MBC’s Andrea Potts spoke with researcher Dr. Meg Foster about banditry, settler colonialism, and national myths in Australia. Meg is an award-winning historian of banditry, settler colonial and public history. She is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK. Her first book, Boundary Crossers: the hidden history of Australia’s other bushrangers, was released with NewSouth (University of New South Wales Press) in 2022.
Andrea: What is the focus of your research?
Meg: In its broadest sense, banditry. That’s the umbrella term, but I am Australian and I’m particularly interested in banditry in Australia which is known as bushranging. It’s been likened to highway robbers in a British context. In Australia, these figures are national heroes. They were thieves who committed robbery under arms and escaped to live in the Australian bush, but to the average Australian, they represent something a bit different to crime. They represent an underdog and the Aussie battler spirit. They represent fighting adversity and challenging unjust authorities. The idea is that the bushranger is operating outside of a law that is unjust and therefore they represent a higher form of justice than the authorities. The bushranger has long been a part of popular culture, dating back to the 19th century when they were still operating. It’s important to highlight that this bushranging legend is a white male legend. I’m interested in how this legend intersects with settler colonialism in Australia. I research people of colour who were bushrangers. These people didn’t make it into the pantheon of national legends. So if bushrangers were never just white, how did the bushranging legend come to be remembered in this way? And why?
A: That’s so interesting. So how and why have these people been absent from this heroism narrative?
M: First of all, there simply weren’t as many people of colour who were bushrangers. That’s the quantitative story, but these people unleashed a kind of moral panic in Australian society and they had a real impact, so the fact that there were few of them is not enough. I argue that people of colour were deliberately erased from the national legend. In the early 20th century, there was a need for the newly federated Australian nation to create national traditions that were white and male. From 1901, Australia had a relative degree of autonomy from Britain and there was an active search for national myths that could be distinct while also connecting Australia to the wider white, Anglo-British world. Bushrangers provided this useful narrative. By this time, bushranging had virtually ended as a practice, so it could be viewed through a romantic lens. It’s deeply ironic that white bushranging men who in their own times were largely considered a threat to the settler colonial project were later co-opted and become romantic exemplars of it.
Bushrangers of colour challenge this triumphant, white, male nationalism that the bushranging legend has come to represent in so many ways. They show that diversity has always been a part of the Australian experience. In their own time, they challenged colonial ideas about racial and gender hierarchies. They never fitted into the national legend. They undermined it.
A: So who were these people?
M: I recently published my first book, in which I look at four individuals who left the largest archival trace. I look at an African American bushranger, William Douglas, who was known at the time as Black Douglas. He was operating on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. I look at a Chinese man named Sam Poo who was from the Fujian province of China. And I look at two First Nations bushrangers, Mary Ann Bugg and Jimmy Governor.
A: Do they each bring something distinctive to banditry? Or are there important similarities between them?
A bit of both. Black Douglas and Sam Poo are interesting because they were renowned as bushrangers in their own times. I try to problematise whether this label of bushranger is actually doing the right type of work when it comes to defining their experience. Black Douglas, for example, only committed one, very unspectacular bushranging crime. He was captured soon afterwards. He’s meant to have murdered a white woman, but there’s no evidence that he committed this crime. And yet in his own time he was portrayed as an infamous dastardly figure. And so my question becomes, why did this legend of Black Douglas, the fearsome bushranger, have such traction? We need to question colonial narratives here. I’m trying to unpick them and understand why they had such reach and power. I also try to understand how these people would have seen the crimes they were accused of. So in the case of the Chinese bushranger, Sam Poo, I repositioned his story in relation to the Chinese cultural tradition of banditry that goes back to the 12th century, and the very real, criminal banditry that was rife in his hometown in China. I’m interested in these bushrangers’ experiences before they entered the crime archive in Australia. Both Sam Poo and Black Douglas had unique backgrounds and rich cultural traditions, but these were obscured and overlooked by colonists. Instead, Douglas and Poo were presented as colonial boogeymen and used to symbolise a broader fear about race that was going on at the time.
The First Nations bushrangers I look at are different. Mary Ann Bugg was very aware of public perceptions. She’s interesting because she was able to shift her persona when it suited her. She was actually pretty badass! She lived on the run with a white bushranger called Captain Thunderbolt. She dressed in men’s pants, and she would hamstring and slaughter cattle with a knife. She was accused of engaging in robberies herself, but when she stood before the court, she would dress as a very demure and respectable lady and claim to just be a poor wife. There’s also no evidence that she actually married this man. I love how Mary Ann was able to shift her public image when it suited her, but she never let this image dictate how she lived in the world. Jimmy Governor was renowned in his own time (and since) as a mass murderer. He did actually murder the white wife and children of his employer in the early 20th century, when bushranging was meant to be over. He had apparently been mocked by this family about his relationship with his white wife, and there were also accusations that he was underpaid of his work. After killing this family, Governor went on the run and became a bushranger, robbing settlers and committing more murders along the way. Governor is interesting because he wanted to be known as a bushranger. He left notes for the police to taunt them and replicated many of the activities that famous white bushrangers committed in the 19th century. Unlike those famous white bushrangers, Governor was labelled a heinous mass murderer rather than a bushranger. Descriptions of him were incredibly racialized too; he was presented as a ‘savage’. My aim with Governor’s story wasn’t to condone these very violent crimes. I wanted to try to understand the world that he was a part of and what it meant for him to call himself a bushranger in 1900. How did this white male tradition resonate with an Aboriginal man at the turn of the century in Australia? What does that do to our understanding of this national legend?
I’m often asked whether these figures were heroes or villains, but binary categories don’t work with these people. That’s a big part of what my research is about. I’m trying to recover how these people saw themselves and bring back their lives on their own terms. I’m not just trying to create an Aboriginal Ned Kelly. We can’t just fit these people into the white male paradigm that we have; we need to actually challenge the terms of reference. And for me, that’s a big part of trying to decolonise this type of history. It’s not just trying to insert new stories but trying to completely challenge the framework.
A: Can you tell me more about the types of sources that you’ve used and your experience of using them?
Crime archives are always messy. They seem to have such a wealth of information but this can conceal massive blind spots. For instance, it can distract us from the problematic power dynamics of using material that was designed to police, punish, and dehumanise people to bring back the contours of their lives. Crime archives are the place where these people left the greatest archival trace because they disrupted the colonial state. I use the crime archive as an entry point to search for clues. For example, I found a brief mention to Sam Poo’s place of origin in a gaol register, and this allowed me to track his story backwards, and consider what his life was like before he came to Australia. This approach requires wide reading around small references in the archive. It’s about trying to situate an individual in the world in which they lived and show the opportunities that were available to them as well as the barriers standing in their way.
Crime archives are also interesting spaces because they can record the voices of people who would otherwise be lost to us. Sometimes these voices are very fleeting. In the case of Black Douglas, there is one newspaper report of Douglas standing before the court and complaining that he’s got a bad name for no reason. And the magistrate replies, “give a dog an ill name and hang him”, meaning that Douglas had lost his reputation, so this was his life now.Newspaper articles also give a good sense of how these people were portrayed in colonial narratives. These bushrangers were often used as symbols for broader concerns at the time, such as racial disorder on the Goldfields. But occasionally, there are little pieces of information that I can follow to reshape or reconfigure the frame we’re bringing to these people’s stories. In the case of Mary Ann Bugg, I had some information about her Aboriginal mother and white, ex-convict father. This allowed me to look at how dispossession, colonial violence, and the intricacies of life on the frontier shaped Mary Ann’s early years. This backstory had largely been erased from Mary Ann’s history, but it provided an alternate tradition of Aboriginal resistance fighting and cultural protocol that may have affected how she saw her time on the run, as a bushranger, later in life.
A: So you’re expanding upon and contextualising the archive. And in doing so, you’re finding ways to challenge its narratives?
M: Yes, reading the archive to understand the intention behind how these documents and sources were created, but also repurposing and reading against that grain to try to bring back the voices that have been deliberately excluded.
A: What was your research journey? How did you come to work on this material in the first place?
M: I was always interested in history, Australian history in particular. In Australia in the 2000s, we had what was known as the ‘History Wars’. At the heart of this was frontier warfare, specifically whether colonisation by the British was genocidal and whether frontier warfare happened on the scale and with the intensity that historians have long argued. This got reduced down to whether Australians should feel pride or guilt about our past. I was always interested in where history intersects with national identity, how it is talked about in everyday conversations, how this affects the way that ordinary people feel about themselves and connect with place and with community. During my undergraduate degree, a mentor mentioned Aboriginal bushrangers. And I was shocked, because I’d taken every Australian history course, every Indigenous history course and I didn’t know about these people (and I couldn’t find a lot about them either). So I thought, why aren’t these people well known? And who else don’t we know about?