Prevalent across Australia, politicians, social commentators, entertainers, and media personalities use the term “unaustralian” to reproach and humiliate anyone who opposes their claims and opinions. This is an offensive, thoughtless, and arrogant tactic for avoiding debate and demands total annulment as it is a form of abuse that strikes at the core of who we are as Australians. It is also historically ignorant and socially divisive.
The problem is that there is no clear consensus on the term ‘australian’, which opens it up to misuse and corruption. Put simply, the question of “what does it mean to be Australian” requires clarification and hopefully definition so that we can move forward from some of the issues raised in my previous essay (10/11/15).
A brief reflection on the atypical life of Ned Kelly may unearth the essential attributes that define the ‘australian’ character.
For some, it will seem incongruous to have chosen such an individual. Why not observe the life of the likes of a Winston Churchill or an Abraham Lincoln, or a Nelson Mandela for example?
The problem is that it is remarkably difficult to find Australian exemplars from which to derive inspiration for identifying a set of characteristics and attributes that encapsulate the pure essence of what it means to be ‘australian’. Edward “Weary” Dunlop, born in the same district as Ned, is a definite contender and will be the subject of another essay. Steve Irwin is also a suitable candidate for a later discussion.
For now, I (counterintuitively) look to the words, actions, and deeds of an outlaw who became an Australian legend. The attributes he displayed exerted an undeniable effect on our collective psyche over the course of the past one hundred and thirty years.
There is no question that Ned Kelly and his gang shot and killed three Victorian police (many claim in self-defence). There also no doubt that he held up and robbed two banks (without firing a shot). Prior to these transgressions, Ned was involved in petty crime, mainly horse and cattle theft. Clearly, there were tangible reasons he was declared an outlaw with a price on his head.
It is equally true that Ned was unfairly abused and harassed by the Victorian police from a very young age.
In 1841, his Irish born father John Kelly was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for stealing pigs. He served six of his seven year sentence in Tasmania. In 1865, he was gaoled for six months for “unlawful possession of a hide”. One year after his release, John Kelly died of dropsy in December 1866. Ned was almost 12 years old.
His mother, now a widow, had seven children to support without a breadwinner. This role fell to Ned, which forced him to leave school where he excelled in all subjects and activities. Ned took on any task he could find to earn money to keep his family alive.
The problems Ned faced were substantial, particularly given his age.
For a start, there were overt tensions between the squatters (the landowners /aristocracy who either leased under generous terms or owned most of the best farming land), and the small selectors (land allotments allocated by the Crown priced at £1 per acre plus rent for seven years) of which the Kelly family was one of many.
Selectors were expected to carry out small scale cropping as opposed to the large scale grazing of cattle and sheep that was the reserve of the squatters. Success in this type of intensive farming was constantly undermined by quickly exhausted soils and harsh climates. The requirement to farm crops placed selectors at direct odds with the squatters.
The squatters were able to manipulate the political, legal, and financial systems to access and control the best land adjacent to rivers and creeks. As a result, many selectors were financially ruined. To make matters worse, Australia was under British rule, which naturally perpetuated the oppression Irish immigrants had suffered before leaving Ireland.
Few selectors had sufficient capital to counter such underhanded bigotries. Many struggled to survive and had to work part-time shearing, ring-barking, horse breaking, cattle mustering, fencing, and on occasion cattle-duffing (theft). Ned was no exception. It was around this time that the police openly referred to his family as the “Kelly gang”.
So for Ned, a series of altercations with the law naturally ensued. In one incident, Ned was sentenced to three years hard labour in Pentridge Gaol for receiving a stolen mare (of which he was unaware). In another, local trooper Senior Constable Hall attempted to shoot Ned and later pistol-whipped him. When Ned was arrested for ‘riding across a footpath and drunkenness’ (Ned rarely drank alcohol), several police savagely beat him while on their way to court. During the fracas, Constable Lonigan grabbed Ned by his ‘privates’ and squeezed so hard it caused permanent injury.
In what is known as the Jerilderie Letter, Ned depicts the nature of the cruel beatings he was subjected to at the hands of the police: I dare not strike any of them as I was bound to keep the peace or I could have spread those curs like dung in a paddock. They got ropes, tied my hands and feet and Hall beat me over the head with his six chambered colt revolver. Nine stitches were put in some of the cuts by Dr Hastings. And, when Wild Wright and my mother came they could trace us across the street by the blood in the dust and which spoiled the lustre of the paint on the gate-post of the Barracks Hall.
Superintendent Nicholson openly declared the tensions between the Kellys and the law: ‘The Kelly gang must be rooted out of the neighbourhood and sent to Pentridge Gaol, even on a paltry sentence. This would be a good way of taking the flashness out of them’.
Thereafter, the ‘Fitzpatrick’ incident triggered a turning point for the Kellys. Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick attempted to arrest Dan Kelly at the family home. A fight ensued and Fitzpatrick claimed that Kelly’s mother assaulted him and Ned had shot him in the wrist. There was good reason to question these claims as Ned was reported to be in NSW at the time. Fitzpatrick also made a drunken pass at Ned’s sister Kate Kelly.
Even though she was breastfeeding a young baby, Mrs Kelly was sentenced to three years hard labour at the Melbourne gaol. At the time, she had three young children to care for.
Ned naturally swore vengeance for the actions of the police.
Ned and Dan offered to surrender to the police if their mother was released, but they were refused. Instead, the police increased their efforts to apprehend the Kelly gang and the government announced a £100 reward each for Ned and Dan.
Needless to say, the brothers disappeared from the district overnight. By the time the siege took place at Glenrowan Inn, the rewards had grown to £8000 – a substantial fortune by today’s standards.
Ned’s relationship with the police quickly deteriorated to unreserved hostility. Among the many incidents on record, three stand out. The first was the Stringybark Creek confrontation in which three policemen were killed (the evidence indicated the police intended to take Ned and Dan back to Mansfield dead).
The gang also carried out two successful bank robberies, the proceeds of which supported families whose men were wrongfully held in custody by police for months without trial. Finally, the disastrous last stand at the Glenrowan Inn marked the end of Ned’s days as an outlaw.
The Glenrowan Inn siege was planned as a rebellion against the malevolent police harassment of alleged Kelly associates and sympathisers. In exchange for the hostages he had taken, Ned intended to demand the release of several prisoners, including his mother, and to declare the region the Republic of North East Victoria.
During the siege, the police in their unrestrained zeal to capture Ned, showed no regard for the innocent and killed three of the hostages (one woman and two children). Some police also fired at hostages as they tried to flee from the hotel.
In an attempt to rescue his brother Dan and gang member Steve Hart, Ned, heavily laden with his now famous plough share armour, confronted the thirty strong police contingent head on, firing towards them with pistols as he advanced. By the time the 30 minute gunfight was over, Ned had suffered the impact of 28 bullets. One of the police set fire to the inn. Dan Kelly’s and Steve Hart’s incinerated bodies were later found in a back room.
I had the opportunity to visit Glenrowan on the 13th of November, 2015 (the day of the Paris attacks). I stood in front of the Glenrowan Inn sign and was able to retrace the pathway Ned had painfully traversed as he confronted the hostile police detachment.
I imagined the debilitating fear he had to control and the enormous courage it must have taken to withstand the barrage of bullets that dented his armour and tore into his arms and legs. I could almost taste the bitter, unrestrained hatred and contempt the police harboured for Ned and his gang. Why else would they have killed innocent hostages and weighed Ned down with twenty-eight bullets?
One of the posts marking the pathway I followed that day pointed to where a pistol was found. I later read that it is still possible to find empty shell cases buried in the ground.
Far more than twenty-eight bullets were fired during that horrific thirty minutes of uninhibited enmity. How many bullets are reasonable to subdue one man?
I saw the ground where Ned had collapsed against a log and felt some of his pain and exhaustion. I looked inside one of the dingy lockups he was confined in on one the many false attempts to convict him. In a small measure, I also grasped something of the anger and angst and frustration Ned must have endured during those unimaginably terrifying thirty minutes and the events prior to that fateful day.
One does not have to be a trained psychologist to work out how such experiences would have shaped his views on life and permanently hardened his rebellious, anti-authoritarian stance.
In less emotive terms, Ned was an ordinary man (not unlike many of us today), subjected to extraordinary circumstances, surviving in an environment where there was no justice or fairness. It was a world where the authorities extended no care or understanding of the needs of ordinary people and were able to exercise cruelty and control without accountability and compassion. How many of us might have taken the same path?
Despite the deluge of hardship and oppression that marked his life, Ned at the age of 10 had also saved the life of a boy named Richard Sheldon who almost drowned in the flooded waters of Hughes Creek. Ned was highly honoured for this remarkable deed and consequently held in great esteem as a hero by the local community.
Moreover, while holed up at Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges, after the Stringybark Creek incident, the Kelly boys and friends sluiced gold and operated a whiskey still to finance a new trial for Mrs Kelly. There was never any evidence to show that Ned intended to commit crimes while confined to the hideout.
In researching his life’s story, I could not help but to empathise with his perspective on life.
To pass Ned Kelly off as simply being no more than an outlaw who killed police and robbed banks is to perpetuate the hardship and paradox that he was subjected to while he was alive. In words attributed to Kelly himself: “If my lips teach the public that men are made mad by bad treatment … my life will not be entirely thrown away.”
There were overt signs that many had listened. Kelly was known as an Irish Catholic hero who was sentenced to hang by an Irish protestant judge. Five thousand people gathered in mourning outside the walls of Melbourne’s Pentridge Gaol as the hanging took place.
The records also show that he was self-educated, articulate, and the author of several eloquent letters. To the many that knew him, he was a man of considerable inner strength and courage who resolutely refused to concede to injustice. He was a folk hero who defended the downtrodden and oppressed (32,000 people signed a petition to save him from the gallows).
Here is another salient point to contemplate: Nowhere did I read that Ned Kelly was a bitter man, or a cruel man, or even a harsh or unreasonable or uncaring man.
Everything I read reveals the opposite. Somehow, through adversity, deprivation, alienation, heartbreak, and vilification, Ned held on to his values and beliefs, and displayed dignity, eloquence, courage, insight, and compassion right up to the moment he died.
A web search leaves no doubt that Ned Kelly has become an integral part of the mythology of the Australian bush: The prevailing wellspring of mateship, equality, egalitarianism, courage, and fearless strength. A profusion of hits attest to the widespread belief that Ned Kelly possessed many of the virtues consistently ascribed to the Australian persona such as courage, persistence, openness, tolerance, and love of one’s country.
More universally, there is a steadfast perception that Australians uphold a strong work ethic, are vivacious, convivial, carefree, sociable, and confident. For me, what should be foremost on the list is that of displaying loyalty, fairness, support, sacrifice, and understanding when it is needed most. The notions of ‘mateship’ and ‘fair go’ apply here: Qualities that directly apply to Ned.
We now discern the beginnings of a list of traits that all of us could aspire to; particularly in today’s unwelcome atmosphere of uncertainty, misinformation, unbridled uniformed opinion, false accusations, and relentless fear-mongering.
If we could all agree that this list of attributes epitomise what it means to be Australian, then perhaps we have a sound basis for articulating what the term ‘australian’ actually means. Conversely, assuming there is agreement, we will have a powerful response to refute the unwanted and unwarranted references to the distasteful term ‘unaustralian’.
In a contemporary vein, not one hundred yards away from where the siege occurred, on the walls of a restroom, are pencilled the words “Go home if you are not happy. No Muslims in Australia! This is our country go home!”. While this message does not convey complete accuracy, the essence is clear. Reverse cultural discrimination, overt government hypocrisy, and escalating terrorism are not acceptable in Australia.
What would Ned think of the disingenuous, weak, and appeasing manner in which our politicians and authorities are handling immigration and the threat of terrorism? Instead, they instil fear and spread misinformation to slowly, but surely take away our hard won rights and privileges that generations before us fought for through sacrifice, suffering, and the courageous shedding of their blood. Is this not an abuse of Ned’s legacy? Has much changed since his day? Finally, how is any of this ‘australian’?
The task of conveying a viewpoint based on the recorded life of an outlaw is to invite criticism on the accuracy of the source material and to provoke questions on the validity of the interpretations made in the process. Few historical Australian figures have generated the amount of controversy and division as has Ned Kelly. I am aware for example, that some accounts claim Kelly to be a ruthless psychopath. However, many other accounts paint an opposite impression.
The story of Ned Kelly is not a simple one in that it is also about his family, the police, the squatters, the government, and the community where he lived. All played a significant role in the tragedy that exemplified his life. Thus, the focus of this essay should not simply be on the fact that committed several unlawful crimes.
I put a great deal of time into reading a wide range of published work and exercised care to glean the most consistent and telling events. My rule of thumb was to allow a reported action to speak for itself rather than rely on words and opinion. For example, Ned’s actions made it clear that he cared a great deal for his mother and siblings. It is also evident that on many occasions he first acted to avoid inciting violence and killing. We will never know whether the Kelly gang deliberately murdered the three policemen at Stringybark Creek, or if they reacted in self-defence.
I realise I have stepped out on a limb on this topic and emphasise that historical accounts are rarely balanced and generally favour or disfavour an individual if perceived as either a winner or a loser, a hero or a coward, law-abiding or a criminal. Only the victor is favoured when recording the story. Then again, Ned’s words, deeds, and actions reveal another.
A special tribute to the late Larry Pickering 18 October 1942 – 19 November 2018
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