Spotlight: Marcus Clarke interviews Captain Moonlite

MOONLITE
The following is taken from an article published in December 1879. Marcus Clarke was a renowned author whose magnum opus was the convict epic For the Term of his Natural Life. Clarke had met Andrew Scott previously when he was attempting to begin his lecture tour on prison reform and had warned the Irishman not to do it as it would cause more trouble than it was worth. Scott didn’t heed the advice.
After the tragedy at Wantabadgery Clarke was compelled to write of his discussion with Scott in an attempt to do what Scott had failed to do in his lecture series – pose a compelling argument for prison reform.

Marcus_Clarke_1866
Marcus Clarke in 1866
AN INTERVIEW.
By Marcus Clarke.
I was sitting writing one evening, some weeks ago, when there came a tap at the door,  and a respectably-dressed man, who looked like the sub- overseer on a station, presented himself.
“Did you write ‘His Natural Life ?’ ” said he.
“I did,”said I.
“My name is Scott,” said the stranger, “and I wish to speak with you.”
“No relation to the great Sir Walter Scott?” I asked, uncertain of my visitor.
“No,” said he, “you may know me better as ‘ Captain Moonlite.’ “
“I have heard of you — be seated.”
Captain Moonlite sat down and plunged at once into his subject.
“I am but recently out of Pentridge.” he said, with the greatest unconcern ; “and I am going to deliver a lecture on the evils of the present penal system. Mr. Richmond Thatcher”—here he produced that well-known theatrical agent’s card – “has recommended me to see you.”
“For what purpose, Mr. Scott?”
“I thought that you might be induced to take the chair.”
I didn’t laugh, for the man was so thoroughly in earnest (though it occurred fo me that Mr. Richmond Thatcher might have been in a merry mood when he gave the introduction), but looked as sympathetic as possible.
“I am sorry that I can’t oblige you,” I said ; “but you see official difficulties, &c. – ?”
“Oh, I quite understand,” said Mr. Scott. “Indeed I hardly expected any other reply. But I have some interesting particulars to relate.”
“I have no doubt of it. A truthful statement of a man’s life in a model prison would be very interesting indeed. There was a book published the other day in London, ‘Five
Years’ Penal Servitude, by one who has endured it,’ which created rather a ‘ sensation’ among those fond of investigating such matters. But perhaps in your— ahem— retire-
ment you did not happen to see it.”
“No,” said Moonlite, “I have not read much lately. I have, however, read your book, and am surprised at its truthfulness.”
“Thank you for the compliment, but you needn’t mind repeating it. The narrative was compiled from confessions of prisoners, and printed records of officers specially appointed to inquire into the condition of the prisons of that day, and it would be strange indeed if it was inaccurate.”
“Well, prisons have changed very little since that time.”
“Prisons have changed very much, Mr. Scott, but human nature hasn’t changed much, I’m afraid, either in prisons or out of them.”
Scott drew his chair closer, and I had an opportunity to examine his features by the gaslight.
A fair man, with well-trimmed beard and light steel-blue eyes. Nothing peculiar about him except these same blue eyes, which appeared without depth in the iris, and shifted
a good deal, like the eyes of all men accustomed to be observed and accustomed to shun observation. He did not look by any means a villainous person, though I thought at the time he would be what is called “an awkward customer” in a personal difficulty.
“I have been infamously treated in Pentridge,” he began.
“Of course, all prisoners are.”
He laughed not unpleasantly, and abandoned at once his injured manner.
“Well, it is a fact. They had a ‘down’ on me, and when I fought with the man they put all the blame on to me.”
“Fought with which man? “
“With — . He tried to take away a boy that I had in my class.”
“Your class ?”
“Yes, I was instructor of” (something the which I did not catch) “and – had got the youth into trouble before I told him to let the boy alone, and he challenged me. I told him I’d fight him or any other man, and he drew a knife on me.”
“A knife— ? In the prison!”
“Yes. Oh, you don’t know what goes on.”
“Well, I can’t listen to this. Put it in the lecture.”
“I’m going to do so. I’ll expose the system.”
“I am afraid that you won’t be believed, Mr. Scott,” said I diffidently.
“But I can prove what I say. There is no classification in the prison. A man who is comparatively innocent is set to work in a gang with long-sentence men who are
thoroughly bad.”
 “Well, explain this to your audience, and let the prison authorities defend themselves. I think, however, that you had better try some other business than lecturing. It is not very profitable, and — you will excuse me, I’m sure — but I doubt if you come well recommended to the public.” He laughed again, softly and quite composedly.
“One must do something for a living. I vowed I’d expose the system, and I’ll do it. Will you come and hear me?”
“Perhaps I may ; I won’t promise.”
“Goodnight, sir.”
And with much composure he took his hat and departed.
I saw Mr. Richmond Thatcher afterwards, and asked
him about the business.
“Are you agent for Captain Moonlite, sir ?”
“No ; but I think the man ought to have a show. Why shouldn’t he lecture as well as anybody else ?” said Thatcher.
“Indeed I see no reason why — if he has something intelligible to say.”
I did not attend the lecture, but I had an account of it from the reporter who was sent there, and he pronounced it disconnected, and intemperate in tone, while no evidence
was adduced in support of the charges made.
The next thing I heard was that Scott was “wanted,” for the, murder of Mr. Bates ; but by-and-by that rumour passed. Then there came a story about his breaking into the Williamstown lock-up to set free a former “mate,” and then the news of the terrible tragedy at Wantabadgery.
A friend of mine in Melbourne, who professes to be acquainted with many private matters, is accustomed to assert that the original intention of Scott was to capture
a mail steamer, but that he could not get together a paity sufficiently huge. This was to be the plan:
Twelve confederates were to take passage, and when the captain and passengers were at dinner, to seize the ship. Six armed men could hold the Lascar crew, and three more could keep the deck. Moonlite and the remaining two would then “bail up” the cuddy and secure the captain and passengers. One officer would be kept to navigate the vessel, and all the rest together with the passengers put into the boats. The gold boxes would be then opened, the mails and bullion boxes ransacked, and sail made for a South American port, where a revolutionary Government would not be too particular in inquiring as to the gift of a steamship.
Whether this story he correct or not, I have heard it gravely stated, and the project is quite feasible. I believe that this was the fate of the J. E. H., a vessel which sailed
from Melbourne some twelve years ago with far more gold than she had any right to carry, and has never been since heard of. I had a friend on board her, and have made all
and every inquiry as to her fate — in vain. The missing —- is another instance, and Mr. Miranda — this gentleman who so successfully hoaxed you Sydney folks with, his
forged letters of credit— was accustomed (as many respectable merchants will tell you) to speculate most covetously upon the whereabouts of missing gold ships. He made his
grand coup, however, with less risk, simply drawing £10,000 in gold from the Union Bank, and taking it in two carpet bags to Cobb’s coach-office in Bourke street, disappearing forthwith from the memory of man.
I cannot comprehend what induced Scott to attack the station of Wantabadgery. It was evident that he had determined to take the bush, and had begun to organize a party. But the plundering of the station was a useless folly.
Unless the men with him grew weary of inaction, and forced him to do something to establish his supremacy and redeem his promise, he had no excuse for the act. He must have known perfectly well that there was no plunder in the place, and horses could have been procured without resorting to violence. It may be just possible that a feeling of revenge against Mr. Baynes urged him on, but it is difficult to believe that a man who had planned the Egerton bank robbery, and the escape from the Ballarat gaol, lost his
head so completely when in the bush with arms and comrades.
The fatal encounter with the police has, I suppose, sealed his fate. He knew the consequences of his act, and must accept the penalty. It is impossible to feel sympathy for a man who led two boys like Wreneckie [sic] and Bennett along a road that he knew conducted to the gallows, and his statements about the interference of the police forcing him to crime must be very cautiously received. But it certainly is to be regretted that a civilization which occupies itself so much with sociology and the science of utilizing men, should not find some employment for natures like his. Impatient of restraint, and recklessly defiant of law and order as the man is, there are points in the character of Moonlite which show that he has been, and is, I daresay, fit for a better fate than
to dangle at the end of a rope as a warning to idle apprentices. He has one quality which is, as all disciplinarians will tell you, rarely found in habitual criminals — he is stanch to his comrades. It is unfortunate for him that his fidelity was not shown in a better cause. Society now demands the misguided man’s life, for it must be conceded by the most humanely disposed that with the example of the Kellys before our eyes, mercy to bushrangers would be inexcusable.
The career of Andrew Scott, however, seems to me to point a very remarkable moral on the question of penal discipline. Sentenced for robbing a bank — not with violence, for there was really no need to do more than threaten— he next breaks out of prison in the most desperate and hazardous, fashion, and secretes himself, an armed desperado, in
the bush. Caught and sentenced again to a long term, he comes out a free man, only to organise a band of robbers and crown his career by murder.
I know how difficult is the subject, how many the intelligences which have wrestled with it in vain. But can it be said that our prisons are in any sense reformatories when they turn out such men as Moonlite and the Kellys?
Granted that the men were in the first instance prone to crime, it surely speaks but little for the influence of the ameliorating resources of a chaplain and warders, when the
only result of the “discipline” is to send the released captives straight into the bush, with hatred of mankind in their hearts, raging to do deeds of violence and blood.

Source:

“Captain “Moonlite.”” The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1871 – 1912) 13 December 1879: 1026. Web. 31 Oct 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article161869839&gt;

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