Indigenous people were killed by settlers and police during the European colonisation of Australia, and records show that units of the Native Police (an armed and mobile frontier force) were often involved in the killing and massacre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in modern-day Queensland from 1848 onwards. As in other parts of Empire, the colonised were often enlisted by force, to subdue other Indigenous people. Aboriginal troopers served in the Native Police from 1848 to about 1915.
Tracking the movements of the force is difficult because only a limited amount of primary records have survived, including very few actual patrol reports. Mapping the Native Police patrol routes in the northern districts of New South Wales (which became the separate colony of Queensland in 1859) using archival documents is a new step in advancing our historical understanding of frontier violence and conquest.
This project is based on Native Police records held at the Queensland State Archives. These archival files, consisting of 15 items in 7 series, contain a mixture of supply orders, accounts, bank statements and other general correspondence, for the period between 1848 and 1857. These fragile records, transferred from New South Wales State Records and Archives to Queensland State Archives in 1972, were virtually unreadable on microfilm, but digitisation in 2015 allowed a more thorough analysis to be conducted. Careful interpretation of these ‘house-keeping’ records allow us to partially follow the movements of Native Police patrols across the ‘Northern Districts of New South Wales’ that later became Queensland.
The New South Wales Native Police force was formed in 1848 after graziers met determined resistance on the Macintyre River, west of the Darling Downs. The perceived urgent need for a military option, and the apparent success of a previous Native Police Corps in the Port Phillip district, led Governor Charles FitzRoy to write to Colonial Secretary Edward Deas Thomson:
‘Circumstances having been recently brought to the Governor’s notice, in respect of certain collisions which have taken place, in parts beyond the Settled Districts, between the white inhabitants and the Aborigines, which appear to him to require that immediate steps should be taken for their repression, he transmits to the Council an Estimate for the formation of a small Corps of Native Police, to be employed on this service, amounting to £1000’ (NSW Legislative Council, Votes and Proceedings, 8 June 1848, p. 315).
This notice, titled ‘Native Police Beyond the Settled Districts’, was ‘ordered to be printed’ and duly published.
“Illegal” (or unregulated) violence by squatters was replaced by state-organised “policing”, but some settlers complained that the force was “inefficient” because they wanted even more drastic action. Crushing “resistance” was an urgent priority for many early colonisers.
The duties of the force were not clearly defined, and in October 1849, five months after the force’s arrival on the MacIntyre River (near present-day Goondiwindi), Commandant Frederick Walker wrote to Sydney requesting ‘instructions’. He was informed the Native Police would ‘escort carriers’ drays, visit Stations, assist settlers during floods, and build Barracks’. The ‘lamentable collisions between the settlers and the aboriginal natives which have invariably occurred when a new portion of this colony has been at first occupied’ were not mentioned in his orders.
In the beginning, the New South Wales force consisted of a Commandant, one white Sergeant and ten Aboriginal troopers, but Walker was granted four extra troopers so he could divide the force into two detachments. He soon asked for more. Native Police detachments operated as both regular patrol units, and as reactive shock-troops. Patrols usually took several weeks and involved circuits visiting the various pastoral stations.
Retribution after acts of Aboriginal resistance took as long as ammunition lasted or the resistance continued. Officers were ordered to patrol ‘disturbed districts’ when horses and strength allowed. The greatest constraints on patrols were the condition of horses, and the desertion and sickness of troopers. Worn out horses needed continual spelling and replacement but the government was always trying to reduce costs. Troopers sometimes deserted faster than they could be recruited.
After the first camp was built at Callandoon, other Native Police barracks were established in the Condamine, Burnett and Wide Bay and Maranoa districts, which allowed more areas to be patrolled. The closest Native Police camp to Brisbane, at Sandgate, was established in 1859. Barracks were often temporary structures, sometimes made from bark. Only a few buildings were erected or purchased for the officers of the force.
The force’s cost was a constant issue, and parliamentary debates over Estimates for the Native Police were widely published. In 1854 a proposed increase in trooper’s pay from 3d to 5d per day was rejected. By 1857, the annual cost of the Native Police in the Northern Districts was about £16,000. Policing expenditure was considerably greater than the funds allocated to Aboriginal people for blankets or food.
By the mid-1850s, detachments were patrolling throughout the Port Curtis and Fitzroy districts as well as the Maranoa and Mary rivers, which meant detachments had covered over 300,000 square kilometres. In 1856, some divisions had ‘no fixed substations, but patrolled as required’. Determining patrol routes is therefore an important part of tracking the movements and the actions of Native Police detachments.
Walker’s dismissal in 1854 followed a number of complaints about his leadership by Burnett River squatters and some of his own officers. The chain of command from the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales through the colony’s Inspector-General of Police to the Commandant of the Native Police lasted until 1 December 1856, when J. C. Wickham, the Government Resident at Moreton Bay, was placed in control of the Native Police in the Northern Districts.
Reading Archival Documents
The Native Police records assessed for this project are a mixture of mundane and extremely important documents, ranging from petty house-keeping details to powerful insights into the policing of Aboriginal people on the pre-separation frontier. Some are torn or damaged, which means they are frustratingly incomplete and unusable. Others simply show mathematical calculations without any evidence of their creators, or the date of their making.
Some documents on the other hand are very detailed, and provide us with a rich understanding of the daily lives for members of the Native Police. For example, W.C. Wentworth’s 1850 invoice to Commandant Walker (QSA item 86143) includes multiple purchases of tobacco, of different qualities, both rough ‘Negro Head’ (presumably for troopers) and better ‘Colonial’, probably for the officers. Tobacco was a form of currency on the frontier, as was alcohol.
The same document provides insight into the normal diet of Native Police, listing bags of flour, lots of beef, and sugar. Soap was the only luxury item.
Details of officers’ consumption of alcohol and cigars are listed in other documents (QSA item 86143). Supper was provided when members of the force stayed in town, along with fodder for their horses.
The 1854 invoice (QSA item 86143) from Martin Byrne, at Gatton’s ‘Rose Inn’, is particularly illuminating, showing that Walker purchased dinner, mutton and beef, flour, corn, tobacco, and a clay pipe for his men.
Other records (QSA item 86143) show clothing purchases, especially white and drill trousers. All men were given boots and shirts.
Equipment issued to the officers and troopers of the force is listed in one document (QSA item 86131), showing that each man was provided with a saddle, bridle and carbine. Some troopers were also issued with knives, combs, pistols and handcuffs, while all members of the force carried belts, blankets and capes.
The force’s mobility and success depended on their horses, and the purchase of horsefeed was mentioned in several records. One invoice (QSA item 86131) from North Brisbane saddler M. Wallace listed repairs to saddles and other riding equipment, and the sale of ‘one strong bridle’.
Another document (QSA item 86136) showed the transfer of officers’ salaries through an account at the North Brisbane branch of the Bank of New South Wales.
Most importantly, the files provide us with rare insights into the policing activities of the Native Police. One (QSA item 86144) is a warrant issued by the Government Resident at Moreton Bay (J.C. Wickham, J.P.) for the arrest in 1850 of an Aboriginal named “Papoolia”, ‘and any nine other native Blacks who can be identified’, wanted for robbery with violence.
An 1851 document (QSA item 86144) refers to the theft, one year earlier, of the Ipswich mail and the subsequent discovery ‘by the Blacks’ of ‘a very large parcel of orders’ near Ipswich. In 1853, timbercutter Hugh McGowan, gave a statement (QSA item 86144) about an Aboriginal attack on a hut at Pine Mountain near Ipswich.
Some records show that the Native Police did more than just fight Aboriginal resisters. Sub Lieutenant John O’Connor Bligh, who later became the Commandant of the Native Police, wrote to Acting Commandant Richard Marshall in 1854 (QSA item 86144), describing his capture of an escaped convict John Fahay “alias Kanbary” at Ubee Ubee (Obi Obi) Flats on the Upper Mary River.
In 1856, the Native Police were placed under the command of Government Resident J.C. Wickham, who wrote to all the officers in the force advising them of the change, and asking for ‘any suggestions you may consider calculated to increase the efficiency of the corps, and render effective protection to the inhabitants of the northern districts’ (QSA item 86134).
Queensland State Archives Item Id ITM634891, Baker’s 1846 Map showing pastoral stations and roads in Moreton Bay, Darling Downs and Clarence Districts, https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM634891.
Queensland State Archives Item Id ITM86143, Accounts for goods and services supplied to native police etc., https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM86143.
Queensland State Archives Item Id ITM86131, Papers re work of Native Police in the Yabber District (South Wide Bay), https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM86131.
Queensland State Archives Item Id ITM86144, Miscellaneous correspondence records, vouchers and warrants respecting the native police, https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM86144.
Queensland State Archives Item Id ITM86134, General correspondence records of the Native Police, https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM86134.
Queensland State Archives Item Id ITM86136, Communications from banks, https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM86136.