Ned Kelly and reimagined Australian history

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In March 2010, one of Sidney Nolan’s famous paintings from his early Ned Kelly series, First-Class Marksman (1946), sold for $5.4 million, making it the most expensive Australian artwork ever sold at auction. In 2001 Australian novelist Peter Carey won the Booker Prize for True History of the Kelly Gang. Reimagining the past through art and literature helps us to reflect on the present. But it is the exploration of the importance of choices made in the past through the ‘what if’ game of history where a better perspective can be gained on choices made today, writes Glenn Davies.

Sidney Nolan’s famous 1946 painting 'First-Class Marksman'

Ned Kelly has become an Australian folk hero for his defiance of the colonial authorities. Born in Victoria to an Irish convict father, as a young man he clashed with the police. Following an incident at his home in 1878, police parties searched for him in the bush. After he murdered three policemen, the colony proclaimed Kelly and his gang wanted outlaws. A final violent confrontation with police took place at Glenrowan. Kelly, dressed in home-made plate metal armour and helmet, was captured and sent to jail where he was hanged for murder at Old Melbourne Gaol in 1880.

The Kelly gang had many active supporters and a wide following. It has been said Kelly was forced into bushranging by the police who were looking to shoot him. Kelly and his gang robbed banks rather than robbing common folk. The radical thoughts of the Australian bushranger Ned Kelly were evident in the hour of his capture when the police took from his pocket a declaration for a Republic of North Eastern Victoria!

It was Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter that showed elements of a manifesto and a foreshadowing of a rebellion. In 1879 the Kelly gang held up the town of Jerilderie, New South Wales. Months prior to arriving in Jerilderie, and with help from his mate Joe Byrne, Kelly had dictated a lengthy letter for publication describing his view of his activities and the treatment of his family and, more generally, the treatment of Irish Catholics by the police and the English and Irish Protestant squatters. The Jerilderie Letter contains language that is colourful, rough and full of metaphors and has become a famous piece of Australian literature. In the time since his execution, Ned Kelly has been mythologised among some into a Robin Hood, a political revolutionary and a figure of Irish Catholic and working-class resistance to the establishment and British colonial ties. This can be summed up in the lyrics from 1980s folk rock band, Redgum:

But no one single handed Can hope to break the bars It's a thousand like Ned Kelly Who'll hoist the Flag of Stars

Historians seem to enjoy imagining history as it might have been, and it's this 'what if' theme that is taken up by prominent Australian historians in a collection of counterfactual histories edited by Sean Scalmer and Stuart McIntyre called What if: Australian History as it might have been. In Stuart McIntyre's counterfactual, Australia's entry into the First World War is pre-empted by a Pearl Harbour-like attack on Australian troop ships in the Cocos Islands, well before they reach Gallipoli. In the shock that follows, Billy Hughes stubbornly rallies his nation to the cause of empire. On the other hand, Helen Irving imagines what might have happened if Australia's initial attempt at Federation did not win British approval, and was therefore deferred until 1910. Rather than Alfred Deakin, Irving has the irascible Billy Hughes bring Australia together as a nation. Greater confidence in nationhood leads to a less obstructionist senate, paving the way for Australia to become a republic by 1980.

What if Ned Kelly escaped police capture in 1880 and led a successful Irish-Australian rebellion against British authority? A. Bertram Chandler’s novel Kelly Country (1984) explores an alternate history in which the bush ranger Ned Kelly was not captured and hanged but led a successful revolution, ultimately becoming the president of an Australian republic, which degenerated into a hereditary dictatorship with the result that Australia becomes a world power.

Arthur Bertram Chandler (28 March 1912–6 June 1984) was an Australian science fiction author. Born in Aldershot, England, he was a merchant marine officer, sailing the world in everything from tramp steamers to troopships. Chandler emigrated to Australia in 1956 and became an Australian citizen. He commanded various ships in the Australian and New Zealand merchant navies, and was the last master of the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne as the law required that it have an officer on board while it was laid up waiting to be towed to China to be broken up. Chandler wrote over 40 novels and 200 works of short fiction. He was most well-known for his John Grimes novels and for the ‘Rim World’ series, which have a distinctly naval flavour. He won Ditmar Awards for the short story The Bitter Pill (in 1971) and for three novels False Fatherland (in 1969), The Bitter Pill (in 1975), and The Big Black Mark (in 1976). ‘Kelly Country’ was originally published as a short story in Void, 3 May 1976 and received a Ditmar nomination and was the basis of the novel of the same name.

In Kelly Country the narrator is sent back in time, into the mind of his great-grandfather, in order to be able to write an eyewitness account of the Siege of Glenrowan, his ancestor having been among those present in Ma Jones’s pub on that occasion. He somehow gets control of his great-grandfather’s mind and interferes, stopping Thomas Curnow from flagging down the special train, not realising that by doing so he has changed history. As a result of his intervention the Australian Revolution succeeds because the rebels receive considerable help from the United States. The Harp in the South Committee – with Ned Kelly’s famous cousin, Buffalo Bill as its figurehead – raises money and volunteers. Francis Bannerman – the world’s first international second-hand arms dealer – supplies weaponry. Certain officers of the American army regard the war in Australia as an ideal opportunity for trying out newfangled devices in somebody else’s country – Andrews airships, steam-operated Gatling cannons, and primitive tanks with steam-driven, armoured traction engines. When the narrator returns to his present he realises the success of the Australian Revolution has changed the history of Australia and to a lesser extent the world. The story shifts between the nineteenth century and modern times. When the time traveller wakes up the world has changed with Australia rather than the United States embroiled in the Vietnam War. All because Curnow never stopped the train (he ended up getting his brains bashed in instead)! Australia has now shifted to a future where "The Kelly" is a hereditary dictator.

The 1975 Dismissal of the Whitlam Government was the most dramatic political event in the history of Australia's Federation and remains a controversial subject in Australian history. The dismissal is central to any understanding of the current debate about becoming a republic. On Tuesday, 11 November 1975, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister and appointed Malcolm Fraser as a caretaker Prime Minister. For the first time, an unelected vice-regal representative had removed from office a government which commanded a majority in the House of Representatives. As a result a double dissolution election was held on 13 December 1975, at which the Whitlam Government was soundly defeated. David Atwell has written an alternate history timeline that explores the creation of an Australian republic after the events of the 1975 Dismissal at and

Of course the obvious question to ponder is “What if the result for the republican referendum in 1999 had been Yes? At there have been a number of alternate history timelines written that explore an alternate Australian republic. Below is an extract from an alternate history where the 1999 republican referendum was successful:

Event Date: 16-11-1999

In a nationwide referendum the Australian public chooses to become a republic and no longer become a member of the British Commonwealth. The majority is slim however. Only 52.3% are for and 47.7% are against. The Prime Minister, John Howard and Governor General both step down in honour of the new Australian Republic.

Event Date: 17-11-1999

Immediately new elections are to be held for The Australian Republic on the 4th of February. John Howard will remain caretaker Prime Minister until then. The result has sent shock waves throughout the Commonwealth, most people expecting Australia to stay a member. Many in New Zealand expect a referendum soon, as do many in Papua New Guinea and Canada.

Event Date: 21-11-1999

A new Australian flag is commissioned. Its design is that of which many expected should the Republican camp win - dark green in the top left corner and gold in the bottom right corner. A white Southern Cross constellation is in the green half and a large ten-pointed star is in the gold half. Most Australians seem content with the decision to become a republic, although there is talk amongst the native aboriginal community of harsher treatment now that Australia has left the commonwealth.

Event Date: 4-12-1999

The Australian Labour Party (currently in opposition) says that their leader, Kim Beazley will run for President in the February elections. There is speculation that young Liberal party member John Hobbs may run for the Presidency. This speculation has worried many poor and aboriginal people due to his hard line poverty and race relation’s ideas.

For the full alternate history timeline see

The proverbial poem ‘For Want of a Nail’ shows that small actions can result in large consequences.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The poem tells us that ‘Had the nail been there, the horse would have been shoed, the rider would have turned the battle, and the kingdom would have been saved’. It is important to note though that these chains of causality are only seen in hindsight. To play the ‘what if’ history game has the consequence of essentialising history, creating an opposition between what really happened and what writers imagine might have happened. Australia is still at heart a speculative enterprise.

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