IN a short police career, Sen-Constable Edward Webb-Bowen shot dead two dangerous criminals, was speared by aborigines and was said to have been keen to tackle the Kelly Gang.
He was gung-ho and aggressive, but a brave man and the father of a young child — and he did not deserve to die.
Webb-Bowen, better known simply as Bowen, did not fall at Ned Kelly’s hands.
His death was caused by bushranger Captain Moonlite, in a shootout at a hut near Wantabadgery, between Wagga and Gundagai, in November 1879.
Now, more than 130 years later, police want to rewrite popular understanding of that shootout.
Moonlite (Andrew George Scott) was cornered with his young gang when pursuing police arrived.
Bowen charged at their hut, was shot in the neck and died within days.
It was a national sensation that earned Moonlite a place in history while Bowen was all but forgotten.
To some of today’s police, that is unacceptable.
On Saturday, police hosted a public meeting at Wantabadgery on “Project Bowen” — aiming to find ways of honouring Bowen while challenging modern perceptions of bushrangers.
More than 50 people met in the heat, discussing ideas such as a stone monument, artwork to honour the police role in the gunfight, even a comic strip for children and bumper stickers.
Some say police are neglecting “real police work” to meddle in the past, but the officers concerned believe Bowen’s sacrifice should be honoured to not only right a historic wrong, but to instil pride among today’s officers for the bravery of predecessors.
Bowen deserves his posthumous recognition.
But police will find it more of a challenge to change the way Australians think about bushrangers.
To thousands, Kelly is an unadulterated hero, a rebel with a cause fighting injustice and oppression.
While he also killed three police and plotted to kill many more, his supporters have no trouble justifying his actions.
Moonlite has supporters who see him — with some justification — as a victim of police and government oppression.
An impatient and volatile preacher, Scott snapped after years of what he saw as persecution.
The shootout not only cost Bowen’s life, but three of Moonlite’s gang, including his soul mate James Nesbitt, and Moonlite was hanged.
No matter how much police would like to cast bushrangers as no more than violent, bank-robbing cop killers, their exploits will always captivate Australians —that is how it should be.
History owes a debt to the police who died battling criminals, but bushrangers — good, bad or simply misunderstood — have earned their place in folklore.
Their deeds should not be unnecessarily celebrated but nor should they be downplayed or distorted to revise history.
Moonlite’s last request was to be buried with Nesbitt at Gundagai cemetery, but that wasn’t met until more than 100 years later, when his remains were exhumed from Sydney and reburied where Nesbitt lay, an inscribed rock placed on their shared grave.
Bowen’s grave, with a tall stone monument, is just a stone’s throw from it, so these enemies in life are now united in death.
The lives and deaths of both men should be given equal respect.
While Australians may never abandon their love-hate affairs with bushrangers, overlooked brave men such as Bowen should be remembered and honoured for their sacrifice.
The dangerous, colourful bandits who once enthralled and appalled the colonies should retain their places in the public mind for being both uniquely Australian and endlessly fascinating.
Paul Terry is the author of In Search of Captain Moonlite (Allen & Unwin, 2013).