Cramming Monkeys

By Heather Burke

A large part of our project involves sifting through various sources of historical information for insights into the NMP. One of these sources is TROVE, a repository of historical Australian newspapers from every state and territory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Searching TROVE is dangerous. Each attempt reveals a chain of interconnected events, people and places that all need to be followed up, cross-referenced and independently verified wherever possible. Amongst the many incidental things that TROVE reveals are various aspects of Australian life in the places and times of the NMP. One of these is a recurring reference to ‘monkeys’ in relation to the triggers for some reprisals and (presumably) massacres of Aboriginal people:

A complaint was made by some one on the station that one of these parties “looked suspicious,” and “asked him for monkeys,” on which the police went out and shot some of them. My blacks asked “what for policeman shoot him, bail blackfellow kill whitefellow, bail take monkey, bail take ration, what for shoot him? you been yabber blackfellow budgery bail policeman shoot him.” The blacks in this neighbourhood have frequently told me the Warpahs or Nogoa blacks would kill some whitefellow for those shot at Albinia Downs. (Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Qld Advertiser 15 February 1862, p3)

Edward Morris’ (1898:300) Dictionary of Austral English gives the meaning of ‘monkey’ as ‘bush slang for sheep’, citing A.C. Grant’s Bush Life in Queensland (a novel sub-titled, or, John West’s Colonial Experiences), published in 1881. Partridge and Beale (1984:748) qualify this by noting that ‘monkey’ was still in use in the 1940s.

There are older references to ‘monkeys’ in newspapers, however, specifically in relation to the repercussions of stock spearing and theft for Aboriginal people left with few other food resources because of European encroachment on traditional food and water resources. One complaint, published as an advertisement by the brothers John and Alexander Mortimer of Manumbar Station on the Burnett River and addressed to ‘the Officer in command of the Party of Native Police, who shot and wounded some Blacks on the Station of Manumbar, on Sunday, the 10th instant’, claimed:

As most of the blacks you left dead on our run were feeble old men — some of them apparently not less than 80 years of age — will you please to inform us whether these hoary sinners are the parties chiefly engaged in spearing bullocks, and “cramming monkeys,” &c., or whether you just shoot them because the younger ones are too nimble for you. (Sydney Morning Herald 25 March 1861, p2)

Alfred Scott Broad NLA
Lithograph by Alfred Scott Broad (1854-1929) National Library of Australia

In a later letter to the editor, the Mortimers named the officer and gave the local Aboriginal version:

Towards night some of our station blacks came up, and we inquired of them the reason why so many blacks were leaving the bunya bunya; they told us ‘That Mr. Bligh been come up, baal shoot him, and baal run him, only woolah. I believe you budgeree fellow: baal spear him bullock, and baal cram him monkey, but you been sit down good while and batter bunya, you go home and work now.” (North Australia, Ipswich and General Advertiser 7 June 1861, p4)

‘Cramming’ (presumably taking, stealing or capturing) is an equally interesting word, especially as one of the other contemporary sources for it is the address by Frederick Walker, first Commandant of the Qld NMP, to his troopers in 1851 (Skinner 1975:55):

I shall be quick after you, and when the charcoles in the Balonne think that will do, I shall leave my rogues with Mr. Fulford at Wondai Gumbal and take Logan and Willy’s two sections to help Mr. Marshall and Cobby’s men to cramer [take] the Island [Fraser Island].

The word ‘cram’ in this context clearly has a slightly different meaning to that usually ascribed to it in contemporary slang dictionaries as a lie or deception (Hotten 1860:123).

Although often noted as general slang (e.g. Paterson 1906), both ‘monkey’ and ‘cram’ were obviously also part of the Aboriginal Pidgin lexicon. The Pidgin that was used in what became Qld after Separation (post-1859) had some vocabulary inherited from NSW (such as ‘bail/baal/bael’ for ‘no’ or ‘not’ and ‘budgeree’ for ‘good’), and other words and grammatical features that were unique to different sectors of Qld (Dutton 1983). This is not surprising given that the squatters in inland Qld from the 1840s onwards came from southern and western NSW, often bringing Aboriginal workers with them.

More interestingly, many of the earliest troopers in the NMP were also recruited from southern and western NSW, and Dutton (1983:Appendix 4) provides a long list of Pidgin English that was used specifically by Qld Native Police troopers. Perhaps both ‘monkey’ and ‘cramming’ entered nineteenth century Qld speech in part because of the role played by the NMP in policing sheep spearing and the legacy of frontier violence that ensued.


Dutton, Tom 1983 The origin and spread of Aboriginal Pidgin English in Queensland: a preliminary account. Aboriginal History 7(1):90–122.

Grant, A.E. 1881 Bush Life in Queensland or, John West’s Colonial Experiences. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons.

Hotten, John Camden 1860 A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, used at the Present Day in the Streets of London. London: John Camden Hotten.

Morris, Edward Ellis 1898 Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages with those Aboriginal-Australian and Maori Words which have become Incorporated in the Language, and the Commoner Scientific Words that have had their Origin in Australasia. London: Macmillan.

Partridge, E. and P. Beale 1984 A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: Colloquialisms and Catch Phrases, Fossilised Jokes and Puns, General Nicknames, Vulgarisms, and Such Americanisms as have been Naturalised. 8th Ed. New York: Macmillan.

Paterson, A.B. 1906 The Old Bush Songs. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Skinner, L.E. 1975 Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849–59. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press

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