Aboriginal Women and the NMP

The black police … seemed to have full license to kidnap and ravish the women of the first tribe they came across after a depredation had taken place. Frequently I have seen them tie young gins* — yelling and struggling — to the backs of their horses and carry them off after a dispersal, after the bullets had thinned and weakened the ranks of their protectors. Wandaigumbil Police Barracks early in the fifties was a perfect harem — young and old gins ranging from twelve to fifty years, could be seen there at any time.

(From Recollections of Thomas Davis, an upublished manuscript held on file at the University of Queensland Library.)

[* We recognise that this term is extremely offensive and use it only here and in the remainder of this post in the context of direct historical quotes]

When stories of the NMP are told, generally the focus is on the white men, and to a lesser degree the Aboriginal men, who comprised the official Force. As with much history, the stories of women, particularly Aboriginal women, are largely missing. Yet it’s clear that most NMP camps were also occupied by women, and this is the case right from the earliest days of the Force.

In 1851, Frederick Walker addressed the NMP corps at Callandoon, with specific instructions that included, amongst others, instructions to ‘Keep away from Gins when you are at a gunyah. Do what you like when you are in the bush. I will not be angry with you then’ (Skinner 1978:53). It was further noted by Skinner (1978:403–404) that ‘Two Aboriginal women had travelled from the Murray River with Walker’s force … Walker allowed his Native Police to maintain, out of their allowances for rations, Aboriginal women at the various Native Police barracks’. Another source, a 1982 Police Department pamphlet, stated of the NMP that “The native troopers all had a wife with whom they were married in a tribal ceremony, and they were generally devoted to their wives and children”.

Historic newspaper accounts also include references to the presence of Aboriginal women in the NMP camps. For example, The Queenslander of 10 November 1866 includes an account of William Landsborough’s travel’s across the Gulf Country, in which he noted:

Of the native police there were five aborigines from different parts of Queensland; they had each a wife, with the exception of one.

Another account in The Queenslander, dated 18 October 1884, in the region of Blackall reads:

Another fire occurred in the native police camp here on Tuesday night, whereby a trooper and his gin, so I am informed, had a narrow escape.

Likewise, The Queenslander of 4 February 1882 stated:

The next thing was the pudding, the plums for which the mailman brought down last trip; the bottle of Port Mackay was unfortunately broken on the way-so the mailman stated. Having started the gin to put the bucket on the fire, he starts to mix the pudding … The trooper, his gin, the emu, two pet sheep, and half-a-dozen dogs then started on a hunting expedition, and the camp-keeper was left to prepare something in the meat line …

Another account in The Western Star and Roma Advertiser dated 15 February 1879 declared:

There are no police at Winton, but there is a native police station on the Diamantina, where there are quartered two native police officers, a camp sergeant, and I do not know how many black gins and troopers.

Other tantalising glimpses of the presence of women in the NMP camps are hidden in some of the primary sources relating to the force. For example, and as shown in the photographs to follow, the 1898 and 1899 ration books for the Cooktown NMP camp has multiple references to different Aboriginal women and their children who were present at different times – if only such sources existed for all of the camps!

Figure 1 A page from the 1898 and 1899 ration book for the Cooktown NMP camp listing Aboriginal women in the Cooktown NMP camp (photograph courtesy Heather Burke).
Figure 2 A page from the 1898 and 1899 ration book for the Cooktown NMP camp listing Aboriginal troopers and their female partners, with dates of arrival in the Cooktown NMP camp (photograph courtesy Heather Burke).
Figure 3 A page from the 1898 and 1899 ration book for the Cooktown NMP camp listing Aboriginal troopers and women in the Cooktown NMP camp (photograph courtesy Heather Burke).

And it is clear that ‘access’ to women was one means by which European officers enforced discipline on the Aboriginal troopers. One entry in the Cooktown ration book noted that “Tracker Tommy is not allowed a gin till the 1st June 01 by order of Sub Inspector Garraway” (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 4 A page from the 1898 and 1899 ration book for the Cooktown NMP camp referring to disciplinary action against Tracker Tommy (photograph courtesy Heather Burke).

Further evidence of the way in which access to Aboriginal women was used to control the behaviour of troopers is seen in a letter from George Murray to Frederick Wheeler dated 1867:

Chief Inspector’s Office Northern District
Springsure 26 November 1867
Sir
I have to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 12th Nov Inst respecting an application for Sub Insp Uhr to have Trooper Wellington 71[?] promoted to the rank of Corporal also stating that Mr Uhr had allowed the said Trooper to have a Gin without the necessary authority.
The Troopers promotion is approved and as the Gin cannot well be turned out of the camp now he will be allowed to keep her, but you will at the same time severely reprimand Sub Insp Uhr for his gross disobedience of [riders?], calling his attention to clause 22 page 6 of the NM Police regulations of 1866. If printed rules are so utterly ignored by members of the force what security have we that our written instructions will be attended to, in a widely extended force like the N.M. Police obedience must be one of the principal parts towards efficiency a great deal of discretion is necessary and allowed vide clause 2 but that discretion must not be exercised in breaking through established rules which nothing but necessity or furthering the ends of justice will excuse.
I have etc
[signed] Geo. P. M. Murray

The clause referred to in the letter above states in part that officers in charge of districts and detachments “will also be held responsible that no trooper keeps a gin without permission from head-quarters” (Richards 2005:391). Clearly these rules changed during the half-century life of the Force, and sadly little archival evidence survives documenting formal requests from officers regarding troopers being allowed to ‘keep’ Aboriginal women with them in camps.

And it was not just in domestic duties that Aboriginal women excelled they were reported also useful in tracking Aboriginal people whom the NMP were seeking. For example, a letter sent from the Port Curtis (Gladstone) NMP camp dated 27 August 1859 mentioned that the Aboriginal women living at the Native Police camp “were frequently useful to us in discovering the haunts of some of the most notorious murderers” [QSA ID846730 59/118 M/film Z4899].

Along with such tantalising glimpses of the presence of women in the writtten records, we do also occasionally see them in the photographic record. In the image below of an unspecified NMP camp (though we have reason to suspect it might be the Boralga camp on Cape York Peninsula) taken in 1870, we see four women seated amongst the troopers, and on the lap of the man on the left is a small child (Figure 5).

Figure 5 A photograph of an unspecified NMP camp ca 1870. This is possibly the camp at Boralga on Cape York Peninsula (John Oxley Library collection Neg No 57330).

Likewise, an historic photograph of the NMP camp on Waterview Station near Ingham (known as ‘the Herbert River camp’), depicts an orderly row of eight grass and bough huts and 12 uniformed troopers and 3 officers on parade; to their right sits a row of six Aboriginal women and children in long white dresses, their hair tied back in neat white headbands (Figure 6).

Figure 6 A photograph showing the NMP camp at Herbert River, ca 1882 (John Oxley Collection 156880). Note the Aboriginal women seated in the left of the image.

Knowing that Aboriginal women are largely absent from the written record, one of the key elements of our research is to explore whether these women are archaeologically visible and, if so, consider how much they contributed to camp life. There are already suggestions that their contribution was substantial:

For example, before the 1856 Select Committee Inquiry into the NMP Charles Archer stated that most of the Native Police had women of their own which he considered desirable. These women hunted for themselves and when the police were not on duty they were always hunting. When the men of the force were transferred from one district to another their females always accompanied them, riding horses and sometimes dressed in trousers and a blue shirt (Skinner 1978:207–208).

These women were not merely ‘accoutrements’ to the troopers. Rather, they were active members of the community whose labour was critical to the successful operation of the camps, as is clear in an 1886 letter written from an officer stationed at the Norman River NMP camp:

I have the honor to request that this Detachment may be allowed continuous rations for gins. There is no hunting ground for them now that the surrounding country is all occupied by stock. The ration allowed for troopers is inadequate for themselves and gins. I must draw your attention to the fact that this is the only station in the district that has not been allowed continuous rations for gins. The wood and water has to be carried by them some considerable distance and they are constantly employed in keeping up a supply of each. [QSA Item ID 290324 Administrative file, police. Police Stations – Norman River]

At this stage little is known about how many of these women came from other areas with they husbands or partners who may have been recruited into the NMP, or how many were ‘stolen’ during the attacks by the NMP on Aboriginal camps, as Thomas Davies suggested in the quote at the start of this post.

With this in mind and in closing this post, we draw your attention to an article published by NMP officer William Armit on 30 June 1883 in The Argus newspaper. In it he described a patrol on the Gilbert River during which one ‘wife’ was captured – it is worth recounting at length because of the cheerful tone attached to the kidnapping of a young woman who, had she been asked to describe the event herself, would likely have had a very different account:

Perched on surrounding crags and hilltops, the young gins (women) keep a constant lookout for the dreaded native police or the appearance of the hated white man, and a shrill cry of warning is sufficient to send the tribes scurrying into the mountains for safety. My only opportunity of witnessing a Bora was due entirely to … one of my old troopers called “Charlie,” who succeeded in stalking and capturing one of these amazonian guards, who was seated on a rocky pinnacle, watching the valley in which the tribes were encamped.
Charlie, who had somehow or other become separated from the detachment during the day, rode into camp just as the sun was setting, accompanied by his prisoner, who seemed perfectly unconcerned at seeing us, and who immediately commenced an attack upon one of the troopers’ suppers, much to our amusement…
“All right, corporal, I want to see a Bora; but we want to make friends with these blacks, so we must not hurt them, you know. They have not done anything yet.”
“Yes, sir…”
“…go and have your supper, and we will watch this Bora. Find out when it is going to begin from that gin.”
After half-an-hour’s jabbering, accompanied by peals of laughter, the corporal informed me that the blacks had been hunting for three days, that they had plenty of kangaroo cooked, and that the Bora would begin on the morrow … Grey dawn found us all afoot, and having breakfasted, we set off for the scene of the blacks’ corroboree, leaving one trooper in camp to guard our prisoner and to look after our horses…

After secretly watching the bora,

We also turned our faces homewards, arriving at our camp after a pleasant march through a natural garden, and found our young prisoner running about as happy as a queen, in search of a sugar-bag, which having discovered, she soon chopped out. Saddling up, we were ready for a start, when the trooper who had remained in camp came to me and asked me to let him keep the gin “belonga wife myself-myself,” as he put it. He was a bachelor, and had amused himself during our absence by courting his sable companion, As she seemed not only willing, but anxious to accompany us, I consented, especially as Charlie averred that the tribe would most probably kill her if she returned to it after what had happened.

References

Richards, J. 2008 The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

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

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