By Bryce Barker
“No man whatever his age, should be left by himself in such a lonely desolate spot.” (From a letter by Lt Francis Nicoll, Commander of Native Police, Condamine district in response to a letter of complaint from a local squatter in relation to accusations of ‘incompetence and intemperance’ at Wondai Gumbal 1857).
In 1851 requests from the occupants of Mt Abundance Station for assistance from authorities to counter devastating Aboriginal attacks on lives, stock and property led to the establishment of an NMP camp on the confluence of Tchanning and Barracks Creek near the present day town of Condamine. This area is in the traditional lands of the Mandandanji people, whom you can read more about in a great book by Patrick Collins, Goodbye Bussmarai (you will find a link to an online version of this book at the end of this blog post).
The so-called ‘Wondai Gumbal’ camp was the second NMP camp in what would later become the state of Qld and ran from 1851 until 1858, one of the longer operating NMP camps in the state. As such we had high expectations that this site would yield a range of material remains, not only of built structures but also in terms of the density and range of artefacts that we might find at it.
However, NMP camps are usually situated in strategic locations, close to permanent water sources. As a consequence, they often continued to be focal points of use long after the police camp was abandoned, and are therefore likely to have some degree of disturbance. This is definitely the case at Wondai Gumbal, where a large forestry camp was later built on the site of the old police camp, resulting in significant impacts to the archaeological integrity of the site. Nevertheless, with hopes that the scattered remains still visible on the surface might be indicators of still intact sub-surface deposits, we set off to investigate.
The March 2017 fieldwork involved Mandandanji Traditional Owners, University of Southern Queensland students and project team members.
In spite of doing extensive geophysical survey at the site using ground penetrating radar, the team was unable to locate any substantial subsurface structures relating to the period of police occupation. Not deterred, our excavations concentrated on stone structures visible on the surface that were clearly not related to the forestry camp, and that appeared to be in association with high densities of artefacts that seemed to date to the mid-nineteenth century.
A range of artefacts were excavated at Wondai Gumbal with good chronological correlation with the known period of NMP occupation. As shown, some of these include a clay pipe bowl with a depiction of a sailing ship, an Aboriginal stone artefact found in association with European items, pipe stems, one with the word “Glasgow” probably made by Glasgow pipe maker Duncan McDougall, who started manufacture in 1847, an NMP police uniform button with the crown in relief and lead ball ammunition from a muzzle-loading rifle.
In addition to the stone structures and artefacts, another feature observed at the Wondai Gumbal site were numerous ‘scarred’ or ‘culturally modified trees’. Whether these pre-date the NMP camp or date to the time of use of the camp is unknown, but they are a strong visual reminder of the importance of locally available resources to both Aboriginal and European people. For the former the bark removed from the tree was often used for the production of coolamons or shields, while for Europeans bark was often used as a roofing material.
Although the density of excavated artefactual material was low, the range of artefacts associated with the Native Police from the nineteenth century – including police uniform buttons – confirmed the location was the site of the historically described Wondai Gumbal NMP camp and adds to our understanding of what life was like on the frontier of colonial expansion in Qld.
Collins, P. 2002 Goodbye Bussamarai: The Mandandanji Land War, Southern Queensland, 1842-1852. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.