In support of the Commandants: subaltern officers of the Moreton Bay settlement, 1824 – 1850
Rod Pratt, Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow 2021

Free settlement at Moreton Bay

(Above: Enactment of Aborigines attacking settler’s hut Image: JOL SLQ Neg No 131082)

British soldiers remained at Moreton Bay as the frontier conflict with Aborigines in the early 1840s was seen as comparable to the Māori uprising in New Zealand. Roderick Flanagan in his Aborigines of Australia (1888) referred to this period as ‘The Rising of 1842-1844’ describing it as a ‘simultaneous aggressive movement of the aborigines throughout the entire colony and along its boundaries, which commenced in 1842, and continued… For more than two years. The warfare which the blacks waged upon the stations…was universal, implacable, and incessant’ (Flannagan, Aborigines of Australia, p.14). While the Moreton Bay penal station had been relatively isolated due to the fifty-mile exclusion zone surrounding it, occasional clashes with Aborigines occurred as early as Logan’s time when the settlement’s crops were raided. The scale of these skirmishes were relatively insignificant as the military’s attention was focussed inwards at the convict population, but with the winding down of Moreton Bay as a penal station, the role of the military with regard to the local Aborigines was to change dramatically with the coming of free settlement.

(Image courtesy of Rod Pratt)

As the penal settlement at Moreton Bay wound down in preparation for becoming a free settlement, the military detachments sent to this posting correspondingly decreased in size over time, a trend which is apparent by glancing at the troop strength chart. As can be seen, there are two distinct humps with the first describing the rise and decline of the penal station with the end of transportation, while the second lesser hump, beginning in 1843 describes the rush to reinforce the military at Moreton Bay in light of the outbreak of Aboriginal conflict in the district. This outbreak of Indigenous resistance commencing in late 1842 and reaching its peak over the following two years, also caught the military by surprise and there can be little doubt that without the assistance of parties of well-armed mounted settlers and the rapid arrival of reinforcements from Sydney, these insignificant Brisbane detachments would have been entirely ineffective for the duties assigned them.

Gorman’s force of barely twenty soldiers of the 80th Regiment was replaced in May 1842 by a detachment of much the same size from the 99th Regiment commanded by Lt John James Armstrong, a 20 year old Irish subaltern who had received his lieutenancy only the month before. While Armstrong reported in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald that ‘the blacks still continue troublesome about the Darling Downs, making it very unsafe travelling, unless in company and well-armed’ he was fortunate to have left the district before the frontier war reached its crescendo in 1843 under his successor, Lt Patrick Johnston. Johnston, as noted earlier, was the youngest subaltern to have served at Moreton Bay, although unlike Armstrong he had an extra 15 months experience as a lieutenant and would go on to gain considerable combat experience, as well as a few wounds, while serving in New Zealand.

(Image courtesy of Rod Pratt. Arrival and departure of officers to and from Moreton Bay)

The period of Johnston’s posting at Moreton Bay from late 1842 through to late 1846, and the end of Lt William Hobart Seymour’s command, saw an unprecedented slaughter of Aborigines. Bones were still being recovered from the site in the early 20th century.

(Above: George Jean De Winton, 99th Regiment, 1866. Courtesy National Army Museum (UK). Neg. 82438)

Even Lt George De Winton, writing from Brisbane the following year in 1847, noted of Johnston’s reign that he ‘impart[ed] severe lessons’ to the Aborigines. Likewise, J J Knight who wrote within living memory of these events asserted

This period of military supervision was one of terrible slaughter, scores upon scores of the aborigines falling victims to the white man’s gun. One of the men who assisted in putting many of the unfortunate blacks out of existence told the writer several incidents which if repeated here would scarcely be regarded as pleasant reading, nor yet redound to the credit of persons even now living (Moreton Bay Courier 25 April 1892, p2).

This embarrassing silence by white participants was not mere sentimentality, but also a means of avoiding punishment under the white man’s law. In a letter to the Maitland Mercury one correspondent declared ‘we were more successful in falling in with the blacks …, but I do not wish to say too much on that subject’ (Maitland Mercury, 18 November 1843 p.4).

There can be little doubt that this Aboriginal uprising was a concerted effort across SE Queensland and west across the Downs. Isolated stations were besieged, drays were ambushed, and station-hands fortified their homesteads with gun-slots and an arsenal of muskets. As many of these major squatters were also commissioned magistrates, they had the authority to call upon the military to act in aid of the civil authorities to restore order. Their guide in using this power was outlined for these magistrates in John Plunkett’s Australian Magistrate which was given to every newly appointed Justice of the Peace within NSW, and explained that not only could civilians be deputised to provide an armed force, but the military could also be commandeered to provide assistance to restore order. While this role would normally be filled by a frontier police force, none as yet existed beyond the few drunken and insubordinate Border Police troopers available to Commissioner of Crown Land Stephen Simpson. Consequently, these magistrate/squatters could lay claim to vast tracts of land and if any Aboriginal resistance was encountered, they could act within the letter of the law in calling out both a locally raised posse comitatus and the military to consolidate their land holdings, all under the guise of restoring order.

Mount Tabletop (One Tree Hill) near Toowoomba Image courtesy of Toowoomba Regional Council

After a particularly vicious clash in September 1843 near the foot of the Downs known today as the Battle of One Tree Hill, Lt Johnston established a military post, often mistakenly called Fort Helidon, where a dozen redcoats (that is, half his entire force) were posted with orders to escort drays bound for the Downs. As can be seen by the troop strength graph, this met with a rapid reinforcement of troops sent from Sydney. The significance of this reinforcement is hard to over-state as elsewhere in the Australian Colonies troops were being withdrawn and sent across the Tasman to meet the Māori crisis in New Zealand. Hence, that the commander of British forces in the Australian colonies, Major-General Edward Wynyard could find the necessary troops to double the Moreton Bay detachments’ size at a time when every spare soldier was needed in New Zealand, says much about how seriously the Aboriginal uprising in the northern district was seen.

Frontier conflict continued after Johnston’s departure and was met with a force numbering over fifty soldiers commanded by Lt Charles Leigh of the 99th Regiment. He too was replaced in mid-1844 by detachments drawn from the 58th Regiment commanded by Capt William Grant, Lt Francis Master, Lt Edward Barker and Lt Isaac Cooper, who all went on to serve in New Zealand. By 1846 the conflict was beginning to abate and by the time of William Seymour’s posting that year, he recommended that Fort Helidon be closed down due to the difficulty of keeping it supplied and the decline of frontier violence. By the time of Seymour’s successors, Lt Charles Blamire (Sept 1846 to May 1847) and George De Winton (July 1847 to May 1848), Moreton Bay ceased to be a military post.

By 1848 and the withdrawal of Lieutenant William Seymour’s Brisbane detachment of the 99th Regiment, the military authorities felt there was little justification for retaining a military post at Brisbane. This removal of redcoats from Brisbane left the settlement unprotected for the first time since its founding and many local residents petitioned for the restoration of a military force:

May it please your Excellency,-The undersigned inhabitants of the town of Brisbane, Moreton Bay, beg respectfully to express to your Excellency their regret at the entire withdrawal of the military detachment that has hitherto served in this district, and to express their apprehensions of the result. They would suggest to your Excellency several circumstances which appear to them to give the inhabitants of this settlement a strong claim to the protection of a military force:-1st, The fact of their being surrounded by a numerous aboriginal population, who, though the latter have been little troublesome hitherto in the neighbourhood of the town, cannot but feel their comparative strength now that the force, of which they stood in great awe, is removed (Moreton Bay Courier 22 July 1848, p. 2)

As a consequence, the Commander-in-Chief of troops in the Australian Colonies, Major-General Edward Wynyard despatched a small detachment of 34 soldiers from the 11th Regiment commanded by 22 year old Ensign George Cameron. Cameron’s role as commanding officer of the Brisbane detachment was remarkable for two reasons; the first being that, as an ensign, he was the lowest ranking subaltern to ever be in command of a Brisbane detachment. The second precedent was that Cameron was the first commanding officer to not also hold a dual commission as a Justice of the Peace. As Lt De Winton noted in his memoirs, ‘the officer in command was always nominated as a magistrate’. This point may not have mattered but for an incident involving Aborigines in late 1849 when Cameron’s detachment mistakenly fired into a group conducting a night-time corroboree. Normally such civil disturbances were dealt with by a magistrate and a few constables, but none were immediately to hand that night. Had Cameron also held a dual commission as commanding officer as well as Justice of the Peace (as had all his military predecessors at Brisbane) he would have known what the law expected of him in such an emergency. As it was, the only available magistrate at that hour, Dr David Keith Ballow, flatly refused to become involved thus leaving Cameron to act independently without the guidance of any magistrate.

This incident became known as the Affray at Yorks Hollow and after a show trial conducted by Justice Therry to punish those soldiers believed to have fired without authorisation, the entire detachment was removed from Brisbane Town in July 1850 under a cloud of ignominy. As a consequence, the Moreton Bay district was, for the first time since its founding, devoid of any military force for the following decade until Governor Bowen’s arrival and his insistence for more Imperial troops in the form of the 12th Regiment detachment from 1860 to 1866, followed by a full company of the 50th Regiment from 1866 until its withdrawal in 1869. These would be the last British troops posted to Brisbane until a locally raised volunteer force was established with mixed success.