What’s in a Name?

By Heather Burke

Naming can be a means of identification, classification, control and transformation. For Europeans, the stability of their names—particularly their first names—is taken for granted. Both first and last names provide an anchor for the individual and connect them to family and place. For Aboriginal people names were much less stable but no less meaningful, often changing according to age, context of use and personal circumstances. Aboriginal people could bear several names or other kinds of identifier throughout their lifetime, and often still do today.

We currently have the names of over 500 Aboriginal troopers in our database. Trying to identify, connect and separate these individuals suggests much about the power of names, as well as contemporary attitudes and relationships between Europeans and Aboriginal people.

As with so much else surrounding the NMP, we know very little about how troopers were recruited or whether the name they were known by while in the NMP was one they came with or one that was given to them. In some cases, troopers had clearly Aboriginal names that must have come with them into the NMP, such as Goondallie, Warbregan, Cooraman, Gebonpelra, Goorandirie, Wygatta and Yoorboola. Some of these men came from the Edwards River in NSW, but most (31 out of 62) came from Maryborough.

The vast majority, however, bore some form of European name and often only a single one at that. The majority of these were common British names: there are 10 Billys, 9 Charlies, 9 Harrys, 9 Sams, and 8 Tommys in our database, for example, although it is often impossible to tell whether each refers to a different person. In some cases troopers had one name while in the NMP and another when outside it, as was the case with the man who was known as ‘Macbeth’ while in the force, but ‘Georgey’ both before and afterwards (Courier, 7 May 1863, p.3). His case, at least, suggests that ‘Macbeth’ was a name he was given upon recruitment. If true, it may have been the NMP officers who assigned troopers their names, although there is no indication in any record to say this was the case.

Only a very few troopers (10%) had the luxury of a surname. Surnames amongst Aboriginal people were often assigned by European employers and could be the employer’s surname itself or one derived from the name of the pastoral property on which they were born or worked (click here for more info on this). Certainly some troopers carried names that were indistinguishable from European ones: Sam Weller, Willie Gordon, Barney Mileson, Jimmy Brown, Jimmy Chisholm, Billy Douglas or Wilfred Owen. Others had synthetic names that combined a European name with another type of identifier, such as Mickey Free, Cargara Jimmy (or Jemmy), Johnnie Snake or Long Jemmy.

Some names are clearly place names, possibly indicating a trooper’s area of origin, such as Callandoon, Callandoon Jemmy, Brisbane, Breeza and Dick Normanton. Some, while not strictly place names, were still indicative of origin, such as Jimmy Mainland, Bunya Jimmy and Bunya Sammy. Interestingly the name ‘Coreen’ recurs as a prefix for three troopers—Coreen Jimmy, Coreen Billy and Coreen Ned—although whether it is a reference to the place is unknown.

Other names are more diverse and reflect a variety of influences:

Name type Number (percent) Examples
British 271 (65%) Barry, Davy, Edward, Frank, Fred, Jack, Johnny, Larry, Peter, Robert, Patrick, Paddy
Aboriginal 63 (15%) Aamonda, Billambe, Cum Bilbilla, Gebonpelra, Gulbangir, Munjevenie, Waaroopin, Wondominie, Wytyatu
Place name 16 (0.04%) Callandoon, Callandoon Jemmy, Tahiti, Grafton, Brisbane, Breeza, Dick Normanton, Jimmy Mainland
Literary 16 (0.04%) Macbeth, Hamlet, Pickwick, Oliver, Aladdin, Gulliver, Romeo, Waverley, Friday
Classical 14 (0.03%) Hector, Echo, Otho, Priam, Valentine, Jupiter, Hannibal, Pompey, Romulus, Tancred, Cato
Objects 10 (0.02%) Carbine, Blucher/Blutcher, Mulberry, Brandy, Pituri, Slab, Spider, Soda, Wallaby, Whalebone, Forest, Pilot, Soap, Whiskey
Historical 9 (0.02%) Nelson, Wills, Wellington, Napoleon (and its diminutive, ‘Boney’), Bismarck, Byron
Other Callaghan, Hammond, Bedford, Seymour, Conway, Forrester, Brennan, Llewellyn, Buchanan, Fletcher, Moffatt, Rowland, Wild Boy, Combo, Smuggler, Hotspur, Brumby, Wallaby, Tiger, Nicky Nicky, Milo, Carlo


Murray and troopers Carbine, Michael, Barney, Hector, Goonelli, Ballantyne and Patrick, Rockhampton 1860
George Pultney Malcolm Murray (second from left) with trooper Carbine and Corporal Michael (back row) and troopers Barney, Hector, Goondallie, Balantyne and Patrick (front row, left to right), Rockhampton 1864

Some names can be considered highly derogatory: we know of seven troopers called ‘Sambo’, one called ‘Jim Crow’, and one called ‘Jacky Jacky’. Both ‘Sambo’ and ‘Jim Crow’ are distinctly American and derived directly from the legacy of slavery. ‘Sambo’, of African derivation (Handler and Jacoby 1996:699), became commonplace in the 18th century as a slave name (Cohen 1952:104) and was then popularised in the 19th century through literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. ‘Jim Crow’ derives from a fictional character created in the 1830s by white actor Thomas Dartmouth as part of a minstrel act and later became a widely used derogatory nickname. ‘Jacky Jacky’, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, has the meaning of:

noun 1.  (derogatory) (racist)
a. (a nickname for an Aboriginal person, especially when seen as being in a supportive role to the dominant white settlers.)
b (also lower case) an Aboriginal person who has adopted a white lifestyle.

There are other similarities between the system of troopers’ names and slave naming practices. The choice and assignment of Jamaican slave names by white planters fostered the practice of thinking of them as inferior—‘more like animals than Anglo-Europeans’ according to work by Burnhard (2001). Burnhard noted that the sources of slave names were (in order of frequency) English, African, Classical, place names and biblical. When names were English they were usually diminutive—e.g. Jimmy instead of James, or Johnny instead of John—as was the case with many troopers; approximately 18% of names in our database are diminutives. In addition, typical Classical, Latin-derived slave names commemorated either mythical or real historical figures such as Ajax, Jupiter, Hannibal, Pompey or Apollo.

Most disturbingly, names for livestock and slaves were often similar and overlapping. The same problem is evident with troopers: names such as Jingle, Monkey, Monday, Daylight, Mayboy, Friday, Mister Jones, Nipper, Wild Boy, Hero and Smuggler (for troopers) follow the same pattern as Roanoak, Marlow and Brutus (for horses) (GPM Murray to Commandant 31 March 1863, QSA ID846768/63/748). Whalebone, Simon, Hector, Charlie (QSA ID86146 Oak Park Daily Journal 1879–1882) and Forrester were names given to both horses and troopers. The level of similarity in naming patterns again suggests that NMP officers could well have been responsible for naming both.

Unfortunately, we know so little about the troopers that we have no idea of how they felt about these practices, nor how much control (if any) they had over the process. Aboriginal people had certainly deliberately adopted European names very early in NSW, possibly to cement social relationships with particular Europeans or as a result of ‘Christianisation’ practices (Wood 1998). These names were often used strategically and deliberately and were clearly chosen by Aboriginal people themselves. Those troopers with distinctively Aboriginal names presumably had much greater control over their identity and how they were represented, but why some may have been afforded this opportunity and not others is unclear. Moreover, an untold number of troopers will probably remain completely nameless, despite our best endeavours, simply because details of their service and experience were never recorded.


Burnhard, T. 2001 Slave naming patterns: onomastics and the taxonomy of race in eighteenth-century Jamaica. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31(3):325–346.

Cohen, H. 1952 Slave names in colonial South Carolina. American Speech 27(2):102–107.

Handler, J.S. and J. Jacoby 1996 Slave names and naming in Barbados, 1659-1839. The William and Mary Quarterly 53(4):685–728.

Wood, M. 1998 Nineteenth century bureaucratic constructions of Indigenous identities in NSW. In N. Peterson and W. Sanders (eds), Citizenship and Indigenous Australians. Changing Conceptions and Possibilities, pp.35–54. Cambridge: CUP.

11 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

    1. No Pamela, we don’t. Those officers (other than George Murray) are not named in any version of that photograph that we have seen – which is really interesting in itself since Murray took the time to name all of the Aboriginal troopers.

  1. Would you like more information on the aborigine Spider who was with the Native Police for a brief time at the Palmer River? He was a member of the community around the town of Calliope in Port Curtis that I am researching.

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