BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The man of God who turned to crime
, March 15, 2014
IN SEARCH OF CAPTAIN MOONLITE:
The Strange Life and Death of the Bushranger Andrew George Scott
by Paul Terry
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 264 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Ask people which infamous persons in Australian history met their end in 1880 and they will name the Kelly gang. Often overlooked, however, is another egregious person executed in 1880, Andrew George Scott — otherwise known as Captain Moonlite — whose bizarre CV included bushranging, lay preaching in the Anglican Church and campaigning for prison reform.
Scott’s career has been re-assembled by journalist Paul Terry. Although his book is not the first study of Captain Moonlite, it incorporates material that has only recently come to light from the 1869-1870 period, when Scott travelled to Fiji and attempted to buy property there.
Scott’s life was colourful and full of extremes. He was born in 1845 in Ireland. When he was still young, his family migrated to New Zealand.
After undertaking honourable service as an officer in the New Zealand militia during the Maori Wars, he travelled to Australia and was initially employed as a lay reader in the Church of England, his first posting being at Bacchus Marsh, 50 kilometres west of Melbourne.
He was later transferred to the rougher gold-mining town of Mount Egerton, where he formed an association with a young bank clerk, Julius Bruun, and a schoolmaster, James Simpson. The bank at which Bruun worked was robbed in 1869, and to this day it is disputed as to the events that actually transpired.
Terry argues that Bruun and Simpson were the key players in the plot. However, it was Scott who would eventually end up being tried and found guilty of the robbery after he was found to be in possession of some gold that had allegedly been in the bank’s safe. However, his arrest and trial would take place some time after he left Mount Egerton, travelled to Fiji and then returned to Sydney with a considerable sum of money which supported a lavish lifestyle until his funds ran out.
In 1872, Scott was arrested in New South Wales on charges of obtaining money on false pretences. He was found guilty and served a 15-month jail sentence, at the end of which he was charged with the earlier Victorian bank robbery for which he was taken to Ballarat to stand trial.
While awaiting trial, he and a band of fellow-prisoners escaped from Ballarat Prison, but were shortly re-captured. He was convicted of the robbery and jailed in Pentridge.
After his release in 1879, he took to the road with a group of companions, delivering lectures denouncing the inhumane conditions he in prisons.
One of his companions was James Nesbitt, whom Scott had befriended in prison. There is some speculation as to the exact nature of their relationship. Terry is reasonably convinced that they were lovers. When Nesbitt was killed in a gun battle with the police, Scott was overcome with grief.
His lectures initially attracted large audiences, but the newspapers dismissed them, and he was frequently harassed by police. This led to his decision to leave Victoria.
He and his companions tramped around the countryside, looking for odd jobs to support themselves. These were tough times, as the colonies of Victoria and NSW were both gripped by an economic downturn caused largely by drought.
Scott, after having been rebuffed by the manager of Wantabadgery station near Gundagai and having run out of food and money, decided to hold up the station. In the ensuing gun battle, gang members James Nesbitt and Gus Warnecke were killed, as was a policeman, Constable Bowen. The four surviving gang members, on being captured, were sent to Sydney, where they stood trial for the murder of the policeman and were found guilty.
Terry’s analysis of the trial draws extensively from a series of death-cell letters Scott wrote while awaiting execution. These letters were unearthed as recently as the 1980s and suggest that the trial was unfair.
For example, requests at the start of the trial for an adjournment, on the basis that Scott had not been given adequate time to prepare his defence, were dismissed. The court sat well into the night, so as to conclude the case swiftly.
There is ample evidence that one of the jurors from a non-English speaking background could not understand all the evidence.
Perhaps the most damning feature of the trial was that a crucial piece of evidence that appeared to contradict the guilty verdict — namely that Constable Bowen was killed by a bullet from a colt revolver rather than from the weapon Captain Moonlite was using — was glossed over.
The younger two surviving members of the gang had their death sentences reprieved, but Scott and 21-year-old Thomas Rogan were executed at Darlinghurst Gaol on January 20, 1880.
Scott was denied his final wish, namely to be buried in the same grave as his companion Nesbitt.
Paul Terry’s book, In Search of Captain Moonlite, is an enthralling and well-researched account of one of Australia’s more colourful bushrangers.