The place still exudes a happiness, larrikinism. Australia’s irreverent national character was partly defined here. A healthy dose of disregard for authority behoves a nation founded on exiles, and that’s why I went to the Roma Courthouse. In search of Captain Starlight.
Harry Readford is Australia’s most famous cattle duffer. His celebrity was launched in 1870 when he brazenly drove 1,000 stolen cattle through the impossibly inhospitable Strzelecki Desert from Queensland to South Australia. Only nine years earlier, explorers Burke and Wills died while trying to cross the same country. His was a remarkable achievement.
Readford faced trial in Roma. The evidence was irrefutable and he would surely hang. However, the Queensland Outback jury of his peers was so enamoured by his outstanding bushcraft that he was found not guilty. “Thank God, gentlemen, that verdict is yours and not mine,” the judge remarked. In response, the government shut down the Roma court for two years. Readford had become legend.
A decade later he careered to folklore with the publication of the book Robbery Under Arms. Its Captain Starlight bushranger was based on his exploits, and Harry was forever emblazoned on the national consciousness.
Roma is the capital of Queensland’s Western Downs. It boasts the largest cattle saleyards in the southern hemisphere. Biggest commercially operational windmill in the world. The fattest Bottle tree on the planet. But I came here for Harry’s courthouse.
Harry never did serve time for his cattle duffing, droving for a further 30 years until he drowned in a flooded creek in the Northern Territory in 1901.
As if an attempt to erase all memory of Readford and his acquittal, that same year the government tore down the Roma courthouse, and replaced it with the handsome building on the site today. It made no difference. Radiating in the afternoon sun and flanked by Roma’s distinctive bottle trees, the place still breaths a wholesome disrespect for police troopers, and regard for the renowned bushcraft of Captain Starlight.