How modern is the Australian bushranger? Or rather: how archaic? This question has come up recently as police try to find Gino and Mark Stocco, a father and his son from Queensland who have been on the run in country Victoria and New South Wales for some considerable time. Stealing cars and petrol, using bush tracks and back roads and living in the bush semi-permanently, these two men might very well recall old Ben Marston and his sons Dick and Jim in Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms. Media reports have called them ‘modern-day bushrangers’; police images of Gino and Mark Stucco show them both wearing long, bushy beards, colonial-style. They shoot at the police, just as Boldrewood’s bushrangers did; and they provoke the police and taunt them. They also work on farms and – when a dispute arises with their employers – they ransack and destroy the properties: more like disgruntled swagmen than bushrangers, perhaps. I read somewhere that the father and son were jailed in 2007 for stealing the identities of other people in order to travel on a luxury yacht. The colonial bushranger was also a stealer of other people’s identities: think of Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight, or E. W. Hornung’s Stingaree (who even impersonates the N.S.W. detective who is trying to apprehend him).
George E. Boxall’s History of the Australian Bushrangers (1899) had thought that bushranging ended with the nineteenth century: it couldn’t be modern. ‘It was’, he wrote, ‘rather an excrescence on, than a development of Australian character….it is extremely improbable that there will ever again be a Frank Gardiner or a Ned Kelly to incite the young and thoughtless to deeds of violence’. But the bushranger – like colonialism itself – generates a prolonged aftermath, a series of residual effects that last for a surprisingly long time: right into the present day. In Boldrewood’s novel, Dick and Jim distance themselves from their father to make the point that he is an old bushranger, someone who did things differently: leaving his wife without a second thought, abandoning his farm and family to live (often alone) in the bush, and slowly losing his influence over his sons. To underline the point that he is a relic of times past, Ben Marston dies towards the end of the novel, while Dick lives on and gets a second chance. Boldrewood is a bit like Boxall: the bushranger cannot persist and younger Australians have to have a positive future.
But no one yet has drawn much of a distinction between Gino and Mark Stucco. It’s as if father and son are exactly the same, doing everything together, carrying on in the same way. Who is influencing who here? A report on them in the Australian turned instead to the grandfather, who confessed that he was ‘disappointed’ in his son and his grandson, but added: ‘I can’t say anything’. The same report noted that Mark Stucco once robbed his own mother. So far, the mother has also kept quiet – just like Dick’s mother in Boldrewood’s novel, who barely says a word. There really is something weirdly colonial about the Stuccos. In Robbery Under Arms, the bushrangers enjoy reading about themselves in the newspapers. Starlight seems to subscribe to all the country papers and reads them out, one by one, relishing the reports of police incompetence. Perhaps the Stuccos are doing the same as they circle teasingly around the places colonial bushrangers – real and fictional – once inhabited.