Back in the 1800s, Australia was a continent that ran on violence. Indeed, that was its raison d'etre. It was here, as far away from the British Isles as it's possible to get without lobbing up on the ice floes of Antarctica, that the dregs, the scum, the cutthroats, the poor, the unfortunate and the rebels of the British Empire were sent to serve out sentences for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
Conditions were deplorable, and in reality little different to those experienced by African slaves who survived the middle passage trip to the Americas. Untimely death from illness, exhaustion or disease was commonplace, as were hangings, and floggings for minor transgressions of the rules (after a fair trial, of course).
The aim was to brutalise the convicts into submission and to distance them geographically so they couldn't sully the sensibilities of the British upper and middle classes. (Now they can't keep away from the place, but that's another story.)
In those days, transportation to the other side of the world might as well have meant transportation to Mars, given the length of the voyage and the appalling conditions aboard the transports, and it was near impossible for a freed convict to raise enough cash for a trip home, assuming that a freed convict was allowed to do so. So once transported to Australia, there was virtually no chance of a convict returning. Even if a convicted criminal was serving a seven-year sentence, it was in effect a life sentence as they were in the Antipodes for good.
The other effect of course was that many of those in the military deemed unsuitable for active duty in Britain's wars, or who'd offended a superior officer, ended up guarding criminals and acting as a de facto police force in outfits such as the New South Wales Corps, which ultimately became a mutinous band of soldiery (and we'll use the term loosely) whose main forte was the monopoly trade in rum, which at one time became the colony's main currency. The nature of such a posting also meant that many of those in the soldiery who were good men quickly became bitter or homesick or both.
The mixture was a heady one: thieves, rogues, forgers, murderers, prostitutes, ne'er do wells and Catholic and Irish rebels (and sometimes all of the above rolled into one) and the beginning of a police force built on corrupt practises and a penchant for oppression of what it regarded as the criminal classes.
It's against this background that the lawlessness and the cynical and almost universal dislike of authority that came to characterise early Australian society (and still does, to a certain extent) should be viewed, rather than the kind of pioneering spirit and frontier busting of the American expansion that led to opportunistic outlaw gangs roaming the West. There is a belief that our crims are somehow different, and it's telling that murderous groups of outlaw bushrangers like the Kelly gang who roamed the countryside in the 1800s are still regarded today almost as fairytale icons of European settlement.
I tell you all this by way of explanation, because right now, violent crime is alive and well in 21st century Australia, and many still take a vicarious delight in the nefarious goings on of certain members of the criminal milieu.
Indeed, it is the talk of Australia at the moment. The courts in Victoria have just banned the much-anticipated broadcast of a drama series about the decade-long Melbourne gangland wars that have left 30 or so criminals dead in a series of tit-for-tat killings. We're short on rain on this continent, but it's been raining bullets down in Victoria for the best part of 10 years and Channel 9's new drama series Underbelly faithfully (but with some heavy dramatic licence) documents the bloodletting.
Not even in the Chicago of the 1920s and 30s would you find such a colourful cast of characters, both dead and alive: Alphonse John Gangitano, the so-called Prince of Lygon Street, a standover man who ran roughshod over the citizens of Carlton, a nice inner-city neighbourhood of Melbourne populated by Italian immigrants; Carl Williams, the gang driver turned killer who accounted for at least 10 victims; the male members of the hard-arse Moran crime family (the male members of which were killed in the violence, and who were connected to the old Painters and Dockers' Union crime gang); Graham "The Munster'' Kinniburgh, so named for good reason; the 'Ndrangheta (the Calabrian Honoured Society); an Italian gang known as the Carlton crew, with alleged connections to the mafia; the wonderfully named Zara Garde-Wilson, a glamorous lawyer with a penchant for short skirts, high heels and bad men, and of course the Russians, the Serbs and just about anyone else in Melbourne out to make a quick buck through drugs, prostitution, gambling, armed robbery, standover rackets and – believe it or not – lucrative control of the fresh fruit and vegetable markets.