The Crisis of Captain Moonlite: a case study of unbelief in colonial Australia

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Andrew George Scott began his career in Australia in 1868 as an unlicensed lay reader for the Church of England. He subsequently gained notoriety as the bushranger Captain Moonlite and was hanged in Sydney in 1880. The dramatic nature of this trajectory raises questions as to the reality, nature, and depth of Scott’s Christian faith. This dissertation examines Scott’s relationship to religion during his time in Australia. It also considers what Scott’s relationship to religion reveals about Scott as an individual and about the experience of unbelief in colonial Australia.

The central claim of this dissertation is that, during his time in Australia, Scott experienced a journey of unbelief akin to those discussed in literature on the so-called Victorian crisis of faith. This dissertation demonstrates that Scott, as he himself claimed, was ‘sincere in his religion’ during his tenure as lay reader, and that he subsequently departed from this position. It is argued that the primary cause of Scott’s unbelief was his implication in the infamous Egerton bank robbery of 1869 and the challenges this presented to his sense of self and public reputation. Other contributing factors are shown to include Scott’s personality, code of manliness, and prison experiences. The nature and progress of Scott’s unbelief is examined with reference to the ‘four basic dimensions’ of individual religiosity proposed by psychologist Vassilis Saroglou: believing, belonging, behaving, and bonding (referred to collectively as the four Bs). This is an expanded and refined version of models previously used in historical studies of unbelief and secularisation. It is argued that Scott’s unbelief was characterised by changes to the belonging, behaving, and bonding dimensions of his religiosity, but not the believing dimension.

This dissertation employs a microhistorical methodology and takes the form of a chronological narrative with analytical excurses. It is the first extensive scholarly study of Scott and the first work (popular or academic) to examine Scott’s religion. It shows that regard for Scott’s religion is essential to adequately understanding Scott’s outlook, actions, and relationships during his time in Australia, and hereby challenges current popular perceptions of Scott, including popular understandings of his relationship with his ‘mate’ James Nesbitt. This study also suggests that the experience of unbelief in colonial Australia was not significantly different from the experience of unbelief in metropolitan Victorian Britain and should not be considered as a separate phenomenon. Scott’s case nevertheless challenges the primacy given to conscience as a causal factor in recent literature on unbelief and suggests a correlation between loss of belief and loss of power or status. This dissertation engages with and contributes to several fields of literature, the foremost of which relate to Scott, the causes and nature of unbelief in the nineteenth century, and codes of manliness such as muscular Christianity.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Gladwin, Michael, Principal Supervisor
  • Doherty, Bernard, Co-Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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