The first Australian bushrangers were Englishmen and Irishmen - convicts transported to the penal settlements of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. Here, in the language of the day, they had bolted and taken to the bush.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie issued a proclamation in 1814 about bushrangers which spoke of them as men who had "unlawfully absconded and fled from their usual Habitations and Employments... into the Woods and retired Places... with intent to support and maintain themselves by Rapine and Violence... Idleness and Debauchery."
But the convicts did not call them unlawful absconders; they sang of them as men who "scorned to live in slavery or wear the convict chain." And the poverty-stricken dungaree settlers did not care that they supported themselves by rapine, but sang in their praise because they robbed "the robber rich men." As for violence, the bushrangers were slow to kill when compared with their fellow bandits of other lands and other times. Though perhaps, in the end, many of them felt like the bushranger who said from the dock of a court in Sydney, in 1839: "I've been all over the country in my time without taking the life of anyone. I've been baited like a bulldog and I'm only sorry now I didn't shoot every tyrant in New South Wales."
|The Sydney Herald Friday 17 May 1839 (Ben Hall trial)|
As the generation of convict bushrangers began to die out, their place was taken by a new generation of young men - native born and bush bred. Some of them were the sons of convicts. Some of them took to the bushranging trade readily and early. Some of them drifted, or were pushed, into bushranging only after early trouble with the law over less serious crimes than robbery-under-arms; often, over cattle duffing or other forms of stock stealing. The stealing of stock was naturally regarded as a crime deserving harsh punishment by the wealthy graziers who suffered from it most. But to bush workers and dungaree settlers it hardly seemed a crime at all - especially since the fortune of many a wealthy squatting family was founded, often enough in fact and even more often in folklore, by a cattle duffing ancestor.
James Macarthur, a wealthy landowner of Lachlan Macquarie's day, pointed out of the bushrangers that "the sympathies of the numerical majority of the inhabitants are in favour of the criminals, whom they would rather screen from punishment, than deliver over to justice." So it remained until the day when Ned Kelly - last of the famous bushrangers - was hanged in Melbourne in 1880, amidst the fears of some respectable citizens that his sympathisers would raise a revolt.
From Gary Shearston LP
Bolters, Bushrangers & Duffers
Album Notes by Edgar Waters (1965)