I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future……..”
So begins Ned Kellys Jerliderie Letter, a polite and deferential beginning to a letter that ends with violent threats and a non-negotiable command “My orders must be obeyed”
This is a document that’s truly remarkable not only for its style and content, and for the fact that it has survived to the present day, but for the way in which it has been used like a Sacred Text and interpreted in various different ways to justify and support various political and historical perspectives by Kelly sympathisers, and others.
Take this for example:
“It is of no surprise that the Australian Class War website carries a ‘working class heroes’ section with Ned Kelly in it, for Kelly has long been perceived as the Australian Robin Hood by the masses. There are those who believe that if we are reasonable enough then social change can be achieved without getting your hands dirty in conflict. They forget that there is conflict going on everyday, and social crime is the ‘hidden revolution’ by those who choose to fight back rather than keep their head down. For people rationalise their class positions in many ways and not all choose to fight back by any means necessary. Not all have regular lifestyles and employment, but we’re sure that if work (when you can get it) made you rich then the poor would be prevented from it as it would be kept for our ‘betters’ to do. That these words were suppressed by enemies of the working class for so long says volumes, and we are very happy to promote Ned Kelly’s memory.
These are the words of the dead and the living, and we want revenge”
(Class struggle, Ned Kelly and the Jerilderie Letter. Anarkismo.net)
Like other Holy Writings, claims made about what The Jerilderie Letter actually asserts should not necessarily be taken as Gospel. I would guess this author has no real appreciation of the facts of the life and actions of Ned Kelly but has adopted the Robin Hood version of the facts that suits his personal political agenda, and it can be perfectly legitimate to use literature in this way, to illustrate a point. But that is not the same as asserting that Class Warfare was Kellys actual agenda. When you read the Letter, you will see it was much more personal and narrow than that.
Like everyone, I had heard about this Letter a very long time before I got around to reading it for myself. It was said to contain witty and characteristically Irish humour and turns of phrase and colourful language, but overall I had gained the impression that it was largely a kind of Political Manifesto, wherein Ned Kelly set out his grand plan for the Republic of NE Victoria. The document was portrayed as a defence of the rights of the poor and the needy, a challenge to the corrupt might of Police and Government, and an explanation of why he had to do what he did.
When I finally did get around to reading it from start to finish, I was quite literally shocked. Maybe I was shocked because it was so completely unlike what I had been expecting to find – yes the wit and humour and Irish turn of phrase was there, but the thing that really shocked me was the white-hot intensity of the personal rage, the anger and the violence and the threats and self-justifications within it. It builds and rises and becomes louder and wilder, more defiant and rebellious, becomes what Alex McDermott calls an “apocalyptic chant” Indeed it does! And yet most surprising of all, there is a virtually complete absence of anything like a manifesto, no mention of a Republic or a revolution or a political agenda. Nothing….
Read it for yourself. But think about this as you do : Kelly dictated this letter in the midst of planning a prolonged bank Robbery at Jerliderie. He had previously robbed the Bank at Euroa and was on the run for the murder of the three Policemen at Stringybark Creek, a huge reward posted, he could be shot and killed by anyone in a time when murder was a Capital Offence. Would he not be expected under those circumstances to present a story that would paint his actions in the best possible light?
Could it not be said of his explanations of those “occurrences” of the present past and future “ Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
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