In Thomas McCombie’s Adventures of a Colonist; or, Godfrey Arabin, The Settler (1845) an ‘outlandish settler’ is mistaken for a bushranger; but he puts his audience’s anxieties to rest by reassuring them that, now ‘the majority of the Colonials are free’, bushranging ‘will soon be out of date’. As we know, of course, bushrangers played out their careers right through the 19th century, even as commentators kept insisting that the colonies had seen the last of them. Even so, by 1845 bushrangers could be regarded as part of ‘the old days’. In this respect, they functioned as something archaic that seemed to persist against the odds, a relic or residue that didn’t go away.
In his excellent book Van Diemen’s Land: A History (2008), James Boyce discusses one of the earliest bushrangers, Michael Howe: ‘the only Australian bushranger’, he writes, ‘to pose a genuine alternative to the colonial government’s political authority’. The first book of ‘general literature’ to be published in Australia was Thomas Wells’s 1818 account of Howe, ‘the last and worst of the bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land’. He may been the worst, but he certainly wasn’t the last. In Old Tales of a Young Country (1871), Marcus Clarke read a copy of Wells’s ‘wonderful work’, a ‘dirty little pamphlet of 36 pages’. After committing many crimes, Howe is pursued deep into the Tasmanian forests where, alone and trying to survive, he becomes delirious. ‘He kept a journal of his dreams’, Clarke writes, ‘a journal written with blood, on kangaroo skin’. Making his way into the mountains, he intrudes into ‘the rocky home of hermit eagles’ – Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles, presumably. Here, Howe sits in the midst of ‘some of the sublimest scenes of nature…a lonely bushranger…confronted with his God and his own conscience’.
Not long after McCombie’s novel, Charles Rowcroft published The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land (1846) in London. His bushranger protagonist is Mark Brandon, a handsome, almost gentlemanly figure: a precursor to Rolf Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight and E.W. Hornung’s Stingaree. But Brandon becomes increasingly ruthless, and desperate. Killing a trooper, he flees deep into the bush. In his delirium, he eats a raw kangaroo rat. Like Howe, he determines to write an account of his life in his own blood. ‘He cast his eyes about for something to make a mark with; and he spied, sticking up by the side of the platform, a feather from an eagle’s wing’. As he bleeds and writes, alone in the mountains, he barely notices a shadow passing across the sun above him. When trackers discover him not long afterwards, a ‘great eagle’ is devouring him.
Michael Howe had managed to live successfully for a while in the bush, a nomadic but well-organised, competent man. The term ‘bush ranger’ suggests the ability to move freely through the bush, but also to respect it, or even manage it (rather like ‘park ranger’). In Rowcroft’s novel, Braddon is so in tune with the bush that native species come to define him: he is ‘quick as a bandicoot’, ‘cunning as a platypus’. Boldrewood did the same thing later on with Dick Marston in Robbery Under Arms (1882-83): Marston ‘can swim like a musk-duck’, he is ‘as active as a rock-wallaby’, and so on. But in Rowcroft’s novel, Braddon’s crimes and ego finally overtake him: he disturbs the bush ecology and brings it angrily (and literally) down upon him precisely at the moment when he begins to write his own history.