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Wangaratta police at the capture of Ned Kelly in 1880. William Edward Barnes/ State Library of Victoria

Who will be Australia’s future folk heroes?

Fortress Australia. It’s the epitaph our nation earned during the Howard era, when the former PM declared, “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

But after last week’s capture and arrest of five Australian citizens allegedly attempting to leave the country in a small boat and join the fighting in Syria, we might now win a reputation as the Hotel Australia. Not only is it impossible to check in any time you want, but you can never leave.

Which is, of course, just what the British government had in mind when it sent its most marginalized, alienated and aggrieved members to the end of the earth for the terms of their natural lives.

The study of history is endlessly entertaining. Its retrospectivites and non-teleological twists and turns can make watching the evening news a hoot. One lesson stands out: be careful what you wish for.

The current national obsession with genealogy is an example. Once awash with humiliation and shame by our “convict stain”, we are all now searching for our very own Who Do You Think You Are? moment, hoping that a lovable scoundrel or hard-pressed washerwoman turns up in our lineage. A folk hero or two to brighten up the otherwise mundane work-a-day world of life in the lucky country.

A bearded man walks into a bar

Here’s a more disturbing cautionary tale.

A man with a beard walks into a bar. (This is not a joke.) The man is armed. He has a list of injustices. He demands attention. He takes hostages. The man is well known to authorities for a spate of other crimes. Police arrive at the scene and establish an exclusion zone around the occupied premises. A few captives escape or are allowed to leave. Before the night is out both hostages and felons will be dead.

Ned Kelly knew exactly what he was doing when he holed up in Ann Jones’ Glenrowan Inn on the morning of 26 June 1880.

Apparently the Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis did too when he took 17 people hostage at the Lindt cafe in 2014. We are only just getting our heads around this man’s criminal intentions, but we have had over 130 years to dissect Kelly’s words, deeds and aspirations

The Glenrowan siege was the culmination of a series of outlandish public acts intended to spin Kelly’s back catalogue of grievances, including persecution by the state and ultimately, to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling elite — “the Saxon yoke”.

To this end, Kelly conspired to derail a train ferrying police, reporters and civilians towards him. Believing that he and his supporters were systematically harassed on account of their ethnic background and political views, Kelly sought a dramatic denouement.

A stencil of Ned Kelly. bixentro/flickr

As historian Paul Terry argues:

He said he had every intention of killing the people on the train because they would have killed him, if they could. This would have been a shocking act that would have had to be interpreted either as a declaration of war or an act of terrorism.

Sectarian division between the Irish and the English on the 19th-century Victorian frontier — a territory still up for (white) grabs in terms of access to land and legitimacy — provided the context for the often violent and sometimes frankly idiosyncratic actions of a wronged man.

“I am a widow’s son outlawed”, Kelly famously concluded his Jerilderie Letter, “and my orders must be obeyed”.

After periods of incarceration and a hostile letter-writing campaign, the Glenrowan Siege was a winner-take-all, up-yours to

“a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice”.

Poetic genius/Robin Hood warrior or dangerous criminal/lone wolf/whackjob? Historians and punters still argue the toss. What is certain is that other renegades and mavericks, keen to distinguish their own nonconformist bona fides, have channelled Kelly’s self-declared primacy over the laws of the state.

Larrikins of many hues — some extremist, most benign — have been eager to declare allegiance to a man who, again to quote the Jerilderie Letter,

had not been cowardly enough to lie down … under such trying circumstances and … the persecutions and insults offered to myself and people.

What do we know about Man Haron Monis’s motivations for taking hostages in a crowded café, the modern incantation of a colonial pub?

In his own words, via his Facebook page, Monis, who also went under the name of Sheikh Haron wrote:

Since the Australian government cannot tolerate Sheikh Haron’s activity, is trying to damage his image by these false accusations, and also for putting pressure on him to stop his activity and keep him silent, but God willing Man Haron Monis will not stop his political activity against oppression.

We know that before his profile was erased shortly after his crime, Sydney’s ‘Fake Sheikh’ had almost 15,000 Facebook ‘likes’.

Man Haron Monis in 2009. Sergio Dioniso/AAP

Kelly claimed to have thousands of sympathisers, ready and waiting to fight for a republic in North East Victoria, an assertion some historians say is without basis in fact.

Other similarities between the two bearded men emerge. Both penned venomous letters to strangers; neither was a stranger to the police or judiciary. Both claimed the charges made against them were laid for political reasons.

Both used the symbolism of partisan flags to add political ballast to what might otherwise appear like narcissistic attention-seeking.

Both employed tactics calculated to instil fear and terror. However, Monis (unlike Kelly who was supremely protective of his family - particularly his sisters and mother) appears to have practised his standover tactics on women. He had even been charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.

An audacious voyage

William and Mary Bryant knew a thing or two about coercion. This convict couple were both sentenced to transportation to Sydney prior to their union; William for resisting revenue officers, Mary for assault and robbery.

The Bryants famously fled from their captors on the moonless night of 28 March 1791, when along with their two young children and seven other convicts, they escaped the penal colony in the governor’s six-oared cutter. Only one of their number had any navigational skills. Their destination was Timor.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography,

they landed at Koepang on 5 June, after travelling 3254 miles (5237 km) in 69 days on an epic voyage in which they found coal, probably near Newcastle, discovered many of the islands of the Barrier Reef and crossed the Arafura Sea.

Before being finally captured, Mary’s husband and both of their children were dead. Mary and the remaining escapees were returned to England, tried and sentenced to death. The English press and literary titan, James Boswell, took up Mary’s case for clemency. She was pardoned.

The Bryant’s audacious voyage has gone down in seafaring history. Mary Bryant has become part of popular culture, with television dramas, stage plays, musicals, novels and at least a dozen books recounting her renegade life.

It’s too early to tell what similarities might exist between the fugitives trying to flee Australia’s maritime borders in 1791 and the five arrested last week.

The five men, aged between 21 and 33 years old, were arrested in the small town of Laura in Far North Queensland after they allegedly towed a 7-metre fishing boat from Melbourne towards Cape York. It was alleged they planned to travel to Indonesia by boat and join the fighting in Syria.

Certainly, any analogies between Ned Kelly and Man Haron Monis, or the Laura Five and Mary Bryant, won’t line up in perfect parallel. History is rarely that neat. And in comparing Monis to Kelly I am certainly not seeking to minimise the tragic impact of his actions - which led to three deaths, including his own. Nor am I suggesting that Kelly was a radical fundamentalist, in any modern sense of the term.

But there is sufficient purchase in these varied stories to suggest that outlaws and outliers are apt to become folk heroes given enough cultural oxygen.

Shock jocks and opportunistic politicians, I repeat: be careful what you wish for.

Clare Wright is an Associate Professor of History at La Trobe University and the author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize.

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