Australian native police

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Australian native police like units, consisting of Aboriginal troopers under the command usually of a single white officer, existed in several Australian colonies during the nineteenth century. Yet there were really only three forces formally budgeted and organised, and deployed at the frontier by the government. The first was the Native Police Corps established in 1837 in the Port Phillip District of the then Australian colony of New South Wales (now Victoria), the second was from 1848 deployed in the northern districts of New South Wales, nearly exclusively within the borders of the later colony of Queensland and the last was in a period deployed and set to operate in what is now the Northern Territory by the then government of South Australia in 1884. However, the Queensland force, known predominantly simply as the "Native Police Force" (sometimes called the "Native Mounted Police Force"), was by far the largest, most notorious and longest lasting of them all. It is most well known for having having raided aboriginal settlements and massacred their men, women and children. It existed from 1848 to 1905 when the last Native Police camps was closed.[1] Other native police like systems were also occasionally used both in New South Wales and in Western Australia, but they were informally organised often private initiatives and seemingly not established and deployed as a government financed frontier force.


Requests for the establishment of a Native Police Corps in the Port Phillip District, then in the Australian colony of New South Wales and now part of Victoria, were made from as early as 1837 when Captain William Lonsdale wrote to Governor Richard Bourke. Issues of funding and supply delayed formation of the corps until Superintendent Charles La Trobe indicated he was willing to underwrite the costs in 1842.[1]


Henry EP Dana was selected to command the corps, which would be a mounted command consisting of aboriginal troopers and European officers. The command was initially established at the Aboriginal Protectorate Station at Narre Narre Warren, about 25 km south east of Melbourne, but Dana moved the headquarters in March 1842 to the banks of the Merri Creek.[1]

The force made use of Aboriginal men from the Wurundjeri and Bunurong tribes as trackers. The corps was made up of 60 members, three quarters of whom were "natives".[2] There were two goals in such a force: to make use of the indigenous peoples' tracking abilities, as well as to assimilate the aboriginal troopers into white society.[2] Both La Trobe and Aboriginal Protector William Thomas expected that the men would give up their ancestral way of life when exposed to the discipline of police work. To their disappointment troopers continued to participate in corroborees and in ritual fighting, although not in uniform.[1]

As senior Wurundjeri elder, Billibellary's cooperation for the proposal was important for its success, and after deliberation he backed the initiative and even proposed himself for enlistment. He donned the uniform and enjoyed the status of parading through the camp, but was careful to avoid active duty as a policeman to avoid a conflict of interest between his duties as a Wurundjeri ngurungaeta.[1]

After about a year Billibellary resigned from the Native Police Corps when he found that it was to be used to capture and even kill other natives. He did his best from then on to undermine the corps and as a result many native troopers deserted and few remained longer than three or four years.[3]


The duties of the native police included searching for missing persons, carrying messages, and escorting dignitaries through unfamiliar territory. During the goldrush era, they were also used to patrol goldfields and search for escaped prisoners.[4] They were provided with uniforms, firearms, food rations and a rather dubious salary. However, the lure of the goldfields, poor salary and Dana's eventual death in 1852 led to the official disintegration of his Native Police Corps in January 1853.[5]

Frontier clashes

Native police were called upon to take part in massacres of other Aboriginal people in the Victorian Western District in 1843. Upon return to Melbourne one of the troopers boasted about an incident in which 17 Aboriginal men had been killed by the corps. From reports it seems likely the troopers were called upon by their commander, Henry EP Dana, to shoot rather than try to make arrests:

"Captain say big one stupid catch them very good shoot them, you blackfellows, no shoot them me hand cuff you and send you to jail." One of the troopers is recorded by Thomas to have said.[6]

With reduced reports of attacks in the Western District following two years of policing, two new troopers were signed up from the Port Fairy area in 1845.[7]

There were also clashes between the Native Police Corps and Gunai people in 1846 in the Snowy River region.[8]


Queensland's Native Police Force was the longest operating force of its kind in colonial Australian history. It was arguably also the most controversial. Its mode of operation cannot by any standard be classified as "law enforcement". At least from the period 1857 onward to 1890s there are no sign that this force were engaged in anything but general punitive expeditions, commonly performed as deadly daybreak attacks on Aboriginal camps. All signs are that the force generally took no prisoners at the frontier and in the few cases on record this did happen these prisoners were on record as having been shot during attempts to escape. [9]

The Native Police Force in Queensland (sometime referred to at the 'Native Mounted Police', but entitled 'Native Police Force' in all parliamentary and government documents) came into effect on 17 August 1848 under the command of Frederick Walker, to be deployed beyond the settled districts. Operating over a period of 56 years (1849-1905), by November Walker had recruited 14 native troopers from four different tribes and different language groups from the Murrumbidgee, Murray, and Edwards Rivers areas and was making preparations for leaving the Murray River district for the Macintye country. His force travelled up the Darling river arriving on the Macintyre River on 10 May 1849, and was first deployed in that area and the Condamine to great effect in reducing aboriginal attacks and resistance against squatters.[10]

In Queensland, southern tribes were used in skirmishes involving northern language groups.[11] One of the sub-inspectors was Thomas Coward (1834–1905), after whom Coward Springs, South Australia is named.

A.J. Vogan's 'Black Police', written as fiction, is, he claims, closely based on incidents he saw or investigated in 1888-1889. It includes stories of atrocities committed by the Queensland Native Police in close cooperation with settlers antagonistic to the presence of Aboriginal people on or near their runs. This book, continued newspaper focus on incidents, an increasingly active and influential social criticism, especially by religious interests eventually had some effect. John G. Paton wrote in 1889 that, two years previously, Samuel Griffith, the Premier of Queensland, "had these blood-stained forces disbanded for ever."[12] This, however, is not entirely true, Griffith did not disband the force during his term in government, it was only gradually disbanded from the late 1890s onwards.[13]

South Australia

Commissioner Alexander Tolmer formed the South Australian Native Police Force in 1852 at the specific direction of the South Australian Government. Later that year a newspaper reported, “A dozen powerful natives, chiefly of the Moorundee tribe [from Blanchetown, South Australia district on the River Murray], have been selected to be sent to the Port Lincoln district to act as Mounted Police.”[14] The little corps, under the command of Mounted Police Corporal John Cusack (1809–1887), sailed for Port Lincoln on the government schooner Yatala on 29 December 1852, for service on Eyre Peninsula. It was confidently expected they would be usefully employed in protection of the settlers in that district.[15]

The Native Police were soon extended, the strength in 1856 being:- Murray District (half each at Moorundee and Wellington): 2 inspectors, 2 corporals, 13 constables, 16 horses ; Venus Bay: 1 sergeant, 1 corporal, 7 constables, 8 horses.

The six officers and non-commissioned officers were all European, while the twenty constables were all Aboriginal, all being issued with standard police arms and uniforms. Both Aboriginal and European offenders were brought to justice by these men, but on Eyre Peninsula the Aboriginals were largely ineffectual as they were in unfamiliar territory, while on the Murray the entire force went walkabout and did not return.[16]

In 1857 it was abolished as a distinct corps, although a few Aboriginal constables continued to be employed from time to time at certain remote police stations. Also, Aboriginal trackers were employed as needed, but were not sworn police constables. In 1884 a native police scheme was revived by the South Australia Police in Central Australia (see Northern Territory, below), but this time it was based on the more notorious Queensland and New South Wales models.

Northern Territory

In 1884, the South Australian Police Commissioner, William John Peterswald established a Native Police Force. Six Aboriginal men were recruited in November 1884. Aged between 17 and 26 years of age, they came from Alice Springs, Charlotte Waters, Undoolya and Macumba. The Native Police became notorious for their violent activities, especially under the command of Constable William Willshire. In 1891, two Aboriginal men were 'shot whilst attempting to escape'. The deaths were noticed and the South Australian Register called for an Enquiry to establish whether or not police had been justified in killing the two Aboriginal men.

Eventually, F.W. Gillen, Telegraph Stationmaster and Justice of the Peace at Alice Springs, received instructions from the Government to investigate the matter and report to the Attorney-General. Gillen found Willshire responsible for ordering the killings. At the conclusion of Gillen’s investigation, Willshire was suspended, arrested and charged with murder. He became the first Northern Territory police officer charged with this offence. He was subsequently acquitted.[17]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Isabel Ellender and Peter Christiansen, pp 87-90 People of the Merri Merri. The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days, Merri Creek Management Committee, 2001 ISBN 0-9577728-0-7; Fels, Marie Hansen: Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853, Melbourne 1988, 308 pages; Queensland Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings 1861 p 386pp, "Report from the Select Committee on the Native Police Force and the condition of the aborigines generally"; Feilberg, Carl Adolf (anonymous): "The Way We Civilise; Black and White; The Native Police: - A series of articles and letters Reprinted from the ‘Queenslander’", Brisbane, G and J. Black, Edward Street, December 1880, 57 pages; L.E. Skinner, Police of the Pastoral Frontier. Native Police 1849-59, University of Queensland Press, 1975; Richards, Jonathan: The Secret War. A True History of Queensland's Native Police, St Lucia Queensland 2008, 308 pages incl. ill. and appendixes; Foster, Robert & Amanda Nettelbeck: In the Name of the Law, South Australia 2007 chapter 2.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Public Records Office Victoria, Dana's Native Police Corps (1842-1853) - Tracking the Native Police (Public Record Office Victoria), accessed 2 November 2008
  3. Shirley W. Wiencke, When the Wattles Bloom Again: The Life and Times of William Barak, Last Chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe, Published by S.W. Wiencke, 1984, ISBN 0-9590549-0-1, ISBN 978-0-9590549-0-3
  4. Public Records Office Victoria, Large Variety of Duties of the Native Police - Tracking the Native Police (Public Record Office Victoria), accessed 2 November 2008
  5. Public Records Office Victoria, The disbanding of the Native Police - Tracking the Native Police (Public Record Office Victoria) Accessed 2 November 2008
  6. Public Records Office Victoria, Western District Clashes - Tracking the Native Police (Public Record Office Victoria). Accessed 2 November 2008
  7. Public Records Office Victoria, Western District Clashes Imposing Peace - Tracking the Native Police (Public Record Office Victoria). Accessed 2 November 2008
  8. Public Records Office Victoria, Gippsland Clashes - Tracking the Native Police (Public Record Office Victoria). Accessed 2 November 2008
  9. The Way We Civilize editorials and articles authored and edited by Carl Feilberg and printed in the Brisbane Courier (and its weekly the Queenslander) between March and December 1880 and in the form of a pamphlet. see also L.E. Skinner, pp27 Police of the Pastoral Frontier. Native Police 1849-59, University of Queensland Press, 1975 ISBN 0-7022-0977-5; Richards, Jonathan: The secret War; Ørsted-Jensen, Robert: Frontier History Revisited and Bottoms, Timothy: Conspiracy of Silence, Allan & Unwin Sydney 2013.
  10. L.E. Skinner, pp28-33 Police of the Pastoral Frontier. Native Police 1849-59, University of Queensland Press, 1975 ISBN 0-7022-0977-5
  11. Queensland Native Mounted Police
  12. John G. Paton, Autobiography (12th edition, 1911), p. 262.
  13. Richards, Jonathan: The Secret War: a True History of Queensland's Native Police, St Lucia Queensland, 2008.
  14. Register, 2 December 1852, page 3.
  15. Register, 30 December 1852, page 2.
  16. Clyne, R.E., Colonial Blue, p120-121.
  17. Refer to Wilson, W.R. A Force Apart, PhD Thesis, NT University 2000 and The Establishment of, and Operations by The Northern Territory Native Police 1884 - 1891, Journal of NT History, No 7, 1996.


On the Native Police Corps of Victoria (1842-1853)

  • Fels, Marie Hansen: GOOD MEN AND TRUE: THE ABORIGINAL POLICE OF THE PORT PHIL-LIP DISTRICT 1837-1853, Melbourne 1988, 308 pages.

On the Native Police in South Australia (Northern Territory)(1884-1891)

  • Foster, Robert & Amanda Nettelbeck: IN THE NAME OF THE LAW: William Willshire and the policing of the Australian Frontier, Kent Town SA 2007, 227 pages, illustrated ISBN 978-1-86254-748-3

On Queensland's Native Police Force (1848-1897):

  • Bottoms, Timothy: Conspiracy of Silence, Allan & Unwin Sydney 2013, 258 pages, ill.
  • Evans, Raymond in Evans, Saunders, & Cronin: RACE RELATIONS IN COLONIAL QUEENSLAND: A HISTORY OF EXCLUSION, EXPLOITATION AND EXTERMINATION, third edition Brisbane 1993 (first edition publ. Sydney, 1975), 456 pages, ill.
  • Evans, Raymond: ACROSS THE QUEENSLAND FRONTIER In Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, eds Bain Attwood and S.G. Foster. National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003, pp.63–75 ‘Frontier Conflict’ Dec. 2001 14 pages.
  • Evans, Raymond: THE COUNTRY HAS ANOTHER PAST: QUEENSLAND AND THE HISTORY WARS, chapter in ‘Passionate Histories: Myth, memory and Indigenous Australia’ Aboriginal History Monograph 21, September 2010. Edited by Frances Peters-Little, Ann Curthoys and John Docker.
  • Feilberg, Carl: THE WAY WE CIVILISE (pamphlet, see external links below)
  • Ørsted-Jensen, Robert: FRONTIER HISTORY REVISITED - QUEENSLAND AND THE 'HISTORY WAR', Brisbane. ISBN 9781466386822
  • Richards, Jonathan: THE SECRET WAR. A TRUE HISTORY OF QUEENSLAND'S NATIVE POLICE, St Lucia Queensland 2008, 308 pages
  • Skinner, Leslie Edward: POLICE OF THE PASTORAL FRONTIER - NATIVE POLICE, 1849-1859, Brisbane, St Lucia, 1975, 455 pages.
  • Vogan, Arthur James: THE BLACK POLICE: A STORY OF MODERN AUSTRALIA"", London, Hutchinson & Co., 1890, 392 pages.
  • Wright, Judith Arundell: THE CRY FOR THE DEAD, Melbourne 1981, 303 pages.

External links