|“Tom Roberts – Bailed up – Google Art Project” by Tom Roberts
McQuiltons 1979 book “The Kelly Outbreak” is subtitled “The geographical Dimension of Social Banditry” and it’s a truly fascinating book to read. He attempts not only to describe what happened in the Outbreak – as others had already done before – but also to develop a better explanation for it than the existing hopelessly simplistic notion that it was either because of the criminal nature of the Kelly Gang or else the corrupt nature of the Police.
McQuilton came to the view that the best way to understand the Outbreak was to see it as an example of ‘Social Banditry” a concept developed by a renowned, now dead British Historian called Eric Hobsbawm. The “social bandit”, according to Hobsbawms theory is a figure who at first glance might appear to be an ordinary criminal, but who, on closer examination proves to be something more: the social bandit emerges from rural discontent and engages in lawbreaking as a kind of social protest, activities that attract considerable local support and approval, though it is at a primitive “pre-political” level. If I understand the theory correctly the Bandit is not regarded as a person who has a deliberately chosen “pre” or “semi” political agenda of any kind but rather is a product of his times and a particular mix of social and political conditions, one of which is poverty, another a society that is only marginally governable because of social unrest and division, and another, reduced respect for authority and inadequate or incompetent Policing. McQuilton believes the social conditions at the time of the Outbreak were exactly those Hobsbawm described as the pre-requisites for social banditry to emerge – in particular the deep divisions in the rural frontier community between squatters and selectors that made for widespread social unrest.
McQuiltons particular and intriguing insight however, is his belief that these divisions and unrest largely sprang from the peculiarities of local geography. He provides a detailed description of the geography of “Kelly Country”, describing with the help of fascinating maps the river systems, the fertile river valleys and flood plains, the gold fields and the dense bush covered foothills and highlands, and describes how this all affected such things as the patterns of land settlement and land use, the physical constraints to communication and travel to markets in distant major centers, and the effects of its proximity to the NSW border.
The social bandit, according to the theory is never-the-less a criminal, rather than a revolutionary or social activist, and is preoccupied with a personal rebellion destined to fail. However though a criminal the bandit is supported by sections of society because he reflects their value system and embodies valued personal qualities such as in the case of Ned Kelly physical prowess, skilled horsemanship, loyalty to family and personal courage. In life and even in failure he achieves the status of a hero and becomes part of legend and folklore, an Icon. However his purpose is not really political but personal and in any case he lacks the expertise to channel his discontent to a political end.
Inevitably there are difficulties with this view, that Ned Kelly was a social bandit. The most important one, in my view is that to conform to the “Type”, and make Ned Kelly more of a social protestor and less of a criminal McQuilton is obliged to present Ned Kellys lawless behviour as being directed solely at Authority and the Squatter, as being somewhat symbolic rather than purely criminal and wherever possible he prefers the explanation of events that leaves Kelly in the most favourable light. He says this for example
“The Outbreak was rooted in antagonisms between squatters and selectors ; its trigger cause was the arrest and jailing of Mrs Kelly which has stemmed from the squatter inspired crackdown on duffing and horse theft in 1877”
Indeed, as he says, the outbreak was rooted in antagonisms between squatters and selectors. On the contrary though, the trigger for the Outbreak was Ned Kellys theft of 11 horses, worth 50 to 100,000 dollars in todays money, a massive criminal undertaking known in Kelly history as the “Whitty Larceny” but this trigger is ignored by McQuilton in preference for Police behavior, the arrest of Mrs Kelly. Rather than label it as a “squatter inspired crackdown” I would have thought it would be more accurate to describe it as a legitimate response to locally organized serious crime, and quite appropriate, even if handled badly.
In another place McQuilton says the Kellys victims were the squatters, but in fact what we know from Morrisseys work is that Kelly stole from squatters and selectors alike, though inevitably, as squatters had most of the stock they were the ones who were more often the victims. Furthermore we also know that Kelly traded with and worked with some of the squatters, and both he and other members of the greater Kelly clan had friendships and other complex personal relationships with Police. These facts muddy the “social bandit” thesis.
In discussing the Fitzpatrick incident McQuilton misquotes the Dr who treated his wound saying that the Doctor “refused to swear it had been caused by a bullet” The full quote of what Nicholson said is “I could not swear it was a bullet wound but it had all the appearance of one”. In his descriptions of the Gangs plans for Glenrowan McQuilton glosses over the brutal reality of what was planned for the train, merely mentioning that it was to be derailed and survivors would become hostages. He describes the Stringybark Creek debacle as the legacy of Neds pistol whipping by Constable Hall. He uncritically accepts Neds declaration that he didn’t recognize Lonigan before shooting him, though Ned was well known to have said that if he ever killed a man, it would be Lonigan.
Its clear to me that overall, McQuilton has a sympathetic view of Ned Kelly, and as a result I think he significantly underplays the role played by the manifest criminality of the Gang and of Ned Kelly in particular, in order to enhance and rehabilitate the image of Ned Kelly as more glamorous social bandit, rather than as a plain criminal. This I think was probably unnecessary, because as Hobsbawm writes in the first chapter of his book “Bandits” “their names and the details of their exploits hardly matter” This is because banditry is a social phenomenon, and whats important are not the precise historical details about the bandit but the way in which the bandit inspires, encourages and gives voice to and becomes a focus for dissatisfaction and the grievances of groups within society. Whats important is that whether or not what they come to believe about him is true, the bandit is regarded as the champion to the poor and powerless, the disaffected and marginalized. He becomes a reflection of their concerns and disquiets about the society they are a part of, and becomes the repository of their hopes and inspiration for the future. This is how the Legend of Ned Kelly functions even today for the dwindling few who regard him still as an icon.
So to say that the Kelly Outbreak is an example of social banditry is to say nothing much about what or who Ned Kelly really was. It is instead a statement about the use that was made of his reputation by people who admired what they believed he did and represented, and who created the Legend about him. The Outbreak was one thing, Ned Kelly is another and we are still left with the task of peeling back the Mythology to find the real Ned Kelly underneath. McQuilton has provided some wonderful analysis and insights into understanding his times and the origins of the Myth.
As I have already written, this is a great read and a must for every serious Kelly enthusiast.
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