From an American on Australia Day, 2016: The Strange, Parallel Lives of Ned Kelly and Billy the Kid

It is hard to put your finger on exactly why the young man’s relatively brief outburst of violence, in an age and place already so violent, would result in the creation of so enduring a national icon. But we can look back now over more than of a century of countless histories, novels, films, plays, songs, poems, paintings, and even a ballet about him. On occasion, some of the country’s greatest artists have been attracted to his legend and added their gifts to the body of work.

Ned Kelly wanted poster strobertsict

He was born in the 1850s to a mother who had emigrated from Ireland— whom he would love dearly all his life—and to a father whom he lost well before the son had become a teenager. Growing up with a succession of men in the house, he moved from place to place as his family circumstances suffered one setback after another; but he nevertheless completed a grade-school education. He was often described as a polite youngster, was noted for his physical prowess and courage as well as for his intelligence, and indulged in reading for pleasure. Despite his Irish heritage, throughout his life he rarely touched alcohol. He did, however, appreciate women, and they reciprocated. Ultimately he turned to crime and got his start as a young apprentice to older men with experience.

At about age fifteen, he was charged with robbing a Chinaman, a “celestial” as they were then known, which landed him in jail for the very first time. In 1876 he began a horse-thieving career in earnest, which as much as single factor marks the beginning of his deadly serious trouble with the authorities. By 1878 he had killed three lawmen and become a notorious fugitive running from a murder charge. There is solid evidence—in the form of letters to the authorities in 1879—that he sought sincerely to explain himself, clear his name, and start over with a clean slate. But this was not to be.

Billy the Kid wanted poster zazzle CRP

As his reputation grew, he became popular with—and drew support from—his oppressed neighbors, who viewed him as a kind of advocate confronting the power of a corrupt establishment: the large landowners and their accomplices in the law-enforcement community. (Ironically, he had briefly been on their payroll.) The authorities became increasingly alarmed at his boldness and their own appearance of foolish impotence. They determined to bring his outrages to an end and put a high price on his head. In 1880, acting on a tip, they were finally able to surround and capture him after a spectacular gun battle. Still in his twenties, he was tried, convicted, sentenced to hang, and executed.

Of course, that was hardly the end. Today his name is so intimately bound up with that rowdy, rambunctious, and ultimately romantic period of the country’s development that you would have a hard time finding anyone there who’s never heard of him—or at least one of them. In the U.S., we know this young outlaw as Billy the Kid; in Australia, he is Ned Kelly. Their stories are uncannily similar. They lived at the same time, half way around the world from each other, and died a few months apart. And, according to definitive biographies, all of the foregoing statements—ages, dates, and other details—apply accurately and fully to both men.

Here is one qualifier and one bit of trivia. First, although Billy the Kid was in fact sentenced to hang, he subsequently escaped and was “executed” when sheriff Pat Garrett shot him on sight. Second, the letters he wrote were to General Lew Wallace, then governor of New Mexico, who in 1879 was consumed with the writing of his novel Ben-Hur and was routinely neglecting territorial business.


I am deeply indebted to Peter Carey for his extraordinary, Booker-Prize-winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, which I have read several times with great pleasure. His book propelled me into an engaging search for the authentic Ned Kelly, as well as for Billy the Kid along the way.

True History of the Kelly Gang eveningstarbooks CRP

Here is Kelly’s famous Jerilderie Letter, in which he tried rationally to lay out his case to the authorities: http://australiafirstparty.net/feb-10-jerilderie-letter/. It goes without saying that they were of no mind to listen to anything he had to say.

Ned Kelly quote, from his Jerilderie letter 1879-02-10 camfoc.tumblr

 

40 YEARS AGO: CELEBRATING THE EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS CENTENNIAL

The 40th anniversary of an historical celebration for ERB and Tarzan fans is upon us. On Thursday, August 28, 1975, four former Tarzan film actors got together in Los Angeles to help kick off the festivities surrounding the inaugural North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC). The event was the first “continental convention,” instituted as a gathering for those years in which Worldcon was to be held outside North America. The 1975 NASFiC convention officially honored the centennial of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ birth.

The Tarzan reunion was equally significant for Burroughs fans as the warm-up for the climax of their Labor Day weekend: the 1975 Dum-Dum, held on September 1. The Dum-Dum, which continues to this day, is an annual gathering of ERB fans and takes its name from the wild celebrations of the Mangani, the ape tribe in which the young Tarzan grew to adulthood.

ERB - Art - Tarzan at the Dum-Dum (Frazetta) 102 L ERBzine Frazetta Gallery

“Tarzan at the Dum-Dum” by Frank Frazetta

The New York Times covered the August 28 reunion of the four Tarzans: James Pierce, Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, and Jock Mahoney. Reporter Robert Lindsey noted that the actors “did a jungle scream in unison for the press at a pre-luncheon cocktail party.” He also mentioned that another former, Denny Miller, had joined the other men in the evening. All five were guests of honor at the Dum-Dum the following Monday. Three actresses who had played Jane attended the weekend and were also Dum-Dum guests of honor: Louise Lorraine, Joyce Mackenzie, and Eve Brent.

The photo below was taken on September 1, 1975, the date of the Dum-Dum gathering and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 100th birthday.

ERB - Film - 5 Tarzans Reunion - Weissmuller, Pierce, Miller, Mahoney, Crabbe (with caption) hollywoodgorillamen

Lindsey’s New York Times piece was titled “Wily Tarzan Lives On, Dollarwise” and used the reunion as a springboard to review the significant financial success of the Tarzan brand. His source was Robert H. Hodes, president of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., who had been hired in 1967 and was focused on growing the company’s revenues. One of his early efforts had been to get the Tarzan novels translated into French, which Lindsey noted had “touched off a cult-like interest in Mr. Burroughs abroad.” Hodes said that about 70% of the company’s income was from overseas and that “next to Coca-Cola, Tarzan is the best-known name in the world.”

Among the more intriguing schemes Lindsey reported was Hodes’ plan for “a Tarzan bikini bathing suit that will be introduced first in Europe by distributing hundreds of free samples – but only the bottom part.”

The Times article concluded with the following:

Tarzan’s popularity, Mr. Hodes hopes, will be enhanced even more by the publication, coinciding with the centennial of Mr. Burroughs’ birth, of a biography titled Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Published by the Brigham Young University Press, the book was written by Irwin Porges.

“All of this is going to snowball,” Mr. Hodes said. “I’m building snowballs.”

With David Yates’ new TARZAN film on the way, after 40 years those snowballs just keep coming.

What Are Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson Doing in David Yates’ New TARZAN Film?

INTRODUCTION

From what we know about director David Yates’ new Tarzan film (due in 2016), we have every right to expect that he and his team are making a determined effort to present the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ imagination and novels in first-class style.

The film will also have a specific historical backdrop, one of the most horrific genocides in modern times.

The production team and director for Tarzan the Untamed, the film’s working title according to reports, are the same ones behind the highly successful, final four Harry Potter films. They likely hope and plan for this Tarzan film to be strong enough to launch another multi-picture franchise. We know they hired two screenwriters to deliver separate scripts, and they chose to use the Tarzan characterization from one and the plot line from the other. The plot synopsis Warner Bros. has released (http://screenrant.com/tarzan-2016-movie-synopsis-story/) suggests that Tarzan’s aristocratic, cultured heritage will be a strong element of the film. The cast is superb and even includes an actress in the role of Kala, the ape-man’s cherished, Mangani foster mother. All these elements bolster the Tarzan fan’s optimism about their final product.

Observers have naturally focused their attention on Alexander Skarsgård, the latest Tarzan, and Margot Robbie, who will play Jane Porter. Everyone knows those iconic characters.

But two other leading actors are set to play historical figures who are virtually unknown to the public. Two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz co-stars as Captain Leon Rom, and elegant badass Samuel L. Jackson plays George Washington Williams.

Who were Leon Rom and George Washington Williams?

THE ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD BUZZ

Alexander Skarsgård can’t go anywhere these days without someone taking his picture. In March, our new Tarzan was spotted with Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, which was of interest since it is a history of the colonial Congo – a Tarzan-era jungle.

Cast - Alexander Skarsgard 176 at Tender Greens (Beverly Hills), with 'King Leopold's Ghost' 2014-03-20 forum.purseblog CRP Alexander Skarsgård in March with Adam Hochschild’s book

As the casting firmed up and roles were attached to actors, the über-hot Christoph Waltz was signed and identified as playing Captain Leon Rom, which piqued further interest in the Hochschild volume. The Belgian scoundrel Rom figures prominently in its compelling narrative.

George Washington Williams is one of the good guys in Hochschild’s story. In San Diego this past summer, Jim Sullos, president of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., told an audience that Jackson’s film role is that of Tarzan’s “sidekick.”

KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST

The Hochschild book is an analysis of the almost unimaginable brutality of the colonial overlords in the Congo and the story of how, in the late nineteenth century, the world came to know the truth behind a fantasy carefully constructed for public consumption.

Despite its formal name, the Congo Free State was the personal property of Leopold II. The king regularly touted the humanitarian advances of his generous stewardship, which he portrayed as bringing the light of civilization to a benighted Congolese people. Not incidentally, he used some of the riches created by his Congo investment to bestow lavish public works on his home country, which further burnished the ruler’s reputation both at home and abroad.

Miscellaneous 139 King Leopold's Ghost libcom Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book, King Leopold’s Ghost

In fact, however, Leopold was operating his holding in the tawdry tradition of authoritarian despots. He had converted the country into one of the most extensive and cruel forced-labor camps in world history. He had stumbled on a largely unexplored land rich in rubber, an immensely profitable crop – if it could be produced cheaply enough.

Leon Rom was one of Leopold’s most heinous henchmen, although it is unlikely that the two ever crossed paths. But George Washington Williams certainly did meet Leopold, and he became the first observer to investigate and report publicly on the actual conditions in the Congo.

LEON ROM’S JOSEPH CONRAD CONNECTION

Leopold had secured international recognition for his Congo Free State in 1885, two years before John Boyd Dunlop successfully developed and demonstrated a practical pneumatic tire. The king was eager to make the most of his new property and set about to exploit its natural resources, notably rubber. He also fancied ivory – a lot.

Miscellaneous 149 Leon Rom reanneaa.blogspot Captain Leon Rom

Adventurers like Leon Rom flocked to the Congo to pursue their own fortunes, because his kind was needed to get the Belgian sovereign’s dirty work done. Men who got results enjoyed extensive personal freedom in how they achieved them.

In 1890, Joseph Conrad began three years of contracted service as a steamboat captain on the Congo River. Later, in Heart of Darkness (1899), he would describe what he had seen:

They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

I recently reread Heart of Darkness. (Did anyone get out of school without facing that assignment?) This time, however, the experience was even more chilling than before, because I’d read Hochschild’s book first. As a result, Conrad’s famous story reads more like history than the fantastical horror story it is often considered.

Behind the Scenes 106 C Virginia Waters, Berkshire, England @ taken 2014-08-27 dailymail CRP Behind the scenes: Christoph Waltz as Captain Leon Rom

Hochschild makes a strong case for his conclusion that Conrad certainly was familiar with Leon Rom and had most likely met him – and that his novella’s villain, Kurtz, had not sprung from Conrad’s imagination but was largely based on Rom. Like Kurtz, Rom became a storied, almost legendary station chief up the Congo River, deep in the jungle. Like Kurtz, Rom was both a writer and painter. And in a most macabre twist, like Kurtz, Rom decorated the grounds of his jungle home with the severed heads of Congolese.

GEORGE WASHINGTON WILLIAMS INVESTIGATES

George Washington Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1849 and had fought as an underage recruit with the Union Army during the Civil War. Many years later, the lawyer, journalist, historian, and minister to Boston’s largest black congregation had become intrigued with reports of new opportunities opening up in the Congo. In 1889, Williams arranged a meeting with King Leopold to learn more about how black Americans who wished to relocate to the Congo might profitably assist in the king’s good works there. When Leopold learned the nature of his visitor’s interest, he did his best to dissuade Williams from embarking on a personal fact-finding mission to the colony. The more Leopold demurred, the more determined Williams was to go.

Miscellaneous 141 George Washington Williams negroartist George Washington Williams

What Williams found in the Congo appalled him, and in 1890 he published the first critical report on the new state: An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty, Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo, by Colonel the Honorable Geo. W. Williams, of the Unites States of America. Hochschild calls it “a milestone in the literature of human rights and investigative journalism.”

What did Williams find in the Congo? Most prominent wherever one looked was the king’s personal army, the Force Publique. Leopold had employed African mercenaries since 1879, and in 1888 he formalized the arrangement. Hochschild describes the Force Publique as “at once counterguerrilla troops, an army of occupation, and a corporate labor police force,” which “was divided mainly into small garrisons – typically, several dozen black soldiers under one or two white officers, on a riverbank.” By 1900 it had become “the most powerful army in central Africa.” (IMDb identifies numerous cast members in the forthcoming Tarzan film as officers or members of the Force Publique: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0918940/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast.)

Cast - Richard 'Rick' Stanley on set, Force Publique officer @RichardEStanley Behind the scenes: Rick Stanley as an officer of the Force Publique

The Force Publique was not restrained in carrying out its mission to supply the king with rubber and ivory. Villagers were conscripted for the cause, and their women were held hostage (and routinely raped) until quotas were filled. Entire village populations – men, women, and children – were summarily executed for any failure. “Rubber means death” became an aphorism of the Congolese. To show their superiors that appropriate punishments had been meted out, it also became customary to collect as evidence the severed right hands of executed slackers.

The Force Publique also had the chicotte. Hochschild describes it as “a whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged corkscrew strip. The chicotte was usually applied to the victim’s bare buttocks. Its blows would leave permanent scars; more than twenty-five strokes could mean unconsciousness; and a hundred or more – not an uncommon punishment – was often fatal.”

By some estimates, the population of the Congo dropped from 20 million in 1880 to half that in 1920. Leopold’s reign of terror was ultimately laid bare to the world and has been called “one of the world’s great holocausts.”

An excellent BBC documentary of this extraordinary horror (White King, Red Rubber, Black Death) is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMAegyRzYx8.

You can also watch Adam Hochschild’s 2014 lecture, “Object of Plunder: The Congo Through the Centuries,” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLyZGTwmcRA

STORY LINE STRAIGHT OUT OF BURROUGHS’ ORIGINAL TARZAN OF THE APES

Alert reader Geoffrey A. Hamell has pointed out that this colonial brutality is precisely the circumstance which Edgar Rice Burroughs noted in the first chapter of his first Tarzan book, Tarzan of the Apes, as the impetus for Lord Greystoke’s original, ill-fated voyage to Africa. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

From the records of the Colonial Office and from the dead man’s diary we learn that a certain young English nobleman, whom we shall call John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, was commissioned to make a peculiarly delicate investigation of conditions in a British West Coast African Colony from whose simple native inhabitants another European power was known to be recruiting soldiers for its native army, which it used solely for the forcible collection of rubber and ivory from the savage tribes along the Congo and the Aruwimi. The natives of the British Colony complained that many of their young men were enticed away through the medium of fair and glowing promises, but that few if any ever returned to their families.

The Englishmen in Africa went even further, saying that these poor blacks were held in virtual slavery, since after their terms of enlistment expired their ignorance was imposed upon by their white officers, and they were told that they had yet several years to serve.

And so the Colonial Office appointed John Clayton to a new post in British West Africa, but his confidential instructions centered on a thorough investigation of the unfair treatment of black British subjects by the officers of a friendly European power. Why he was sent, is, however, of little moment to this story, for he never made an investigation, nor, in fact, did he ever reach his destination.

The filmmakers have done their homework. I’m very eager to see their final product.

JOSEPH CONRAD, WE WILL GIVE YOU THE FINAL WORD

“To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

HEART OF DARKNESS

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