By Jacinta Koolmatrie
Between 2-9 July 2017 I participated in a Flinders University based field school in Boulia, Queensland as part of “The Archaeology of the Native Mounted Police” project.
Fieldwork began on a Monday and started with an introduction by team member Associate Professor Heather Burke who explained what was currently known about the Boulia Native Mounted Police (NMP) site. This introduction involved taking the group across the site which, upon first look, was quite bare, with only two obvious stone structures apparent. However, as I walked along I noticed many stone flakes and glass fragments on the ground – in fact there were so many that you could hardly walk without stepping on one. Our group was then taken to the two stone structures that I first noticed when we arrived at the site (see Figure 1 below). It’s unknown what these buildings were used for, but the most likely possibility is that they were secure buildings for storage or imprisonment; an alternative possibility is that they were domestic dwellings for white officers.
After looking over the site, we were then taken to two interpretive signs positioned near the stone structures at the ‘entrance’ to the site. The sign on the right was a ‘standard’ Burke and Wills sign. However, on the left was one which talked about the site (shown as Figure 2 below). Unfortunately, the sign appears to whitewash the history by only showing the European side of the NMP story. It also presents the story in a way that celebrates the white person despite the NMP story being largely dominated by and about Aboriginal people. To misrepresent the site even further, the sign does not offer an authentic photograph of the police barracks it describes; instead the photograph is of a more recent police barrack building from the township of Boulia, rather than from the NMP camp itself.
Sub-Inspector Ernest Eglinton is the only person who is mentioned by name on the signage. In a sense, Eglinton is talked about as if he was the hero of the town, having established the NMP barracks at this site. The NMP were made up of Aboriginal people who were “employed” as a force against Aboriginal resistance to colonisation (Wallis et al. 2017:3). The thing about colonisation is that even if Europeans weren’t directly interacting with Aboriginal people, their presence brought with them the depletion of native fauna and flora, desecration of sacred sites and restriction to land that was previously free for Traditional Owners to enter (Reynolds 1984:61–68). Rather than trying to understand Aboriginal laws and customs, white people saw a need to stop future conflict by directly retaliating and did this in the form of the NMP. Eglinton essentially had a position that relied solely on the NMP and the resistance of Aboriginal people, but the sign suggests nothing of these elements of the story.
Additionally, the language used on the sign indicates that the importance of the site to the Pitta Pitta people comes second. This sign states that the campsite is on a natural waterhole which “had great spiritual significance to the local people”. The use of the word “had” paints the place as one that is no longer important in the same way and the use of “local people” makes it seem as though Pitta Pitta people are no longer in existence. In fact, Pitta Pitta people were recently awarded Native Title to the area around Boulia and several members of the Pitta Pitta Aboriginal Corporation took part in the field school (Figure 3).
As currently worded, the sign under discussion ultimately makes the site and its history one that is completely white. However, based on the number of stone artefacts we found in the same layers as European artefacts during excavation, this could hardly be true.
Additionally, just a 100 m or so away from the signs is a round stone structure that is believed to be a ceremonial stone arrangement made by Aboriginal people, likely constructed at the site and used well before the NMP took up residence there (see Figure 4 below). This is not within the area that the sign suggests is part of the site, and therefore would not be seen by the majority of people visiting.
Unfortunately, this sign is not an individual case of white history being favoured over Aboriginal history at Australian tourist destinations. This situation happens in most areas where a site has an important story for white people, for example, Horrocks Pass, South Australia. As shown in the photograph below (Figure 5), here a plaque is located within the pass where John Horrocks and a team of men navigated through the mountains from Wilmington to Port Augusta. The writing on the plaque talks about this journey, specifically recognising all of the white participants but only referring to the Aboriginal person as “a native”. A little research on Horrocks and the pass found that the Aboriginal person with him was actually Jimmy Moorhouse, a young Aboriginal boy who also travelled to Adelaide to get help when Horrocks was sick. Moorhouse was just as important, but was only seen as “a native” not worthy of being named as an individual. In response to this I explained to the local council the inappropriateness of the plaque and requested that they alter the writing; in consequence it was changed almost immediately.
Small changes like this can make a difference to how people view and understand historic places. In the case of the Boulia police barracks I assumed that any signage would present a history that would mention the role of the NMP and the relevance of the site to the local Pitta Pitta people. My hope is that “The Archaeology of the NMP” project will be able to bring forth both sides of the NMP, and tell a story about more participants than just Ernest Eglinton.
Reynolds, H. 1984 The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia. Ringwood: Penguin Books.
Wallis, L.A., N. Cole, H. Burke, B. Barker, K. Lowe, I. Davidson and E. Hatte 2017 Rewriting the History of the Native Mounted Police in Queensland. Nulungu Insights 1. Broome: Nulungu Research Institute.