In this lecture, Weston Bate says at the beginning that ‘the truth about Ned’ is ‘what we have come for, though I must admit I am a trifle disconcerted that Professor Clark suggests that three truths are encapsulated in any one truth it is possible to lay down – the truth according to the sympathisers, the opponents and the explainers, to which last group I am professionally attached.’
Bate sets out what he thinks ‘needs to be explained’ : How did Ned Kelly become the kind of man he was, what were the reasons for the support he had and the reasons it took the Police so long to deal with him, and lastly, what explains the rapid growth in the Kelly legend? The Lecture mostly focusses on the first question.
He talks firstly about the effect the railway had on life when it opened in the North east in 1873. Farmers suddenly had much more direct access to urban markets and so farms and profits improved dramatically for those with the capital to take advantage of the new opportunities. However, he says, ‘many people missed out’, and so there was a widening gap between rich and poor.
Next Bate discusses his idea that ‘centralisation’ had a role to play in the Kelly outbreak. The administration of the Police force, the Courts, of land and of Politics was all ‘centralised’ – ie controlled – from Melbourne, where the rich all had contacts and access that the poor people didn’t enjoy, and so were at a disadvantage. Centralisation meant also that the decision makers were out of touch with the needs of the rural community, couldn’t respond quickly or knowledgeably to conditions and demands from the periphery, and he suggests the authorities in Melbourne used the fog of remoteness as an opportunity to misrepresent rural conditions in whichever manner it suited their political purpose, whether it was in land administration, the functioning of the Courts, Policing or the enactment of legislation.
Class antagonism is Bates next theme. He cites a couple of stories to illustrate the hardships selectors and the poor had to confront: a woman was almost raped in her Wangaratta bark hut because it was so flimsy she couldn’t lock a door to keep the assailant out; a selectors letters to the Lands Department reveal the struggle he had in developing the land and providing for his seven school age children, pleading for extensions of time to pay his rent, and then dying soon after he was granted the lease; a man found on a roadside, returning home from a paid job ‘in the north’ collapsed with heat stroke and hunger, naked and near death having starved himself in an effort to save money.
He argues that the poor witnessed the general disregard of ethics and morality by the well-off in their pursuit of the ownership of land and wealth, but by contrast lesser crimes of the desperate poor such as sheep stealing were punished. “In such circumstances is it not surprising that, like the Kelly’s, some took the easier way of dealing in the stock of people who were doing well. They had felt the injustice of the way the squatter could muster his team of dummies and tie up the best land in the whole district. And they argued quite directly that if these men could do what they wanted with the law by taking land far beyond their rights, why should sheep stealing or horse stealing be such a desperate crime?” ‘There seemed to be one Law for the rich, like Whitty and Burns, and one law for the poor in this lovely country’ Bate also suggests the concern expressed by ‘the propertied classs about horse-stealing’ was exaggerated to encourage the Law to keep the working classes in check.
He writes “ …Kellys attitude at Jerilderie expresses a groundswell of revolt. His actions were eloquent of a general sympathy with the poor not just the poor of his own district”
Finally he reflects on ‘the Irish tradition (that) bred angry men (…) Certainly Irish hatreds fed upon all these background conditions and the erupted as I think they did at Eureka. (…) Why should Ned have rejected the views of is family when there was so much evidence before his eyes that the necessary revolt was against others?’
Bate concludes with this : ‘The poor man had always been easier to nail. His reply was to make a hero of the man who was brave enough and bad enough to make war on society’
Weston Bate is described in the proceedings of the Symposium as a senior Lecturer in charge of Australian History at the Melbourne University, and ‘married, and has six children’ I wondered if his large family meant he was a Catholic and therefore possibly inclined to be sympathetic to Ned from the outset, because in this Lecture he most certainly is. In the last few comments following his Lecture they discuss the ‘gentlemanliness’ of Ned. One audience member who said he had lived in Glenrowan for many years, claimed Jim Kelly ‘was one of the most beloved men in the whole of the district’ Bate responded saying ‘if one wishes to take the gentlemanliness of Ned to extremes, Curnows attitude may be seen as that of the alien schoolteacher not understanding or sympathising with local traditions and so on, putting his own construction on, or even distorting the facts of what happened’. He then asked if ‘there indications of people being really frightened by the Kellys?’ and is told “I do not think any of the people in the District were ever frightened of any of the Kellys’
Audiences today would be much better informed about Kelly history than they were in 1967, and I doubt many would accept that nobody feared the Kellys, or would not know that for all his decency in later life Jim Kelly was a serious criminal who almost murdered a NSW policeman in earlier times, and would anyone accept that Curnow had not understood what was going on at Glenrowan and perhaps shouldn’t have stopped the train?
The interesting thing about this Lecture is that it is proposing the exact opposite view of Ned Kelly to the one just proposed by Professor Manning Clark, but nobody in the audience seems to notice, or if they did, wants to point it out. Clarks view of Ned was that he was consumed by the personal and the private, was full of rage and anger and unreason, and in a kind of cosmic sense his attacks on society were destined to fail. On the other hand Bate explains Ned in terms of the Political and the public, in terms of social and historical issues, in terms that are logical and rational, in terms of a cause that found a leader in Ned.
I think the problem with Weston Bates view is that he has made an a priori assumption about Neds behaviour and then, in his lecture has set about looking for explanations for it. The simplest explanation of Ned Kellys behaviour is that he was an actual criminal. Finding conditions and circumstances that COULD have given rise to behaviour like Neds doesn’t mean that they DID give rise to it – what has to be shown is the direct link between these conditions and Neds behaviour because otherwise EVERY Irish criminal in the North East could offer the same explanation for his behaviour, and how would anyone be able to differentiate between the actual criminal and the Political activist? Bate makes no attempt to establish that link, but has assumed it right from the start.
A consequence of such lectures and their proposed explanations, has been the stimulation of more research and thinking about the Kelly story and so now we know lots more about the Kelly Outbreak. Analysis by Doug Morrissey has refuted much of Bates analysis of the lot of the Selector, the majority of whom went on to pay off their leases and become landholders. We also know that the central justification for Neds claimed revolt, persecution and harassment which audience members expressed certainty about in 1967, is a myth.
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