known convict bushranger of the colony was the prolific escapee Moondyne Joe.

The Gold Rush era (1850s to 1860s). The Bushrangers' heyday was the gold rush years of the 1850s and 1860s as the discovery of gold gave bushrangers access to great wealth that was portable and easily converted to cash. Their task was assisted by the isolated location of the Goldfields and a police force decimated by troopers abandoning their duties to join the gold rush. So, as a side note, the gold rush during this period was where they found a lot of gold, mainly in Victoria, in places like Bendigo and Ballarat, and heaps of people rushed to those areas to try to make it rich. Ironically, the people who made most of the money were the people selling the gear to these gold prospectors, right? Selling the shovels, selling the pans, everything like that. So, in these sorts of times, better to sell the stuff that people want, as opposed to go searching for things like gold, right? Let's keep going.

George Melville was hanged in front of a large crowd for robbing the McIvor Gold Escort near Castlemaine in 1853. Bushranging numbers flourished in New South Wales with the rise of the colonial born sons of poor, often ex-convicts squatters who were drawn to a more glorious life than mining or farming. Much of the activity in this era was in the Lachlan Valley around Forbes, Yass and Cowra. Frank Gardner, John Gilbert and Ben Hall led the most notorious gangs of the period.

Other active bushrangers included Dan Morgan, based in the Murray River. Captain Thunderbolt, the alias of Frederick Ward, robbed inns and mail coaches across northern New South Wales for six and a half years, one of the longest careers of any bushranger. He sometimes operated alone, at other times, he led gangs and was accompanied by his Aboriginal wife, Mary Ann Bugg, who is credited with helping extend his career. Ward was fatally shot by a policeman in 1870, and with his death, the New South Wales Bushranging epidemic that began in the 1860s came to an end.

Decline and the Kelly gang - the 1870s and 1880s: the increasing push of settlement, increased police efficiency, improvement in rail, transport and communications technologies such as telegraphy made it more difficult for bushrangers to evade capture. The scholarly but eccentric Captain Moonlite, the alias of Andrew George Scott, worked as an Anglican lay reader before turning to Bushranging. Imprisoned in Ballarat for an armed bank robbery on the Victorian Goldfields, he escaped, but was soon recaptured and received a 10 year sentence in H.M. Prison Pentridge. Interesting, he didn't get hanged. Within a year of his release in 1879, he and his gang held up the town of Wantabadgery in the Riverina. Two of the gang, including Moonlite's soulmate and alleged lover James Nesbitt and one trooper were killed when the police attacked. Scott was found guilty of murder and hanged along with one of his accomplices on the 20th of January, 1880. Spoke too soon, he was hanged.

Among the last bushrangers was the Kelly Gang, led by Ned Kelly, who were captured at Glenrowan in 1880, two years after they were outlawed.

So, you guys may or may not know, Ned Kelly is the most and famous Australian bushranger. He was active in the 1870s and 1880 when he was captured in and around the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Now, he had a gang with his brother and a few other men, and he's the most famous because he ends up building this army out of sheet metal that was incredibly heavy, but protected him from being shot when he had it out with the police. He had an incredibly short but interesting sort of life and was kind of loved by the public, who also kind of helped keep the police away from him. However, he ended up being betrayed by a teacher, who I think he had captured, but this guy escapes and tells the police that Ned Kelly and the gang had disrupted the railway tracks. They had broken it apart to try and cause a derailment of the train and kill something like 50 troopers or maybe even 100 troopers that were coming to stop the Kelly gang.

They end up actually putting the train tracks back together, successfully getting there, having a shoot out with Ned Kelly burning the inn down where he is and hit two of his gang members, I think, including his brother, end up shooting themself or burning alive. Ned gets caught and I think he was shot probably 20 something times, but obviously not lethally because of the armour he was wearing and he ends up getting hanged.

Yeah, definitely check out Ned Kelly story, it's incredibly interesting one and it is sort of a grey area. He seems to be this criminal bad character, but at the same time, you kind of see that he is a a victim of his circumstances and his time. Anyway, let's keep going.

Isolated outbreaks 1890s to the 1900s: in 1900, the indigenous governor brothers much of northern New South Wales.

Boy Bushrangers - 1910s to 1920s: the final phase of Bushranging was sustained by the so-called 'boy bushrangers', youths who sought to commit crimes, mostly armed robberies modelled on the exploits of their bushranging heroes. The majority were captured alive without any fatalities.

Public perception: in Australia, bushrangers often attract public sympathy. Seen as social bandits in Australian history and iconography, bushrangers are held in some esteem in some quarters due to the harshness and anti-Catholicism of the colonial authorities whom they embarrassed and the romanticism of the lawlessness they represented.

Some bushrangers, most notably Ned Kelly in his Jerilderie letter and in his final raid on Glenrowan, explicitly represented themselves as political rebels. Attitudes to Kelly, by far the most well-known bushranger, exemplify this ambivalent view of Australians regarding bushranging legacy. The impact of bushrangers upon the areas in which they roamed is evidenced in the names of many geographical features in Australia, including Brady's Lookout, Moondyne Cave, Mount Tennant, Thunderbolts Way, and Ward's Mistake. The districts of North East Victoria, unofficially known as Kelly Country. Some bushrangers made a mark on Australian literature. While running from soldiers in 1818, Michael Howe dropped a knapsack containing a self-made book of kangaroo skin and written in kangaroo blood. In it was a dream diary and plans for a settlement he intended to found in the bush sometime. Bushranger Frances McNamara, also known as 'Frank the poet', wrote some of the best known poems of the convict era. Several convict bushrangers also wrote autobiographies, including Jackie Jackie, Martin Cash, and Owen Suffolk.

So, that's it for today's episode, guys. I would love to know from you what you think of bushrangers. Were they misunderstood heroes or were they murderous criminals? Definitely look into Ned Kelly as well as Alexander Pearce as these guys far away have the most interesting stories of convict and bushranger life in Australia. So, with that, guys, thanks for joining me, I hope you enjoyed the episode. Don't forget to check out all of my courses, the premium podcast and my Academy at and I will see you next time. Peace!

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