Doubts about who shot Thunderbolt
OCCASIONALLY a book comes along that breaks the rules.
Like news of a tragedy in the family, it disturbs because it changes our way of seeing the world.
‘Thunderbolt: Scourge of the Ranges’ confronts us with a sordid past – a past that the author claims still harrows and haunts us.
“Civilisation,” according to G. James Hamilton (pictured below), “is the very slow process of adopting the ideas of the nonconformist, divergent-thinking minority in our midst.”
Curiously, Australia has both a proud as well as a woeful record in this endeavour.
In the history department, it isn’t as well placed on civilisation’s goal scoreboard as it pretends to be.
Its divergent thinkers copped hidings over the decades since early settlement, and the facts were largely kept quiet to avoid disturbing the peace.
According to this book, treating failure by dressing it up with spin in order to ‘quietly get on with life’ was the norm in early New South Wales.
It does sound familiar to my ears, I must admit.
“Our historical records copped the same hiding the divergent thinkers got,” Hamilton says.
“In most cases, something important and valuable to us all suffered and got lost to posterity.
“One thing lost along with the correct historical record of Thunderbolt was any innocence we might claim.
“The resolute trashing in May and June 1870 by authorities of the Captain Thunderbolt legend went unchallenged.
“It was a cultural loss achieved by unlawful acts on the part of our colonial political minders and police that we went along with.”
Divided into three parts, the book examines the lives of Thunderbolt and his wife, Mary Ann Ward (nee Bugg) before they took to ranging the bush in anger, the troubles that drove them outside the law, and the bizarre events that unfolded at Uralla to see the demise of the legend if not of the man himself.
Written in historical fiction style narrated by Barry Sinclair, the bushranger’s living descendant, of Uralla, ‘Thunderbolt’ dramatises novel-style the known main events in Fred Ward’s life; facts borne out by concrete evidence, verifiable circumstances and basic logic used by investigators and jurors.
And the true version makes the official version look the amateurish sham that it is and has been for 139 years.
What’s new in this book – apart from insights into his marriage and family life, revelations of the failed assassination and successful cover-up – are the insights into the man’s character and motives, dispelling the all too common perception that he was anti-social and a common thief.
There was nothing common about him, apparently.
He was principled as few men were then, in authority at least.
He learned quickly, despite little formal education. He was a horseman of rare ability, and his mounts recognised it. He was Australia’s first New Age dad in taking maternity leave while his wife fossicked for bush tucker.
He was in many ways an exceptional human being – a fact recognised by at least one New England magistrate who argued for a Governor’s pardon and his employment as a mounted police instructor.
The evidence unearthed by Hamilton and Sinclair exposes the so-called ‘demise of Thunderbolt’ recorded in our history books as a fabrication concocted by authorities as an expedient.
“It was to save their own miserable hides,” says Hamilton.
The public’s loss of confidence in authority was at the danger level.
The brazen cover-up of the bungled capture of Fred Ward was to avert a feared Eureka-style insurrection.
Even conservatives like William Charles Wentworth saw the need to ‘throw off the oppressors’, so uninspired and unworthy was Britain’s handling of the affairs of the Antipodean colonies.
But a maturing Wentworth found he could make money out of the status quo and become somebody important – ending up leader of the Bunyip Aristocracy, the landed gentry so despised by ordinary settlers.
The Americans had their Benedict Arnold: we had Wentworth.
The landed gentry were despised because they got their land through privilege and influence and for cheap, not merit, while the battlers got little land no matter what their merit.
That was the problem that raised the spectre of rebellion.
But apart from a ham-fisted stand at Eureka, no rebellion occurred, Hamilton says.
“The confrontation needed to make a proper nation out of us just never saw daylight. The consequences of inaction were terrible – consequences that blight our national progress to this day in so many ways. Just one example of those ways is our need for police we feel are working for us rather than themselves. Our politicians ring their hands in despair, powerless. Only major and courageous reforms will change that terrible situation.”
The focus of Hamilton’s attention is clearly what he calls the wanton destruction of the legend of Thunderbolt, a real version of the mythical Robin Hood.
There’s no real proof Robin was a real person, but Thunderbolt was real, and larger than life itself.
The comparison with Robin Hood is valid, Hamilton maintains, because both outlaws turned to highway robbery as their only means of fighting against larger crimes; crimes of state that exploited, overwhelmed and intimidated the average powerless citizen.
The proof is borne out by the popularity they enjoyed by those most exploited – the bush battlers.
“The idea that Fred (Thunderbolt) Ward was just an ignorant crook is wrong when all the facts are considered.”
Cost what it may, Hamilton says, they flee facing up to failure – a failure that went right across the board.
Writers of the time floundered about impotent, unable to analyse or criticise the emerging society they were there to serve.
Cynicism was so rife that ordinary folk often turned a blind eye to their own exploitation if they could get some advantage over others and become part of the process to some benefit.
Thunderbolt didn’t rob either for the money or the security.
As he said on so many occasions to his victims: I was driven to it.
His conscience demanded that he do something.
So he took on the British Crown single-handed, on his own terms.
If the truth can finally come out, he will have won in that battle – a fitting and just conclusion to one of our sorriest historical sagas.
Thunderbolt: Scourge of the Ranges.
By G. James Hamilton with Barry Sinclair.
Phoenix Press Nov 2009.
Reviewed by Chris de Portugon