“Australians, along with all other human beings, believe many things that are not true. This is because we have been told about them by people we respect – teachers, those in the media, authors, religious leaders, family members – and the stories have been constantly repeated – in history books, textbooks advertising materials, trivia quizzes and by word of mouth.”
This book, by its title and its external appearance looked lightweight to me, and I thought it was going to be a bit like “Error Australis” (subtitled ‘The Reality Recap of Australian History’) which also features Ned Kelly on the cover. However – and thankfully – its very different because Error Australis is indeed very lightweight, is entertaining in parts but more likely to confuse readers than inform them, and is supposed to be funny: but mostly its ‘humour’ is puerile and not amusing. I dont think its worth reading TBH.
“Furphies” on the other hand turned out to be a collection of surprisingly detailed analyses of some of the many popular beliefs about Australian history and culture that are not actually true. One of the first ones Jim Haynes mentions in passing is the belief that Australians regard themselves as rugged characters familiar with rural pursuits and the bush, inhabitants of the great wide brown land of deserts, burning sun and flooding rain. In fact, he writes “Only a tiny percentage of our population has ever lived in ‘the outback’ and it is as big a mystery to most Australians as it is to the rest of the world. The outback for most Australians is an exotic tourist destination.’
There are chapters on Captain Cook, The Ashes, Breaker Morant, Dad and Dave, Waltzing Matilde and many others, and of course, Ned Kelly. Haynes recounts how he was once a member of a bush band that often performed the Redgum song ‘Poor Ned’, and mentions that once he co-wrote a song about the Last Stand. Also, despite admitting to not really knowing very much of the Kelly story, in 2011 he took part in a public debate but lost trying to argue that Kelly was a villain. He says he’s still ‘mentally scarred and bruised’ from the hammering he received from the pro-Kelly audience. But from that debate his interest in getting to the bottom of it all grew. It was good timing because the following year 2012 was was when Ian MacFarlane’s ground-breaking book, “The Kelly Gang Unmasked” was published.
Part Six of ‘Furphies’ is titled “The Myth of Ned Kellys Republic and Rebel Heritage”. Haynes decided to ignore the age old “hero or villain” debate, writing that “millions of words” have already been written about it, and he focussed instead on challenging ‘the recurring myths of the Kelly uprising and Neds supposed ‘rebel heritage’, and it begins with a very unambiguous assertion that Kelly fans will no doubt recoil from:
“It is a furphy that Ned Kelly had an Irish rebel heritage or any notion of leading an uprising to form a Republic in North East Victoria.”
Haynes traces the “Kelly Republic Myth” back to a letter about the Kelly Gang published in Melbourne Punch as long ago as 1879, when the Gang was still on the run. Its important to note that the Melbourne Punch was a satirical magazine, a source of entertainment and cynical commentary that featured humorous articles, illustrations and cartoons poking fun at the city’s politics, society, and culture. The letter, titled ‘LATEST FROM MR KELLY’ was in the form of a fake ransom note, claiming the Gang had kidnapped Standish and would release him unharmed if the ‘govment’ granted the Gang pardons and let them ‘clear out of the coloni’. It was entirely made up.
The next relevant mention was an article that appeared in a sort of gossip column in the Bulletin magazine in July 1900, and was the first to use the word ‘republic’ in relation to the Outbreak and Ned Kelly. It was also entirely made up, it was unattributed, and various versions of it were recycled in other papers over the subsequent months and years. By the time it got to making an appearance in a popular soft news entertainment column called “This Australia: Strange and Amazing Facts” in 1941 the story now included for the first time a claim that Ned Kelly was to be the first President of the Republic. Once again this newer version appeared in other newspapers at the time, and then it quietly slipped into the mainstream Kelly literature when Max Brown inserted it into his serious biography of Ned Kelly, adding further to the growing story an assertion that documents taken from Ned Kellys pocket when he was captured alluded to a Republic. In fact, the source of that claim was an 1880 news report of ‘a rumour’ that when captured Ned Kelly had in his possession a ‘a pocket book containing a number of letters implicating persons of good positions and the name of one member of parliament is mentioned”. The rumour about a ‘pocket book’ and letters became a claim about a ‘pocket’ containing a Republic document on the basis of nothing, but that didn’t stop subsequent authors adding it into their biographies. Subsequently the republic myth became the central uniting feature of the entire Kelly story, so vital that even Ian Jones, Kellys greatest advocate and most ardent promotor of the claims about Republic asserted that without it, Kellys plan to bring mass murder to Glenrowan was madness.
Haynes then briefly reviews the history of the Kelly family and their relations, exploding the myth that they were in any way typical Aussie battlers by reference to the long list of criminal charges convictions and sentences so many of them accumulated over the 11-year period that followed Red Kellys death.
Haynes next goes even further back in time to address the furphy that Ned Kellys convict father John ‘Red’ Kelly was an Irish rebel. It is indeed a furphy but it’s not one that featured prominently in any of the Kelly biographies, other than J J Kenneallys eccentric 1929 publication ‘The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang’ This book, which reads more like a Tract ,claims to be a revelation of the whole truth about the Kelly story and makes claims about ‘Red’ which modern research has well and truly debunked. As Haynes says, Red Kelly was ‘merely a poor thief who stole from his neighbours’. Another related furphy is the one about the theft of two pigs that Red was transported for. It’s usually suggested Reds punishment was especially cruel because his was an insignificant crime and the victim was a wealthy landowner. In fact, the record shows that the victim, James Cooney was an equally poor landless labourer just like Reds own father. Haynes worked out that the value of the two pigs was the equivalent of fifteen years rent – so the loss would have been devastating to the pigs owner.
Lastly Haynes reviews the historical evidence that demonstrates that the idea that Ned Kelly had aspirations let alone a sophisticated understanding of politics to be yet another furphy.
For people interested in getting their Australian history accurate, this book has much to offer. For people only interested in the Kelly story it’s still a very good buy. Haynes analysis is not a rehash of the work of other modern scholars, though he references all of it. Rather he seems to have used those sources as stimuli to make his own enquiries and to verify their accuracy independently. The result is an analysis that is not just up-to-date and detailed but intriguing to read as he traces the growth of the legend from flippant commentary in a satirical magazine to the full blown claim of it being historical fact, and then from there to the place where modern scholarship has taken the Kelly legend to, identifying the claims as a furphy.
To have the Ian Jones claims of a Kelly Republic of North east Victoria identified as a furphy in a publication thats not a specifically Kelly related work is a major step forward in the replacement of myth in the mainstream of the Australian history record with the true story.
Thanks Jim. Youre back on the winning side of the debate!