It is clear that Australians can’t get enough of crime and the outlaw lifestyle. Most recently, we’ve flocked to our televisions in great numbers to watch actors recreate the real events that constituted Melbourne’s Gangland Wars in prequel series set in the 1970s in even greater numbers and sit patiently waiting for the third, which will cover the corruption of the NSW police force. Walk into any Borders or chain bookstore and the “True Crime” section will take up two or three aisles. There is something in the Australian character that longs to witness or even indulge in lawbreaking acts of violence and theft.
The good news is that this is nothing new. We’re not letting down the side by suddenly devolving into a group of savages who enjoy watching Vince Colosimo beat some goon half to death. No, as long as there has been a geographical protruberance referred to as “Australia”, the inhabitants have delighted in the exploits of thieves, thugs, standover men and murderers.
John Caesar (or “Black Caesar” as he came to be known) was the first to take to the bush in search of a life of crime. A huge, hulking man built like the entire front row of the All Blacks, Caesar was a former Negro servant who was transported for theft. Arriving at Botany Bay in 1790, driven by hunger he stole an Aboriginal canoe and escaped into the surrounding bushland. Following a brief period raiding homesteads and Aboriginal camps, he was captured and returned to authorities, yet was not severely punished.
This set forth of a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next few years — Caesar would escape, wander the bush for a time, receiving food and ammunition from sympathetic settlers who had heard of his exploits breathlessly recounted in the newspapers, before he was sent back to prison. His prison lodgings became more and more luxurious, by the standards of the colony. During a sojourn at Norfolk Island, he would receive some land to tend and a pig.
Caesar even became a recognized hero when he cracked the skull of Pemulwuy, a local Bidjigal warrior who waged a guerrilla war against the white colonists. Caesar used this to gain even more favour with local colonists, who perceived him as doing what the authorities could not. His supplies and arms became better and his acts of thievery became more daring.
Unfortunately for Caesar, his exploits eventually went too far and provoked the authorities into appealing to that other great love of Australians — drinking. Five gallons of rum, a liquid damn near worth its weight in gold to thirsty Sydneysiders, was the bounty placed on his head. A month later, in February, 1796 he was shot dead at Strathfield by a settler, who promptly claimed the reward.
30 years later, another figure would emerge who would excite the attentions of early Australians. Jack Donohoe was an Irishman transported to Australia for the “intent to commit a felony”. After a brief stint working on clearing bush and building roads, Donohoe and a few compatriots escaped and began holding up the carts that travelled the road between Sydney and Windsor.
Soon Donohoe began to be celebrated not only for brazen, bold acts of highway robbery, but for his stylish dress sense. He was described as “remarkably clean”, with a “black hat, superfine blue cloth coatlined with silk… plaited shirt… laced boots”. Donohoe and his gang then branched out to robbing the properties of rich landowners and used the local poor to fence the goods for cash — not quite, but almost a Robin Hood-style existence.
Donohoe finally ran into trouble when his gang ran into a police patrol near Bingelly in NSW. After a few boastful claims and a short gunfight, Donohoe copped a musket ball to the head and died shortly thereafter.
The hero worship of Donohoe really began after his death. A pipemaker in Sydney made pipe stems that resembled his head, lying on the morgue slab. People crowded in to see his corpse. The man wasn’t even cold in the ground before songs and ballads began to be sung about him — you’d know one as The Wild Colonial Boy.
Caesar and Donohoe plied their outlaw trade a full fifty years before the advent of bushranging’s “golden age”. The Gold Rush brought thousands into the country and some of those scratching away at the diggings decided that their time could be better spent holding up the coaches taking the gold back to the diggings. Soon the field was crammed with such figures as Ben Hall, Captain Moonlight, Captain Thunderbolt and “Mad Dog” Morgan, all trying to take a scoop from the golden streams running between the goldfields and the major cities of Melbourne and Sydney. Most were eventually captured, some were shot, most ended up swinging from a noose.
Looming above all of these brigands is, of course, Ned Kelly. In recent years there has been a concerted effort to rehabilitate the original “Iron Man” as some kind of freedom fighter, a guerrilla warring to establish an Irish republic in Central Victoria. The Jerilderie letter has been combed through to draw out what sounds to be political rhetoric. Kelly has appeared in song, books, three different films and is an indelible figure in Australian history. The fact remains, however, is that he was a multiple murderer, a horse thief and a known hooligan from an early age.
So, the next time you feel like a Sopranos marathon or ponder picking up the latest Underbelly instalment in line at the discount bookstore, don’t feel so bad. You’re not a horrible person for wanting to examine the underworld lifestyle. You’re simply the latest in a long chain of Australian who love to indulge in mythologising and celebrating the criminal. Where does this urge come from? Must be something to do with our underdog spirit and vague suspicion of authority — that, however, is ripe fodder for another column.