THE story of Australian bushranging divides itself naturally into three periods — that of the runaway convicts whom the terrors of the “System” drove to seek escape from its cruelties in the bush; that which had its beginnings about the time of the gold discoveries, when the bushrangers were generally free men of an adventurous and lawless type who were tempted into crime by rich and poorly protected convoys of gold; and that which was concerned almost entirely with the exploits of Ned Kelly and his companions.

The earliest bushrangers were prisoners of the Crown who had escaped from assigned service, or from the iron-gangs employed in road-making and other public works, and had taken to the bush in order to avoid recapture.

THERE was little in the forest-clad wilds upon which they might support life, so they were compelled to resort to robbery as their only means of existence.

In his report to the House of Commons in 1822, Mr Commissioner Bigge, sent out to inquire into the public affairs of New South Wales, defined bushranging as “absconding in the woods, and living upon plunder and the robbery of orchards,” and that may still stand as a fairly apt description of the pioneers of the profession.

Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), being the gaol of twice-convicted and extra-refractory convicts, produced the earliest and most violent bushrangers, but they had at least one forerunner in New South Wales — the subject of this article — who made a name for himself in the very beginning of white settlement on Port Jackson, during the administration of the first Governor of the Territory, Captain Arthur Phillip, R.N.

It was not, however, until about the eighteen-twenties that bushranging on the mainland assumed anything like the proportions it had reached in the southern island in the first years of the nineteenth century. There it had its beginnings almost at the very start of settlement, and it was close upon half a century before the country ceased to be terrorised by more or less bloodthirsty gangs of freebooters, the scourge alike of settlers and aborigines.

The earlier bushrangers in New South Wales were rather loafers and “lead-swingers” than confirmed criminals. They usually sought a chance of slipping into the scrub whenever the vigilance of the sentries guarding them might be relaxed, and the wild nature of the country made it easy for them to getaway.

It seems almost unbelievable, but is nevertheless true, that large numbers of them fled into the Blue Mountains, or along the coastal strip northward, with a hope of reaching the Dutch East Indies, India, or China. Very few of them could read or write, and had only the most fantastic ideas relating to geography.

It has never been even vaguely computed how many of them perished in the mountain gorges or the coastal scrubs in making these desperate bids for liberty, but the number must have been very great.

The majority of them, however, only hoped to live free lives in the bush. A few joined the blacks and remained with them for years, whilst others merely wandered aimlessly about until hunger hunted them back to inevitable punishment and renewed penal slavery.

Many remained at large until recaptured, subsisting by robbing settlers. When a man became “fed up” with bushranging, he gave himself up and was flogged.

A second offence entailed twelve months in an iron-gang. Subsequent abscondings involved transportation, if re-taken, to the Coal River (Newcastle) or to Van Diemen’s Land.

(part of an article written by J.H.M. Abbott, novelist and poet.)


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