When I think of the many reasons why Australia needs to negotiate with its Indigenous inhabitants, they are all buried in Australian history. Many would like those memories permanently buried, but on Remembrance Day we cannot allow this.
The first Australians came here before there was even a thing called Australia. Where they landed was Sahul, a continent that linked New Guinea with mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania. Their earliest landing sites are long gone buried under the rising shore of warmer times but evidence now suggests a human presence of 68,000 years. They spread across Sahul rapidly – the earliest identifiable human outside of Africa was found in far western New South Wales.
New Guinea and Tasmania eventually split away from Australia but all three had cultures that survived millennia and shaped their environment through adroit use of fire – even Tasmania with a population of just 5000 souls succeeded.
But it was to Queensland where the largest number of people came, attracted by its mostly favourable climate and its rich food sources. White people didn’t land here in numbers until the 1830s. “They are doing nothing with the land and we want it” was their belief but with numbers favouring Aboriginal people, it wasn’t immediately obvious they would get what they want. It wasn’t until advanced weaponry of the 1840s and 1850s that the Europeans began to win the war.
Authorities in Sydney turned a blind eye to the violence on the frontier, speading homilies about British law while enabling Squatters to take “vacant” country. Matters worsened with the separation of Queensland in 1859. Newly penniless authorities in Brisbane had a good reason to sell Aboriginal country as the only thing they could make money from. They had a vested interest in crushing resistance.
Attitudes were hardened by two events just before and after separation. One was the killing of 11 settlers at Hornet Bank in the Upper Dawson in 1857 and the other was the killing of 19 of the Wills party at Cullin-la-Ringo near Springsure in 1861. The Frazers at Hornet Bank were well known for their interference with Aboriginal women while at Cullin-la-Ringo there was evidence of abduction of two local boys. But these causes were overlooked amid cries of trusting the Aborigines too much and righteous fury about “black savages”.
Both massacres prompted massive revenge sprees, in number well beyond 11 or 18. Few lived to tell the tale. Gordon Reid’s history on Hornet Banks suggest native police and armed settlers killed between 150 to 300 Jiman people. At Cullin-la-Ringo a reprisal gang killed every adult black they found in a 100 mile radius. Settlers killed with impunity. No justice was brought to bear, and the frontier pushed further west and north.
Yet it was not enough to make settlers feel safe. That was the job of Native Police. Native Police forces (usually a group of three to eight Indigenous people led by a European officer) were used at Hornet Bank and across the Australian colonies in the 19th century. Their need came with the expansion of British control of Australia in the 1840s developing from rough convict patrols. Indigenous Troopers were often recruited at the point of a gun. It was the Empire’s divide and rule tactic to use Native groups with no loyalties to other groups. They enjoyed many important advantages including familiarity with the terrain, and had less medical problems in tropical areas. They were also were paid less and were expected to camp in the open during operations and feed themselves.
They dispossessed Aboriginal people everywhere but nowhere was their impact as great or as long-lasting as Queensland. Yet on this day commemorating military history, no one has heard of them. It is no surprise Jonathan Richards’ defining history of Queensland’s Native Police is called The Secret War. Even in 2017 it remains mostly a secret. Yet the Queensland Native Police were, as Richards says “the symbol of Native policy, invasion and dispossession throughout the second half of the 19th century.”
They were always known as murderous force but the Queensland Native Police survived into the 20th century despite the fury because it suited their employers. They were a successful military enterprise. By quelling resistance on the frontier, they increased the government’s land values.
The Native Police were police in name only, more properly a “special forces” unit with a specific purpose to suppress Indigenous resistance to colonisation. The Native Police had the advantage of horses and better firearms while efficient postal and telegraph systems allowed the smooth transmission of orders.
Many officers were former army men from other parts of the Empire and its old boy network ensured many were never punished for misdeeds, up to and including murder. Because the force operated on the frontier it was constantly on the move, westward and northward. Over four decades, the Native Police barracks mapped the moving front.
The official view was that the Native Police operated in response to Aboriginal attacks in “unsettled” areas. In 1872 Colonial Secretary Arthur Palmer claimed the Queensland government “had never followed a policy of extermination” but this was a blatant lie, exposed by newspapers of the era. In 1868 the Burketown correspondent reported casually that “everyone in the district is delighted with the wholesale slaughter dealt out by the native police and thank Mr Uhr (sub inspector of native police) for his energy in ridding the district of fiftynine (59) myalls.”
Energy was one way to describe it, another way was “terror”. Retribution was more practical than prevention. Commanders deliberately terrified and intimidated Aboriginal people with violence and threats, backed by gunfire. Robert Orsted-Jensen’s book Frontier History Revisited (2011) estimated around 11 people died in each “dispersal”.
Long term police commissioner David Seymour claimed their tactics were justified against ferocious fighters though his call to his officers to report full details of every “collision” was mostly ignored. Words like “collisions” and “dispersals” were euphemisms designed to forget that lives were involved.
Many people despised the Native Police, but the main supporters were settlers in remote areas who believed, as Charles Bradley in Bowen did in 1871, that “the Blacks were more dangerous and daring” without police presence. By then the frontier had moved to the northern goldfields and miners were just as determined as settlers to ensure Aboriginal people did not get in their way. With open warfare at the Palmer River goldfield near Cooktown, the Native Police were powerless, other than assisting with revenge parties whenever a white person was killed.
Elsewhere it was collision after collision, safe in the knowledge that as a regional paper said, “You will never get a jury to bring in a verdict of murder for the killing of a black”. Police admitted little details about their operations, though one officer told an Inquest some people “asked for trouble”. Top brass turned a blind eye they were breaking British law on the frontier every day. Settlers, miners and police all knew indiscriminate killing was wrong, so it had to be hidden.
As late as 1897 Native Police commissioner WE Parry-Okeden argued the force was still needed. In a report to parliament called “North Queensland Aborigines and the Native Police” Parry-Okeden wrote it was “a well known fact, that the only control possible to be obtained at the outset and maintained over wild or uncivilised blacks is by the exercise and exhibition of superior force.” That force, he said, could only be applied by people “they recognise as capable of competing with them in their own tactics, tracking, bush cunning, lore or living”. Of course, white discipline was always required. “I reiterate that a strong well-officed Native Police detachments constantly patrolling among them are absolutely necessary,” he concluded.
It was the end of resistance a few years later that made those patrols unnecessary. The black trackers were rolled into the regular Queensland police while the native force was quietly forgotten. The Native Police was an inconvenient reminder of Queensland’s previous poverty. But it had done the work of its masters and the Aboriginal people had been defeated. Many were killed, while survivors would be mopped up into reserves at Barambah (Cherbourg), Mappoon, Yarrabah, Woorabindah, Palm Island and other places. Queensland now mostly did belong to the whitefellas.
Noel Loos estimates 10,000 Aboriginal people died in the frontier conflict in Queensland, about half the total number of Aboriginal dead in frontier Australia. The monuments to them are few and far between.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we should remember them.