Ask any American you encounter if he has ever heard of Ned Kelly, and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare. Well, almost any American.
When I arrived in Australia for the summer to study, I was not permitted to remain ignorant about Australia’s most infamous outlaw for long.
After being assigned by my English professor to read varying accounts of Ned’s story, I came to the conclusion that he was clearly the disadvantaged son of a convict who was forced into a life of crime by the corruption of the police and judicial system of the time.
“Many Australians would agree with you,” said my English professor, “but others will argue that he was nothing more than a thief and a killer.”
I wondered how that was possible. How could Australians not agree on something so important to their identity?
So I set out to Kelly Country to find out the truth for myself. Was Ned Kelly a hero, as I believed, or a villain? And, if he was a villain, why is it that the Australians seemed to worship him?
The first stop on my quest for truth and knowledge was Glenrowan, a small township of Victoria and the site of Ned Kelly’s last stand, during which he was captured and three members of his gang killed by police.
Glenrowan is home to a Ned Kelly animatronics show depicting the siege that took place there. Inside the show, I was greeted by a ghost-like character in a black robe with a demon-like cackle, who turned out to be the narrator and time travel facilitator. In his spooky voice, he set the scene for the siege: “June 28th, 1880. A day when these very rooms were bursting with excitement and anticipation as the police had just received word that the Kellys had shot Aaron Sherritt at Beechworth.”
Aaron Sherritt was a childhood friend of gang member Joe Byrne who had secretly turned against them and become a police informant. When the gang realized that Aaron had betrayed them, they lured him out of his police protected home and shot him. It was this event that led to the siege at Glenrowan.
Entering the next room, I was presented with the scene at Anne Jones’ inn where the Kelly Gang held the town hostage as they waited for the police to arrive by train. The Kellys had sabotaged the rails with the intention of killing the police who were coming to get them after hearing about the death of Aaron.
The bar of the inn was filled with creepy animatronic figures that would move every so often, one man swinging from the ceiling and another rocking back and forth in his chair.
Ned described to his captive audience, both alive and robotic, the wrongs that had been committed against him by the Victorian police, including false imprisonment and constant harassment.
“I ask you, what man with any guts could stand aside and take such treatment without retaliating?”
Then Ned heard the train stopping outside and realized that one of the townspeople, Thomas Curnow, had escaped from the inn and was able to stop the train before it reached the trap set by the Kellys.
In my opinion, the audience was clearly positioned to side with the Kellys. However, after the rest of the show, I interviewed the owner, Mr. Hempel and discovered that perhaps sympathy for the Kellys had not been his aim.
I asked Mr. Hempel if he believed Ned Kelly was a villain or a hero.
“Oh, he’s a killer and a villain, there’s no doubt about that. But the police were no better. The thing that works against Ned Kelly is pretty simple. If the school teacher [Curnow] hadn’t stopped the train that night, the Kelly gang would have been the biggest mass murderers ever in the history of Australia.”
This was an eye-opener for me. I had been so caught up in my desire to believe Ned was a hero that I hadn’t even thought about what would have happened if he had succeeded in derailing the train. Perhaps I had been wrong about Ned. Maybe he was a cold-blooded killer after all.
Arriving in Beechworth, the town where the Kelly gang killed Aaron Sherritt and where Ned was later sentenced to death, I arranged to have a Ned Kelly tour of the town.
My tour guide, a man in his sixties, said, “When I was a kid, he was regarded as nothing more than a murdering thief. In about 1980 he was reassessed as a republican, a Robin Hood, an all around good guy. So around here he’s somewhat of a god. I know both Kelly descendents and descendants of the police officers who were killed [at Stringybark Creek] and it’s very interesting to see both sides of the story.”
I hadn’t realized that the differing opinions about Ned Kelly were generational. It made sense though. I recalled reading an article before coming to Australia that said that Australians were becoming more and more comfortable with their convict heritage and had begun to embrace it rather than ignore it.
As the tour went on, I became confused when my guide began to refer to Ned’s battles against the police as a revolution. I later realized that, apparently, some people believe that Ned had intended to start Australia’s first revolution: poor Irish convict families versus the wealthy large landowners who held all the power.
“If [the Kelly gang] had been successful and they’d won the battle, perhaps you would have had to show your passport to come into the northeast,” said my guide.
Suddenly I found myself reevaluating my opinion of Ned Kelly again. If this was indeed an intended revolution, and Ned believed that he was at war with the Victorian police, then the deaths of the police officers would not have been considered mass murder. Perhaps he really was a hero if he was trying to outsmart and overthrow the corrupt colonial system.
I left Kelly Country without any concrete answers. I was still leaning towards the idea that Ned was a hero, but my expedition had placed some doubts in my mind. What if his plan to derail the train had been successful and he had become the biggest mass murderer in Australian history. Would he still have been considered a hero by so many people today?
I gradually came to realize that it didn’t matter in the end whether or not Ned was a hero or a villain. He is worshiped by the Australians because, as my English professor put it, “Australians have an underdog mentality.” Australia was not founded as a colony of winners. The early inhabitants of the colony who arrived from Europe were either convicts or British officers, with a heavy emphasis on the former.
As they have come to embrace their convict past, Australians have been able to see their own history and identity reflected in Ned Kelly.
They might believe that he was a hero who fought back against the injustice of the police and the imperial system for the benefit of their ancestors. Or they might see him as a notorious outlaw, set in his law breaking ways by a family history of crime.
Either way, he undeniably represents the outlaw mentality of the early days of Australia - a state of mind kept alive by the free spirited, frontier minded, adventure seekers that are today’s Australians.