Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ned Kelly

           [Little] John smote off the monk's head;
    No longer would he dwell;
                   So did Much [the Miller's son] the little page,
    For fear lest he would tell.
               (Robin Hood and the Monk, verse 52)

     This tale of the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man and boy, presented with modernised spelling, is an early illustration of society's tendency to glamourise criminals. Of course, the best-known example today is the way we whitewash those drunken, foul-mouthed cutthroats known as pirates. (A realistic pirate movie would be R-rated for the filthy language alone.) In modern times, of course, America has Billy the Kid and Jesse James. And Australia has Ned Kelly.
     The image of Ned Kelly with his guns and armour (which he wore only once) has become iconic in Australia. To many people he is a hero, even a victim. In reaction, there has been a tendency for some others to regard him as a black-hearted villain with no redeeming features. As for myself, I prefer a more nuanced assessment. A truly evil person presents as pathetic in his depravity. To be an effective villain, it is necessary to possess a certain ration of virtues, of which courage is the most important. Ned Kelly was the sort of man who, under different circumstances, and with different life choices, would have become a model citizen and a pillar of society.
    The basic facts of Ned's life are not much in dispute. He was raised in a poor but dishonest family, which came to police attention, not because of systematically adopting a life of crime, but because they occasionally treated the law as an inconvenient impediment in the hard scrabble of making a living. He grew up regarding the police and the big landowners as his natural enemies, and hating the British establishment as the oppressors of Ireland. At age 15 he did a short stint as assistant to a bushranger. When he came into man's estate, he also appeared before the courts for various minor acts of larrikinism, and for occasionally treating other people's horses as salable items.
     For people with this background, the normal progression is to continue in this dysfunctional lifestyle, raking in scanty profits from minor larcenies, and treating arrest and punishment as normal, if resented, occupational hazards. They seldom amount to anything. Alternatively, particularly for those with the strength of character Ned clearly possessed, is that they wake up to the fact that they are not doing themselves any favours, and resolve to walk a straight line. The Australia of that era possessed more opportunity for people with a criminal record to redeem themselves, for the ability and willingness to work counted more than formal qualifications, and there were always places on the frontier where they could escape their past. In any case, they seldom become great criminals, because they fail to make the decision to defy the law in a big way in order to become rich.
     What pushed Ned Kelly over the edge was an act of victimisation. A warrant had been issued for the arrest of his brother, Dan on suspicion of horse stealing, and one evening, after drinking at the local tavern, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick decided to enforce it. It may have been the drink which made him ignore the standing orders never to go to the Kelly place alone. So what you think happened that night will depend on whether you wish to believe a disreputable family, or a policeman who would shortly be cashiered because he "associated with the lowest persons, could not be trusted out of sight, and never did his duty". There was a scuffle, and the policeman ended up with a minor wound on his wrist, which the Kellies bandaged for him. Fitzpatrick claimed that Mrs Kelly had struck him with a shovel, and that Ned, whom everybody else claimed had not even been at the house, had fired several shots at him, the last one of which produced the wrist injury. The fact that Fitzpatrick returned to the tavern for a bit more drinking before making his report might say something about his veracity. Apart from that, the story contained quite a few implausibilities.
     Be that as it may, on the strength of his testimony, Ned's mother was sentenced to three years in prison, and the judge announced that if Ned had been present, he would have given him fifteen years. Not exactly something to encourage respect for the justice system! Ned and Dan went to ground in the Wombat Hills. Why Steve Hart and Joe Byrne joined them is anyone's guess - possibly friendship or the search for adventure. It couldn't have been hope of money!
     Realistically, Ned had two options:
  • give himself up and fight the charge (what! and expect justice from the hated establishment?), or
  • run. Shave off his beard, cross the Murray, and disappear into the backblocks of New South Wales (what! turn tail? while his mother was in jail? never to see his family again?). Instead, he chose a third option:
  • if push came to shove, fight!
     The trouble with declaring war on society is that you soon find yourself outnumbered and outgunned. Four troopers went off to arrest them, their horses equipped with straps designed for the carriage of dead bodies, and there was loose talk that, if it came to bringing them back dead or alive, they would prefer them dead. Obviously, their advantage had to be neutralised.
     If you read the history of the American West, you will discover that the reason a lot of lawmen and outlaws were killed was because, when someone shouted, "Drop that gun!" - they didn't. Instead, they attempted to turn the gun on the person with the drop on them, leaving the latter with no option but to shoot. In the case of the Kelly gang, the whole Stringybark Creek ambush is consistent with the simple aim of disarming the troopers. The first constable to be challenged was temporarily without a gun, and so he immediately surrendered. He was the only one to survive. The second ran for cover while simultaneously reaching for his gun. Ned shot him dead. "What a pity!" exclaimed Ned. "What made the fool run?" The other two met their deaths under similar circumstances. Ned always maintained that he had no alternative to avoid being shot dead himself. Strictly speaking, he was correct, but legally he didn't have a leg to stand on. You can't legally pick a fight with the police and then claim self-defense.
     The Rubicon had been crossed. Probably their best option would have been to flee. Certainly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne had not been recognized by the surviving trooper. In any case, they went to ground for several weeks. Nevertheless, hiding requires food, and money. Not for Ned the petty larceny of relieving prosperous citizens of their wallets and watches. If he was going to steal, he would do it big. He would rob banks. Thus the escapades at Euroa and Jerilderie, which made them famous.
     Again, they went to ground - this time for 16 months. Most people forget that. Again, their best plan would have been to attempt to leave the colony, and preferably the continent. The odds would have been against them, of course, but they were still better than staying put, where they were still going to be outnumbered and outgunned. A larger band of troopers was being organized, this time with black trackers. Ned and his gang decided to forestall the danger by luring them to a railway cutting, where the train could be derailed and the party ambushed.
     It may have been that they had been planning something like this for a long time, for they had spent several months constructing armour out of ploughshares. Historians have tended to label this foolish, because they were cumbersome, and failed to protect the legs, but this view is rather unfair. It is based on the famous last stand, for which the armour was never devised. In fact, it was very sensible for the purpose for which it was designed. From the top of the cutting where the ambush was to be set up, their legs would be out of the line of fire of police aiming from the ground. They would therefore be able to pick off the police at leisure from their vantage point. Thus, from petty crime, to fleeing an unjust charge, to killing arguably in self-defense, they had gone to planning cold blooded murder on a massive scale.
     But first the troopers had to be lured to the site. By this time they had learned that Joe Byrne's old school friend, Aaron Sherritt had turned informer, and was under police protection. Superbly confident of their enemies' lack of courage, they went to Sherritt's home, and Byrne shot him in cold blood while the police cowered inside. That should bring the hounds baying!
     "Never underestimate your opponent," is usually good advice, but not in this case. The outlaws' plans came unstuck because they overestimated them. They assumed that the police hiding in Sherritt's house would hurry out more or less at once to alert their colleagues. Instead, they continued cowering for several hours. The result was a long delay before any action was taken, leaving the Kelly gang to merely hold court in the Glenrowan Hotel and providing an opportunity for a citizen to escape and warn the police of their danger. The ambush was averted, and the siege of the Glenrowan Hotel began. Everyone knows what happened there. It is a credit to Ned that, once he had escaped the burning building, he did not flee, but returned for one last battle, on the very small chance of rescuing his three companions, although he must have known that they were already dead or dying.
     When the gallows trapdoor was finally sprung on 11 November 1880, it left behind four outlaws, three police, one informer, and two innocent Glenrowen bystanders  dead, seven people wounded, and a large amount of property stolen or destroyed. It was a pity, because there were many points in the tragedy where it could have turned out differently.