Early Australian bushrangers
McFarlane & Erskine, Gold escort attacked by bushrangers, 187-, print: lithograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an8420450.
Bushranging – living off the land and being supported by or stealing from free settlers – was either chosen as a preferred way of life by escaped convicts or was a result of the lack of supplies in the early settlements. Australia's bushranging period spanned nearly 100 years, from the first convict bushrangers active from 1790 to the 1860s, through the outlawed bushrangers of the 1860s and 1870s who were able to be shot on sight, to the shooting of the Kelly Gang in 1880.
While many bushrangers had populist reputations for being 'Robin Hood' figures; some bushrangers were brutal and others harassed the gold escorts and diggers returning from the goldfields. The popularity of bushrangers and their ethos of 'fight before surrender' was commemorated in bush songs and folklore.
Bushranging began soon after the British colonisation of Australia. The bush surrounding the settlement was unexplored, but this did not deter the desperate convicts from escaping – happy in their aim to make their way to Batavia (now the city of Jakarta on the island of Java, Indonesia) or China. While some perished, others joined up with Indigenous people and others took to bushranging.
In the early days of Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania), the settlement was faced with starvation due to the failure of supply ships to arrive. In 1805, authorities released several convicts, gave them arms and sent them into the bush to survive from hunting. Many learnt to survive and joined others. In the early days, a man could also choose to give himself in, receive the mandatory 50 lashes and be back in the system to serve the rest of his time. Later, bushrangers usually suffered the death penalty after capture.
The first bushrangers, 1790s–1820s
The first bushranger was John Caesar (alias Black Caesar), a former West Indian Negro slave and petty thief. Black Caesar escaped into the bush in 1790 with a musket where he later joined five or six other escaped convicts. This was the first of many attempts by Black Caesar, who survived by hunting and fishing in the bush as well as receiving food and musket shot provided by sympathetic settlers. Black Caesar's repeated escapes caused Governor John Hunter to offer a reward of five gallons of rum, which eventually resulted in him being captured and shot.
Convicts who bolted to the bush were also often helped by settlers or farmers sympathetic to their plight. Among the farmers were many ex-convicts who had served their terms and been granted a ticket-of-leave.
Wrongful arrests and improper practices by local police also played a part in driving men to bushranging. It could be said that these men had nothing at all to lose, even if being outlawed meant living in constant fear and desperation.
Martin Cash – 'The only bushranger to die in his own bed', 1820–1840s
J W Beattie (1859-1930), Portrait of Martin Cash, 18--, photograph: b&w. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-vn3290545.
Martin Cash was convicted in county Cork, in 1820, for jealously firing at a suitor to his young mistress. Soon after arriving in Botany Bay in 1828, he was working as a farmhand, innocently branding cattle, when he was told that the cattle were stolen. Cash immediately left for Van Dieman's Land with his partner Bessie Clifford. Twelve months later, after two false accusations which were dismissed in court, he was convicted for beating the arresting officer and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.
After two unsuccessful attempts at escape which added years to his sentence, Cash finally escaped and formed one of the marauding gangs in Van Dieman's Land – committing 'hold-ups, shootings, robberies, fights and brawls'. Eventually, after they falsely arrested Bessie, he was lured into Hobart town where he was captured.
Bushranger to constable, 1850s–1878
Sent to Norfolk Island, Cash became a model prisoner and served only 10 years of his life sentence before he was released. While on Norfolk Island, he married Mary Bennett with whom he returned to Tasmania. Norfolk Island was closed down and its prisoners transferred to Tasmania. Cash was made a constable in July 1854, and on 19 September was granted his ticket-of-leave.
Back in Tasmania, he was appointed as overseer of the gardeners in the Government Domain and built a house on 160 acres of land at Glenorchy. Unfortunately, their only son Martin, born in 1855, died of rheumatic fever in 1871. Cash was said to have died of a broken heart in 1878 in his own bed.
'Bold' Jack Donohoe 'The last of the convict outlaws', 1825–1830s
One of the most famous bushrangers was 'Bold' Jack Donohoe, known as the 'Wild Colonial Boy'.
Soon after being transported to Botany Bay from Dublin in 1825, Jack Donohoe took up with two other Irish convicts, robbing bullock drays on the Windsor Road, west of Sydney. Donohoe escaped his hanging after he broke free from the court. Donohoe and a new gang of Irish and English escaped convicts ranged across the Liverpool, Parramatta and Windsor districts, eventually extending as far as Bathurst in the west, Yass to the south and the Hunter River to the north.
Donohoe's gang robbed in the 'Robin Hood' style, taking from the rich and fencing their booty through the poor settlers in the district. Once, upon recognising the explorer Charles Sturt, when robbing his farmhouse, they returned all his goods.
Donohoe endeared himself to ex-convicts and sympathetic settlers. Newspaper reports between 1827 and 1830 noted Donohoe and his gang as 'remarkably clean' bushmen, dressed in a raffish style. 'Bold' Jack was described as fitted out in 'black hat, superfine blue cloth coat lined with silk... plaited shirt... laced boots'.
When he was eventually shot and captured on 1 September 1830, Donohoe was noted as being 'five feet four in height, brown freckled complexion, flaxen hair and blue eyes'. On seeing the troopers, Donohoe was reported to have thrown his hat in the air and said 'Come on... we're ready'.
The Wild Colonial Boy
Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880), Bushranger's flight, 1856, print: lithograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an7150085.
'Bold' Jack Donohoe had several ballads penned to commemorate his exploits in NSW, and even several versions of the most famous bushranging ballad of them all – The Wild Colonial Boy. This song became Australia's first unofficial anthem and the anthem of the 19th century. This song was sung over and over again by generations of Australians until it was eventually banned for its 'seditious sentiment'. However, it would not die, and the name was changed to Jack Doolan, or Jim Doolan or John Dowling, and then the lyrics changed so that the real events were hardly recognised – becoming part of Australian folklore. Eventually the authorities had to give up in banning it being sung.
The ethos of the song is captured in the line: 'I'll fight but not surrender', cried the Wild Colonial Boy.
It is known that the Wild Colonial Boy was sung heartily in the Glenrowan Hotel, the night before Ned Kelly was captured in 1880 and later by striking shearers in Queensland during the strikes of the 1890s.
The gold diggings and Black Douglas, 1850s–1860s
George Lacy (1816-1878), Capture of bushrangers at night by gold police, c. 1852, watercolour. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an3103554.
After gold was discovered in 1851, first in Bathurst, NSW and then in the central Highlands of Victoria, bushrangers would hold up travellers and ask whether they were 'going up' or 'coming down'. It was common on the Bendigo and Ballarat for bushrangers to take into the bush anyone who was 'coming down', tie them to a tree and remove their gold receipts and cheques. The bushrangers then continued on down to Melbourne to cash the cheques and take possession of the gold.
In 1852, black trackers were brought in as native troops to tackle this practice of bushranging, as well as policing the gold diggings and escorting gold to Melbourne. Although they were very effective and popular they were disbanded in 1853.
Black Douglas was a notorious 'Mulatto Indian' who ran a bushranging operation between Melbourne and Bendigo. Hundreds of diggers made their way up this road daily. One traveller, recorded seeing 'sixteen poor fellows fastened to a log' by that 'notorious robber Black Douglas'. 1
Black Douglas's headquarters were three miles from the Alma goldfield near Maryborough, and his gang's method was to rob the diggers' empty tents during the day and the shops at night. Black Douglas and his gang were captured when the diggers, fed up with the thieving, surrounded their tents and burnt them to the ground. Douglas was overpowered only after he was wounded. He was carted to Maryborough with an escort of more than 200 miners.2
'Mad Dan' Morgan, 1855–1865
Frederick Grosse (1828-1894), Morgan at the Round Hill Station, c. 1864, print: wood engraving. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an8420460.
Daniel Morgan brought discredit to the popular 'currency heroes' by his mixture of violence, abuse and seemingly meaningless murders. Morgan claimed his innocence at his first conviction in 1854, at the diggings near Castlemaine, which he said was 'framed' by a squatter. During his time at Pentridge Prison, he developed a violent dislike for police. Upon his release, he began a campaign against society at large and the police in particular.
Morgan once took issue with an overseer's wife when the man was away on business, demanding money from her as he forced her against a blazing fire until she suffered severe burns to her legs. Morgan also tried to burn squatter Isaac Vincent by setting fire to his woolshed after he had tied Vincent to a nearby fence. After Morgan bailed up coaches, he would stampede the horses – sending them and their drivers to destruction.
Eventually he was shot and captured in 1865 after being outwitted by a nursemaid and station hand at Peelhelba Station near Wangaratta, owned by the McPhersons.
Fight before surrender
Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880), Troopers after bushrangers, 1871, watercolour. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: H5263.
Bushranging was said to be brought under control by the Felons Apprehension Act 1865 (NSW), which allowed anyone to shoot bushrangers without need of arrest and trial, introduced to curb the activities of Ben Hall and his gang in 1865.
Bushranging was said to have ended with the shooting of the Kelly Gang in 1880. The verses of the Wild Colonial Boy reflect the popularist reputations of the bushrangers and their ethos of 'fight before surrender'.
So come away me hearties
We'll roam the mountains high
Together we will plunder
And together we will die.
We'll scour along the valleys
And we'll gallop o'er the plains
And scorn to live in slavery,
Bound down by iron chains.
( The Wild Colonial Boy )
- National Museum Australia, Bushrangers
- 'Bold' Jack Donohoe
- John Caesar (Black Caesar)
- Ned Kelly
- Martin Cash
G Hocking, Bail Up! A Pictorial History of Australia's Most Notorious Bushrangers, Five Mile Press, Noble Park, 2002.
1. H Leversha, 'Letter to the Castlemaine Pioneers', 1880, in G Hocking, Bail Up! A Pictorial History of Australia's Most Notorious Bushrangers, Five Mile Press, Noble Park, 2002.
2. S Korzelinksi, Memories of Gold-digging in Australia, trans. and ed. by S Robe, University of QLD Press, St Lucia, 1979.
Last updated: 1 June 2015