Fact Checked

What is a Bushranger?

S. Ashraf
S. Ashraf

"Bushranger" is a term from Australian history. A bushranger is an outlaw or robber who lived in the late 18th century or 19th century and preyed upon Aborigines, miners and settlers, among others, in the sparsely populated areas of the Australian countryside known as the outback or bush. Acting alone or in small gangs, bushrangers were criminals who engaged in murder, robbery and rape. Most often, though, bushrangers specialized in the robbery of small settlements, banks or stagecoaches.

Originally, "bushranger" just referred to a person who had the skills needed to survive in the Australian bush. Over time, the word came instead to refer only to the British convicts who escaped from one of the early Australian penal colonies and used the relatively uninhabited areas of the outback to hide from authorities. In order to survive, the escapees stole from travelers and farmers in remote communities because their survival skills were limited, and they often died of exposure, starvation or sickness. John Caesar, who was shot and killed by a settler in 1796, is thought to have been the first of these convict bushrangers.

The Bush is a part of Australia which is unsettled and undeveloped, but not as remote as the Outback.
The Bush is a part of Australia which is unsettled and undeveloped, but not as remote as the Outback.

Until sometime in the 1850s, bushrangers were almost entirely escaped British convicts. During the 1850s and 1860s, there was a gold rush in Australia that gave bushrangers easy access to large sums of wealth that could be quickly converted to cash. Gold settlements usually were extremely isolated, and the police force had been greatly diminished because many of its members left to prospect for gold, so there was an upsurge in the number of bushrangers. It is estimated there were between several hundred and 2,000 bushrangers operating in the period from the 1850s through the 1880s. This era is considered to be the heyday of the bushranger.

With the discovery of gold, escaped convicts from Britain’s penal colonies ceased to be the only type of bushrangers. Instead, after the time of the gold rush, a bushranger was usually a native-born Australian. Often, a bushranger was the son of poor settlers or squatters who saw an opportunity for easy wealth in a criminal life of ambushing gold shipments, robbing travelers and raiding settlers near the remote gold towns.

This new breed of bushranger was much more at home in the bush than an escaped convict, so survival in the countryside was not problematic. The 1880s saw the last of the bushrangers. Most bushrangers were either hanged or shot by the police or otherwise died violently at a young age.

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Discussion Comments


@jmc88 - Ned Kelly is definitely the most famous bushranger and he definitely has the most awesome story of any of the bushrangers that had it out with the law.

Men like Ned Kelly defied law and order in the outback and this symbolized the typical Australian and created the identity of the rough and tumble white that chose to call the outback home.

In reality though there were many men like Ned Kelly, probably thousands, and this just shows how rough of a place Australia was back then and how the original white residents of Australia were actually made up of many undesirables and criminals.

It is quite amazing to see how such a continent has developed over time despite being founded as a prison colony that was ripe with anarchy and lawlessness.


@matthewc23 - I have to be honest I do not know of many famous bushrangers, however there is one very famous one that is the basis of a lot of Australian folklore and legend.

The most famous bushranger of them all was Ned Kelly and he was definitely someone to not run into.

Despite being a legend among Australians, he killed several men as well as police officers and was not a very nice or pleasant man.

His major claim to fame is that he made a famous last stand and wore a makeshift suit of armor while coming out from his hiding place, guns a blazing, in order to take down as many of the authorities as possible.

Bushrangers like Ned Kelly symbolizes rebellion and defiant stands that have created the image of the outback Australian and have been the basis for the Australian identity.


It seems to me like Australia was a very very dangerous place during this time and it was a bit of a place of pure anarchy and lawlessness in a lot of areas.

Just thinking that thousands of bushrangers, who escaped from the various penal colonies across the continent, could come out at anytime and rob and kill you is an unpleasant thought and I doubt that many people traveled alone in the outback during those times.

I am wondering if there are any specific Australian bushrangers that have claimed incredible fame or if there are any movies made about them?


I always find it to be very interesting that the country of Australia was entirely a prison colony way back in the past.

Australia used to be a bit of an anomaly in the day and it was so remote and such a big island that the British thought that they could just get rid of their convicts.

However, people who were sent there were able to adapt to the conditions around them and those who were lucky enough to escape were able to become bushrangers and live in the Australian outback, without fear of getting caught.

In a way this was a misfire by the British because once someone escaped they pretty much were not going to be found again and they would elude the authorities for good in the outback.

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    • The Bush is a part of Australia which is unsettled and undeveloped, but not as remote as the Outback.
      By: Tupungato
      The Bush is a part of Australia which is unsettled and undeveloped, but not as remote as the Outback.