Exploring the Bushrangers, or the Wild Colonial Boys of the Riverina district is a fascinating history and journey. Primarily operating on the mainland Aus’ between 1850 & 1870 the history of bushrangers however goes back to the very early settlements of mainland Aus’ and Tasmania and on into the early days of Federation in the 1900’s.
I have a few ‘bushrangers’ sprinkled through our family history, none overly famous for their bush-ranging years but all, at times, ranged through the bush. Most were merely trying to survive colonial life and a few found themselves in gaol.
The most notorious in our family were the Charles brothers. Rob and Peter (Lovey) CHARLES who came out as convict children/youths in the 1830’s and grew up in the ‘Boy’s Prison’ of Port Puer which was part of Port Arthur (Tasmania). Once let free, having served their time, being barely into their 20’s they found survival in the settlement of Hobart Town a trial, so they took to the bush.
For two years Rob and Peter ran with the bushrangers & bushmen, (including cross-cultural aboriginal youths who found no place in the towns or tribes) until they ‘got done’ for stealing sheep from Richmond Town, nearby Hobart. This bought them passage, after their trial, to the notorious convict settlement/gaol of Norfolk Island, along with compatriots Martin Cash, Larry Kavenagh & William Westwood (Jacky Jacky) and others. At the time Norfolk Island was under the govern age of the noted sadist Major Joseph Childs.
In July 1846, William Westwood (alias Jacky Jacky) was tried for murder after the ‘Cooking Pot Riot’ on Norfolk Island and sentenced to death. The letter he sent to the Governor of the time aptly depicts the life of the convict Bushranger:
From a letter written by Wm. Westwood (Jacky Jacky) who was hung for the murder of John Morris in matters relating to the Cooking Pot Riot of 1846.
“I was tried and sent to Norfolk Island and this place is now worse than I can describe. Every species of petty tyranny that long experience has taught some of these tyrants, is put in force by the authorities. The men are half-starved, hard worked and cruelly flogged. These things brought on the affair of the first of July, of which you have no doubt heard. I would send you the whole account, but that I know you will have it from better hands than mine. I am sorry that this will give you great pain, as there are several of the men that have been under your charge at Port Arthur concerned in this affair..
Sir, on the 21st of September 1846, Mr Brown arrived in the Island with commission to form a Court. Fourteen men were then arraigned for the murder of John Morris, that was formerly gate-keeper at Port Arthur. This trial occupied the court nine days. The Jury retired and returned a verdict and found twelve of the fourteen guilty of murder. On the 5th of Oct the sentence of death was then passed on us, and to be carried into effect on the 13th Oct 1846. Sir the strong ties of earth will soon be wrenched, and the burning fever will be leaven-a resting place for me, William Westwood.
Sir, out of the better cup of misery I have drunk from my sixteenth year – ten long years, and the sweetest draught is that which takes away the misery of living death. It is the friend that deceives no man : all will then be quiet, no tyrant will then disturb my repose, I hope. Wm. Westwood.
Sir I now bid the world adieu and all its contains
A Bushranger was not always a ex-convict, nor even a male, There were such as The Lady Bushranger, Jessie Hickman who turned to bush-ranging to survive, and there were those who joined other Bushrangers and learnt the trade of survival. Musquito was another bushranger who was also an Aboriginal guerrilla fighter during the frontier wars of the 1800’s, therefore classifying his acts as merely criminal acts of war or acts of Bush-ranging is complex.
Another bushranger was Mary Cockeril or Black Mary also of Aboriginal culture (The Mouheneener people/family of Nipalunaa (Hobart)). So to be a bushranger you were merely attempting to survive outside the confines of a settlement or your society, for whatever reason.
An outlaw though was another matter. An Outlaw was a legal term (of the 1870’s) that encompassed those who had been declared “exempt from the protection of the law” by the government. People declared outlaws had thirty days to turn themselves in before the declaration took full effect, after which time they could be killed without provocation and the killer would be entitled to the reward offered for the outlaw. To be ‘outlawed’ you generally need to have killed someone, and as such you were hunted.
Although the Outlaw was commonly named as a Bushranger, they were not merely what was frequently referred to, early in our colonial history, as ‘bolters’ or escaped convicts. And then there were those who choose to go ‘rogue’ from society in general… today all are now historically and generally all termed as bushrangers.
A favourite Australian Movie (Free to Air) of mine is the Channel 7 series The Wild Boys, Set in 1860’s Outback NSW it is a good depiction of survival in colonial Australia. It begs the question…
Just what is it that makes a Bushranger?
Well it seems .. not much .. a want to survive is all that was required though the legend of the bushranger lives on in Australian History. A fearful bloke, capable of both generosity and evil. Yet an Australian colonial legend non the less.