Mr. Bulletproof

My last post covered the early history of Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, one of the most iconic figures of Australian (and, indeed, Irish) history, up until the Fitzpatrick affair of 1878 had landed his mother and two friends in jail. Not only that, but both he and his brother Dan were now wanted men; at his mother’s trial the prosecutor said that, had Kelly been there, he would have ‘given him twenty one years’ (some sources say 15, but that’s really a triviality). Seeing the situation was hopeless, and finally losing their tether at the injustice and aggression of the police, Ned and Dan fled the district and went into the bush, and here we pick up the story.

The police were anxious to finally and properly deal with the Kelly brothers and to close down their rustling racket (although they never had any evidence for it), and a £100 reward (a large sum in those days) was put on both their heads. Ned and Dan saw the need to lay low, and made their way to the Wombat Ranges, where they attempted to raise some cash by means of a whiskey distillery and gold panning. Their plan was not, for the moment, anything criminal, but all that changed in late October when the police learned of their whereabouts, and nine policemen set out to capture them. They aimed to execute a pincer movement, one group aiming to catch the gang as they ran away from the other, but this plan went swiftly awry. As they searched for the Kelly camp (the Wombat Ranges was a large area), one of the groups (comprising four men) made camp at Stringybark Creek, unknowingly less than a mile from the Kelly camp. Ned Kelly, who had presumably been keeping a watchful eye out for the police, saw the camp, gathered his brother, two associates who had joined them (Joe Byrne and Steve Hart) and made for it. At around 5pm, the four men (with five guns between them; Ned carried two rifles) surprised the two officers who remained at the camp (the other two having gone off to explore) and told them to lay down their arms. Although Constable McIntyre surrendered immediately (which was probably the sensible thing, given that he was unarmed), a Constable Lonigan, who Kelly had some history with, went for his gun. Ned Kelly immediately shot him in the head. When the other two officers returned they were presented with a similar demand to ‘bail up’, but instead chose to open fire. Both men were shot dead (one thanks to Kelly), but the ensuing chaos gave McIntyre the opportunity to escape on a horse. Upon his return to his home police station he told of Kelly’s ambush on their party, and the slaughter shocked the whole area. All four men were declared outlaws, to be taken dead or alive.

The police took this idea rather… enthusiastically, and gave themselves emergency powers to, basically, break in to anywhere they liked without a warrant and to arrest any suspected sympathisers. Needless to say this did not endear them to the common folk of Australia, particularly when even these tactics failed to find Kelly. Shock at the Kelly gang’s murders slowly turned to annoyance and resentment towards the police, and sympathy with the plight of the Kellys grew. However, the Kelly gang themselves were in dubious shape; without any money they were struggling to keep themselves going, or to help any of their sympathisers who found themselves in prison. The outlaws needed cash, and fast; and so Ned Kelly decided to rob a bank. What the hell, they could only hang him once.

This first raid, on the town of Euroa, was masterful in its execution; after taking over a building to act as a base and to rest their horses, they marched into the bank, weapons drawn, cut the telegraph lines to prevent any messages getting out, and walked out a few minutes later £2260 the richer, an enormous sum. Many of the hostages were, apparently, surprised and charmed by how dignified and polite their kidnappers were, nobody had to be killed and even the newspapers had to admit the robbery had been a veritable triumph. Some of the sympathy for the Kelly gang turned into veritable admiration as, once again, they disappeared into the bush and left the police floundering in their wake. Several months later, it was the turn of the Bank of New South Wales at Jerilderie, an equally slick and bloodless operation that also included, the next day, Ned reading out a weighty 7391-word manifesto/autobiography to the town’s populace. He intended it to be distributed across the country and the world but, as it was, ‘the Jerilderie letter’ went via a complex route into the government archives, and wasn’t published until the 1930s. It is, basically, the Kelly viewpoint on everything that had befallen them, and his views on why he felt his action was justified and the police were ‘cowards’, among other things; it’s phrasing makes it tricky to read, but it provides a shining insight into the mind of the famous outlaw. This letter is the reason beyond all others that Ned Kelly, more than all his compatriots, is remembered to this day.

After Jerilderie, the Kelly gang disappeared for 17 months, and the police pressure intensified. The price on their heads was upped to £4000, over $2 million in today’s money, and the whole ‘locking up friends and sympathisers’ plan ‘ went into overdrive; a select blacklist were banned from owning land in a certain area, for fear they might provide a safehouse for the Kelly gang. This angered the gang, who were incited to one final act of defiance. After shooting an informer (who the police had intended to use as bait), the gang took over the town of Glenrowan, subduing the occupants, and settled down to wait for the police to arrive. It was also here that the Kelly gang donned the outfits that would cement their reputation in history; home-made, 44kg suits of metal body armour, covering chest, back, head and groin, leaving only legs and arms unprotected. These were the first pieces of bulletproof armour, (sufficient to stop a bullet at ten paces), and must have made the outlaws seem mighty fearsome.

The police coming after them knew about the armour from their inquiries, and upon arrival (a released hostage prevented the gang’s attempt to sabotage the train line from being successful) began a shootout against the Kelly gang; 50 against four. During the 15 minute gunfight, Joe Byrne was hit once and Ned 3 times (it is a testament to their armour’s effectiveness that it wasn’t more), before they retreated to the hotel where their hostages were kept. Slowly, it became apparent that the Kelly gang were losing; some time later that night, Joe Byrne was killed thanks to a stray shot to the groin, and the terrified hostages began to escape to the police line. The next morning, Ned Kelly attempted to ambush the police from behind (or had already been out and went back to rescue his compatriots; stories differ), but they now knew to aim for the legs. After 28 shots to his flesh, and countless to his unpeirced armour, Kelly finally went down, somehow still alive despite horrific blood loss. When the police finally fought their way through into the hotel, they found Steve Hart and Dan Kelly dead. Both had almost certainly committed suicide rather than be captured.

Ned Kelly was hanged less than a month later, but his memory has survived long past that Australian November day more than a century ago. The British have had a long history of being brutally controlling to their possessions, both across the empire and in Ireland (indeed, if you go back far enough we can count Scotland and Wales too), and it was invariably the common people who suffered at the hand of harsh taxation, a near-total lack of care for the welfare of the poor and a brutal legal system. Many thousands of people have suffered at such injustices, but Ned Kelly is a rare example of a normal guy who stood up almost alone against the system- and won. His memory acts as a rallying point for all thoughts of freedom from control, of oppression, of having one’s destiny decided for you. He lived fast, he died young, he represented the fight against some of the worst aspects of Britain’s imperial age. And, even today, that means something.

Plus, a bulletproof suit of armour? SO GODDAMN COOL!!!

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What’s so bad?

We humans love a good bit of misery. We note when bad luck befalls us, chronicle our ailments and often consider ourselves to be having a harder-than-average time of it all. The news and media constantly bombard us with stories of injustice, crime, health scares and why we are basically the worst country imaginable in every conceivable respect, and one only needs to spend a few minutes on any internet forum or discussion centre to find a thousand new and innovative reasons as to why you, and everything you stand for, is totally horrible and stupid and deserves to die. And/or that any faith in humanity you have is entirely misplaced.

However, optimists across the globe have pointed out that if the human race was actually as evil, despicable or otherwise useless a barrel of skunks as it often appears, we probably wouldn’t actually be around; or, at the very least, there certainly is nice and good stuff in this world that we humans are responsible for. So why are we so fixated on the bad? Why our attraction to misfortune? Are we all secretly schadenfreude junkies?

Part of the reason is of course traceable back to the simple fact that we humans are decidedly imperfect creatures, and that there is an awful lot of bad stuff in this world; these scare stories have to come from somewhere, after all. Take the two things that I feel most strongly about; climate change and slavery. In the two centuries since the industrial revolution, we have inflicted some catastrophic damage on our planet in the frankly rather shallow pursuit of profit and material wealth that always seem so far away; not only has this left vast scars of human neglect on many parts of our earth, but the constant pumping of pollutants into our atmosphere has sorely depleted our precious, irredeemable natural resources and is currently in the process of royally screwing with our global climate; it may be centuries before the turmoil calms down, and that’s assuming we ever manage to get our act together at all. On the other front, there are currently more slaves in existence today than at any other point in history (27 million, or roughly the combined population of Australia and New Zealand), a horrifying tribute to the sheer ruthlessness and disrespect of their fellow man of some people. The going rate of a slave today is 500 times less than it was in the days before William Wilberforce ended the Atlantic slave trade, at just $90, and this website allows you to calculate approximately how many slaves worldwide work to maintain your lifestyle. I got 40. I felt kinda sick.

However, as previously said there is also a fairly large quantity of awesome stuff in this world, so why doesn’t this seem to go as well-documented and studied as what’s going wrong. We never hear, for example, that X government department was really efficiently run this year, or that our road system is, on average, one of the best and safest in the world; it’s only ever the horror stories that get out.

Maybe it’s that we actively take pleasure in such pain; that we really do crave schadenfreude, or at the very least that negative feeling has a large emotional connotation. We use such emotion constantly in other situations after all; many films exploit or explore the world of the dark and horrifying in order to get under our skin and elicit a powerful emotional response, and music is often ‘designed’ to do the same thing. The emotions of hatred, of horror,  of loss, even fear, all elicit some primal response within us, and can create reciprocating emotions of catharsis, the sense of realisation and acceptance combined with a sense of purification of the soul. This emotion was the most sought-after feature of classical Greek tragedy, and required great influxes of negative emotion for it to work (hence why most theatre displays incorporated comedic satyrs to break the sheer monotony of depression); maybe we seek this sense of destructive satisfaction in our everyday lives too, revelling in the horror of the world because it makes us, in an almost perverse way, feel better about the world. And hey; I like a good mope now and again as much as the next man.

But to me, this isn’t the real reason, if only because it overlooks the most simple explanation; that bad stuff is interesting because it stands out. Humans are, in a surprising number of ways, like magpies, and we always get drawn to everything outside the norm. If it’s new, it’s unusual, so we find it intriguing and want to hear about it. Nowadays, we live a very sheltered existence in which an awful lot of stuff goes right for us, and the majority of experiences of life and other people fall into the decidedly ‘meh, OK’ category. Rarely are you ecstatic about the friendliness of the staff in your local newsagents, as most such people tend to be not much more than a means to the end; they are efficient and not horrible about allowing you to purchase something, as it should be. This is so commonplace, purely by virtue of being good business practice, that this is considered the norm, and it’s not as if there’s much they can do to elevate the experience and make it particularly enjoyable for you- but it’s far easier for them to be surly and unhelpful, making you note not to visit that shop again. This applies in countless other ways of life; the strictness of our national driving test means that the majority of people on any given road are going to behave in a predictable, safe fashion, meaning the guy who almost kills you pulling out onto the motorway sticks in your mind as an example of how standards are falling everywhere and the roads are hideously unsafe.

To me, the real proof of this theory is that we are capable of focusing on the good things in life too; when they too are somewhat dramatic and unusual. During last summer’s Olympics, an event that is unlikely to occur in Britain again in my lifetime, the news recorded various athletes’ medal success and the general awesomeness of the event every evening and everyone seemed positively taken aback by how great the event was and how much everyone had got behind it; it was genuinely touching to see people enjoying themselves so much. But in our current society, always striving to improve itself, finding examples of things hitting well below par is far easier than finding stuff acting above and beyond the call of awesome.

Although admittedly being happy the whole time would be kinda tiring. And impractical