A little over a quarter of the way into his Jerilderie Letter, Ned Kelly finally begins to detail some legitimate grievances that the selectors have with the way the wealthy squatters behave:
“Whitty and Burns not being satisfied with all the picked land on the Boggy Creek and King River and the run of their stock on the certificate ground free and no one interfering with them paid heavy rent to the banks for all the open ground so as a poor man could keep no stock, and impounded every beast they could get, even off Government roads. If a poor man happened to leave his horse or bit of a poddy calf outside his paddock they would be impounded. I have known over 60 head of horses impounded in one day by Whitty and Burns all belonging to poor farmers they would have to leave their ploughing or harvest or other employment to go to Oxley.
When they would get there perhaps not have money enough to release them and have to give a bill of sale or borrow the money which is no easy matter”
However his interest in this problem was only aroused when it became personal – a horse belonging to his Step father George King had been stolen and kept in one of Whittys paddocks. As pay-back, Kelly stole a number of horses from Whitty, altered their brands and sold them:
“And all this was the cause of me and my step-father George King taking their horses and selling them to Baumgarten and Kennedy. the pick of them was taken to a good market and the culls were kept in Petersons paddock and their brands altered by me two was sold to Kennedy and the rest to Baumgarten who were strangers to me and I believe honest men.”
Subsequently, a number of people, including William Baumgarten and William Cooke are convicted of receiving these stolen horses, and sent to prison. This is what Ned has to say about it :
“William Cooke who was convicted for Whittys horses was innocent he was not in my company at Petersons. But it is not the place of the Police to convict guilty men as it is by them they get their living had the right parties been convicted it would have been a bad job for the Police as Berry would have sacked a great many of them only I came to their aid and kept them in their bilits and good employment and got them double pay and yet the ungrateful articles convicted my mother and an infant my brother-in-law and another man who was innocent and still annoy my brothers and sisters and the ignorant unicorns even threaten to shoot myself”
Neds outrage at the conviction of innocent men is not sufficient to motivate him to confessing to the crime so that they could go free – something he once wanted Wild Wright to do for him – but instead he returns to a theme he touched on earlier, when discussing Constable Hall and allegations that Hall had committed perjury:
“ this is no crime in the Police force it is a credit to a Policeman to convict an innocent man but any muff can pot a guilty one”
He now expands further on this theme explaining that the reason they convict innocent people is because if they got rid of the real criminals – people like him – the Policemen would be out of work. Indeed, he suggests they ought to be grateful to him, because its his activities that have resulted in their “bilits and good employment and …. double pay”. He calls them “ungrateful articles” for having convicted his mother and others of things he says theyre innocent of, and “they still annoy my brothers and sisters”
Ned Kelly clearly hates the police but its hard to know if he is serious in advancing this argument, because it’s a kind of paranoid and delusional inversion of reality, a bit like the one that says Drug Companies have a cure for Cancer but they keep it secret because they can make lots more money selling drugs to treat cancer than to cure it. It’s a superficially plausible argument that doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny, and so is Neds view of Police motivation, but did Ned really believe it? The sense I get when reading the Letter is that he did, theres an intensity about it, a seriousness, and he makes it very personal, directly linking these thoughts to the plight of his mother and family, something which clearly distresses and agitates him. But if thats what he really thinks, its pretty screwed up, juvenile thinking from a man promoted as a potential political leader of the caliber of Peter Lalor the Eureka rebellion hero.
From here, still thinking about his family and especially his mother, he next utters some of his most famous and oft quoted and misquoted words:
“It will pay Government to give those people who are suffering innocence, justice and liberty. if not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victoria Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army and now doubt they will acknowledge their hounds were barking at the wrong stump”.
These few sentences are almost the entire basis on which the “Kelly Republic of North East Victoria” concept has been built. It is of course an exceedingly lightweight foundation for such a weighty concept but whats remarkable is that such an interpretation has only been possible because of a spelling mistake. The spelling mistake that I have identified and which as far as I know has never been identified or commented on before, when corrected returns these words to the theme of family and personal – it is not about a grand political scheme but about Ned Kellys anger at what had happened to his mother.
The spelling mistake that Joe Byrne made, was to write “innocence” when what Kelly said was “Innocents”, meaning his mother and other innocent people wrongly imprisoned:
“It will pay Government to give those people who are suffering INNOCENTS, ( ie his mother and the baby ) justice and liberty” Or to rephrase it in the negative “If the Government doesn’t give justice and freedom to the innocent people suffering in prison – my mother and her baby – then the Government will be made to pay” The sentence with “innocence” is meaningless and nonsensical. That he IS referring to these particular people – rather than “innocence” – something generic to do with the poor – is reflected in the next sentence about showing a colonial stratagem designed to demonstrate that “their hounds were barking at the wrong stump” or in other words they were convicting the wrong people.
I think this part of the Jerilderie letter is an important key to understanding Ned Kelly. Here he reveals his anger at the Police and the way he perceives Police behavior, and in particular his concern at what has happened to his mother. Here he declares extravagantly that if his family are not shown justice and liberty, he is committed to doing something about it, something he promises will be dramatic enough to startle not only the Victorian Police, but the entire British Army. But to me its clear – the anger and the passion and the “colonial stratagem” are about family not about “society” or the “poor” For Ned Kelly this is personal.
Whats lacking of course is any admission on his part that all this has come about because he decided to steal horses from his squatter enemy, Mr Whitty. Had he not done so, Fitzpatrick would have had no reason to call at the house to arrest Dan, there would have been no altercation that resulted in the claim that Kelly had shot Fitzpatrick, and Neds mother would not have ended up in Prison. Maybe some of Neds fury was a projection of anger at himself.
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