The Native Mounted Police: extermination on the Australian frontier

Jul 19, 2023
Queensland Native Police 1864. Rockhampton.

Native Mounted Police took a leading part in conflict on the Australian frontier. As police they are supposedly ineligible to be included in the Australian War Memorial: but why not? They acted as mercenary cavalry, Australia’s own extermination squads.

Wars come in all kinds, from large, formal conflicts to small scale guerrilla struggles. There were no declarations of war on the Australian frontier, because having claimed the land, British authorities couldn’t legally wage ‘war’ against their Indigenous ‘subjects’. But they acted against the continent’s Indigenous inhabitants exactly as if they had declared war.

Before 1850 British soldiers operated under orders, mounting punitive expeditions, and after 1850 colonial forces (ironically and tragically mostly the Native Mounted Police) conducted even more murderous patrols to ‘disperse’ – that is, exterminate – Indigenous resistance to settlement. Throughout, civilians including convicts, squatters and stockmen also fought and generally succeeded in suppressing resistance.

In effect, Australia saw dozens of small-scale wars as settlement extended across the continent. They were undeclared legally, but to Indigenous peoples each was a war for survival, which they always lost. Military historians now have no hesitation in describing such wars as ‘asymmetric conflict’ and have deride the idea that wars need formal declarations. The Vietnam war, for example, was never ‘declared’ by Australia: why should wars for survival fought on the Australian frontier continue to be ignored?

The Australian War Memorial, like any responsible historical institution, changes as our understanding of history evolves. It began as a memorial to the dead of the Great War, gradually (through acts of Parliament, regulation and executive initiative) expanding its remit; first to a second world war, then to other conflicts. The 1980 Australian War Memorial Act empowered it to extend its reach to 1788, and in the 1980s it included ‘colonial’ conflicts – overseas. In the 1990s it began to represent peacekeeping, even though that is nowhere mentioned in the Act. It now embraces civilian experience of war (such as the Bali bombing) and the role of the Australian Federal Police in peacekeeping: as it should.

The Memorial’s most recent challenge is to represent, and even commemorate, Australia’s experience of ‘Frontier Conflict’, increasingly called the Australian Wars. Although activists have lobbied for over forty years for its inclusion, it is only in the past year that the Memorial has changed its mind. Beginning with the acquisition under the previous director, Dr Brendan Nelson, of paintings depicting frontier massacres (at least one of which is displayed beside the Gallipoli gallery), the Memorial’s new chair of Council, Kim Beazley, has undertaken that the galleries now under development will give ‘substantial representation’ to frontier conflict.

The question now is not ‘whether’ but ‘how’, and at what scale. It remains possible that intransigence and ignorance will result in a showcase of spears and muskets in a side-lined ‘colonial’ gallery. That would hardly do justice to a series of conflicts that occurred across the continent and for over a century from 1788, and which took the lives of perhaps 100,000 people, almost destroying Indigenous Australia.

One of the Memorial’s perennial objections to representing the Australian Wars has been that under its enabling Act the Memorial is supposedly only able to depict operations involving military units raised in Australia. Even this legalistic fig-leaf wilfully ignored that the British military Mounted Police, a unit raised in Australia, did operate against Aboriginal resistance. Those who deny the scale or the fact of frontier conflict often point out that Australian colonial military units did not fight on the frontier. If conflict occurred they say, it was through colonial police forces and civilian vigilantes and therefore out of the Memorial’s remit.

But remember that one of the other recent changes in the Memorial has been to incorporate the contributions of police forces into the stories it tells. Especially in peacekeeping, police forces have been involved in resolving conflict for nearly sixty years – Australian police first went to Cyprus in 1964 and they remained there for 53 years, one of Australia’s longest peacekeeping missions.

But wait: if police operating in the twentieth century are part of the story of Australia’s wars, what about police fighting a war in the nineteenth century? That question brings us to the difficult history of the Native Mounted Police of colonial Australia. The sad truth is that Indigenous police caused perhaps as many Indigenous deaths in the Australian Wars as the British soldiers (before 1850) or civilian auxiliaries and vigilantes throughout the century.

First formed in New South Wales in 1848, Native Police enrolled young black men, gave them uniforms, rifles, swords, pistols and horses, and, under white officers and sergeants, directed them to ‘disperse’ Aborigines resisting white settlement. It is well established – and was well known at the time – that ‘dispersing’ meant wholesale killing. Much of the official Native Police’s records were destroyed out of shame. Officers were reprimanded for reporting ‘killing’, but enough evidence remained in official enquiries, legal records, newspapers, memoirs, private papers and Indigenous memories to make absolutely clear what happened. More than a dozen books have now reconstructed this terrible story.

Native Police operated in every mainland colony, but Queensland’s seem to have operated for the longest time – up to 1905 – and to have been the most murderous. Although called ‘police’ they did not administer the law – few Aborigines were ever arrested. They acted upon requests from and reports by settlers, pursuing and killing Aborigines, ambushing camps and conducting massacres. A study of the Queensland Native Police’s operations, based on mapping their camps and patrols, estimated that up to 70,000 Aborigines could have been killed over fifty years, across the entire colony. Queensland’s massacre have been closely mapped, and the police’s patrols correspond to the identification of massacre sites across the state.

Native Police operated on the frontier of settlement, helping to suppress resistance to it. They contributed to what Charles Rowley, its first great historian called, ‘the destruction of Aboriginal society’.

Those who accept that the Native Police acted like this will perhaps object that they were still ‘police’: they weren’t formally military units, so how can the War Memorial include them in its coverage of Australia’s wars? This is an unduly legalistic view – like letting a murderer off on a technicality. Although called ‘police’ they were not used to enforce the law, but simply to pursue and eliminate Aborigines objecting to the occupation of their land. They were used as mercenary cavalry, in a long, dirty war, and we need to face the fact rather than hide behind the legal pretence that they were only police.

The Native Mounted Police were ‘para-military’ units, of the kind formed elsewhere in the British empire, such as the Royal Irish Constabulary or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or the many ‘police battalions’ of the Indian army, some of whose members ended up serving alongside Anzacs on Gallipoli.

The Native Police were Australia’s own Einsatzgruppen – the ‘willing executioners’ of whom historians of Nazi Germany have investigated, pondering the question of how the nation of Bach and Beethoven could also produce mass murderers in uniform. That the Native Police were Indigenous men willing to serve for rations, tobacco and a pittance, and to pursue and kill other black people should not surprise us. Colonial governments made sure that men enlisted in, say, Victoria, were used in Queensland, far from their own country – they generally could not even speak the same language as their quarry.

It was no novelty for empires to use its subject peoples to enforce or extend their rule. Imperial Russia had its Cossacks, France its Spahis d’Afrique in Algeria, East Africa the King’s African Rifles and British India a huge army whose Sepoys – Bengalis and Madrassis, Gurkhas and Sikhs – fought to gain and protect Britain’s hold on the sub-continent. That settlement in Australia was assisted by blacks killing blacks is a tragic irony of Australia’s history, but not one we should avoid.

These are difficult facts to face, but if we are to be truthful about our history, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart asks us to be, then we need to accept them. If the Australian War Memorial is to tell the story of Australian police peacekeepers in Cyprus – and it should – then it also needs to be straight about the actions of the Native Police which did so much to prosecute war on Australia’s frontier.

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