What is a bushranger?

A “bushranger”, in the most concise definition, is a criminal who takes refuge in, and operates from, the wilderness (usually heavily forested areas). Other terms used to describe this class of criminal includes bandit, fugitive, outlaw and bolter.

Depiction of bushrangers robbing a mail coach by S.T. Gill.

In popular understanding, bushrangers are considered to be criminals who commit highway robbery and associated criminal acts (murder, assault etc.) in the Australian bush. While this refers to the modus operandi of most bushrangers during the peak period of the 1850s to 1870s, it is not a complete depiction. In fact, the earliest crimes committed by those labelled as bushrangers were typically stock theft, home invasion, murder and arson. The highway robbery aspect only became commonplace as a result of the gold rush, which saw gold being shifted on the roads from the diggings to the towns and made for lucrative targets. Prior to this, most bushrangers stole what they needed such as clothes, firearms, horses and supplies, and those were usually taken during raids on farms or stores. Many of the early bushrangers were seen as champions of the convict class for their rebellious behaviour, just as later bushrangers came to be seen as champions by those who felt the law was unjust and those who upheld it were crooked.

Bushrangers like Captain Thunderbolt have taken on a romantic image despite their depredations.

The term dates back to the early 1800s and describes a class of criminal unique to the Australian colonies at the time, though it was subsequently used to describe similar criminal types in places as far apart as New Zealand and China. Early bushrangers were also frequently referred to as “bolters” if they were escaped convicts rather than settlers that had gone rogue. Over time the terminology fell out of favour, but many modern fugitives fit into the definition surprisingly well. You will often see these people referred to in the media as a “modern day Ned Kelly”.

References to “outlaws” is complicated in this context as it can either be a colloquialism for a person that lives outside of the law or it can refer to those people who were declared an outlaw under the Felons Apprehension Acts introduced into New South Wales in the 1860s and Victoria in the 1870s. The latter definition is a legal term that encompassed those who had been declared exempt from the protection of the law by the government. People declared outlaws had thirty days to turn themselves in before the declaration took full effect, after which time they could be killed without provocation and the killer would be entitled to the reward offered for the outlaw.

The Kelly Gang were declared outlaws in 1878 by the Victorian government.

Not all bushrangers fit cleanly into the traditional definition of the term, however. For example, Musquito was a bushranger and also an Aboriginal guerilla fighter during the frontier wars of the 19th century, therefore classifying his acts as merely criminal or acts of war are difficult to establish. For this reason some people even question whether the term bushranger really applies to people like Ned Kelly and Paddy Kenniff, but it is clear from the aforementioned terminology that they are. Bushranging is not merely an Australian equivalent of highway robbery in the times of Dick Turpin, but a result of criminals adapting to the terrain of the colonial frontier.

For ease of classification here we will stick to the concise definition [a criminal who takes refuge in the Australian wilderness] with a particular emphasis on the colonial era, 1788 – 1901. We will also include Post-Colonial bushranging such as the outbreak of “boy bushrangers” in the 1920s and modern examples where applicable. It is interesting to examine how bushranging can manifest in the information age where people have access to cars, high powered firearms, the internet and cashless shopping.