In English law an outlaw was someone who had literally been put outside the protection of the law. Outlawry normally occurred because of a criminal or civil action, although the process could occasionally begin with a petition in parliament. Criminal outlawries arose from indictments for treason, rebellion, conspiracy or other serious felonies.
In Van Diemen’s Land Lieutenant Governor Collins mostly relied on General and Garrison Orders to maintain law and order in Hobart Town and outlying areas, but the years 1805-1807 were very difficult for all the inhabitants of both the Derwent and Port Dalrymple settlements, which were on the verge of famine several times during this period. Such was the shortage of food that convicts with dogs and guns were sent into the country to hunt for kangaroos to augment the dwindling supplies of meat.
A life of hunting and living off the land proved to be much more attractive to some of the convicts than returning to the discipline, and often harsh treatment, of their former masters. As a result they took to the woods and set about committing dreadful outrages on the aboriginal population, carrying off women and forcing the men to hunt for them, and terrorising the settlers.
As the depredations of the bands of bushrangers increased, Collins made the decision to invoke the ancient law of outlawry to try to curb this outbreak of lawlessness. On 8 January 1806 he issued an order stating that if seven men, mentioned by name, who had absented themselves from public labour, and were at large in the woods, had not been taken or surrendered themselves by 18 January they would be considered outlaws, and dealt with accordingly. In May 1807 the names of eight more men were notified as having absconded. These measures proved unsuccessful as the bushrangers knew the countryside far better than their pursuers and had friends in the settlements who would supply them with provisions and ammunition, as well as warning them of the proximity of pursuing parties.
In November 1807 Collins made a further attempt to frighten the bushrangers into submission by publishing an order offering the bushrangers the alternatives of amnesty or outlawry:
“Whereas it is become absolutely necessary that some measures should be adopted to guard the well disposed inhabitants of this settlement against the evils which may accrue to them from their existing in the woods of this settlement a set of dangerous miscreants who have for a considerable time been at large therein, the Lt-Governor is hereby pleased to declare that if they will surrender themselves At Hobart Town on or before the 10th day of next month, bringing with them their dogs, arms, ammunition, iron pots, tools and whatever else they may have with them in the woods, he will not proceed against them for the several offences they may have committed from the date of their absconding from the settlement to that of their surrender. But if they are blind enough to their own safety not to listen to this offer of pardon, and are resolved to continue in their nefarious mode of living, he hereby declares that everyone who shall not have surrendered himself as above directed shall be considered as an outlaw and dealt with accordingly.”
This policy initially met with some success with eight prisoners surrendering themselves and being pardoned. However within a few weeks, four of those who surrendered had decamped back into the woods, along with several new absconders. Recognising that leniency was not going to produce any significant result, in March 1808 Collins issued a further proclamation offering rewards of up to ₤50 for the apprehension of some sixteen convicts. While several of the bushrangers were brought in, there was no noticeable abatement in the number of marauders at large in the Colony for many years to come.
Lieutenant Governor Collins died in 1810. When his successor, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Davey arrived in 1813, bushranging was flourishing. Initially Davey requested that Governor Macquarie provide him with more soldiers to help round up the gangs, but Macquarie decided to issue another proclamation offering pardons to those who surrendered voluntarily. If they did not, then they would be treated as outlaws and dealt with accordingly. As was the case with Collins’s similar proclamation in 1808, many of the bushrangers surrendered, obtained immunity, and promptly removed themselves back into the woods to continue their criminal activities.
The law of outlawry had failed to make any significant contribution towards solving the bushranging problem in Van Diemen’s Land.