Food rations were an important lifeline for the occupants of Native Mounted Police (NMP) camps, but it was often a tenuous lifeline at best. The cost of rations was a problem for the government, who had to constantly justify the existence of the NMP force to the taxpayer, who frequently complained that they were a drain on the public purse (Richards 2008:129). The threat of abandoning food ration contracts was ever-present unless suppliers could keep prices reduced (Richards 2008:128), which often meant less food to go around. In 1861 several NMP officers noted how they and their men subsisted often without rations when on patrol. In being questioned about this by the Select Committee into the Native Police, Frederick Carr recounted:
… being without rations for as many as nine days, on one occasion.
85. How do you subsist generally? By the troopers providing me with food.
86. You and your men fare alike? Yes, on those occasions we live on roots, and a few odd opposums. On one occasion we were very badly off, when after blacks who had committed a very serious outrage; we could not act, as on other occasions, and shoot game.
The limited historical documents available on this topic show that in the 1880s the standard daily ration for an Aboriginal police trooper was around 1 lb. of flour, 4 oz. sugar, 1 oz. tea, 1 oz. tobacco and 1 oz. of soap (Port Douglas Chronicle 1889). Beyond that meat was also provided, which could have been salted beef in a barrel or more likely fresh meat supplied by local pastoralists. This may have been tendered for, but this is not always certain.
Historical documents have shown that extending food rationing beyond the Aboriginal troopers to the Aboriginal women and children who also lived in the camps (some of the more complex matters relating to women residing within NMP camps can be viewed at our earlier blog post) was at times contentious. For example, a letter written in 1866 by an officer stationed at the Norman River NMP camp requested that his 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]
Analysis of faunal remains from archaeological excavations at Boralga, an NMP camp in Cape York Peninsula, provides new insights into the domestic life of the camp, particularly with regards to food rationing and self-provisioning (Figure 1). By identifying the main groups of animal remains found in the excavations from the trooper’s huts area (Trench 7), we can explore the nature of food rationing in the camp.
We recovered nearly 1 kg of bone from Trench 7, but around 90% of it was not well preserved, as it was burnt or fragmented, making positive identification of the animals from which the bones come difficult. Only 22% of the bone could be identified to a Class, the majority of which was mammal bone (19%), though it was not possible to separate this further into domestic or native categories. Four small pieces of bone appear to be cut rather than broken, but this is not certain. The domestic category contained 1% bovine (cow) and just over 6% native taxa. Native fauna was represented in the form of bones, jaws and teeth belonging to macropods, such as kangaroos and wallabies (Figure 2), snake vertebrae (Figure 3), possum, which is most likely the common brush tail possum Trichosurus vulpecular (Figure 4), and a bush rat, which is most likely Rattus fuscipes (Figure 5). In addition, several small fish and bird bones were recovered, along with fresh water mussel shell with evidence of burning (Figure 6). The mussel shell and fish most likely came from the nearby Boralga lagoon which was a crucial water source for the camp (Figure 7).
The presence of native taxa in the bones found at Boralga raises two questions, neither of which are mutually exclusive. First, is this a tangible demonstration of a continuation of cultural identity, as demonstrated by the presence of knapped glass and stone flakes within trench 7? Second, were these the result of a necessity borne out of the need to self-provision, particularly when Aboriginal women and children were residing with the troopers?
The diversity of the animals present in the assemblage shows that that, even though Aboriginal occupants were provided with rationed food, including beef, a portion of their diet consisted of traditional foods, hunted and gathered for their own consumption. Although agency and the decision to uphold cultural practice should also be considered, the evidence supports the notion that the Aboriginal troopers and women were self-provisioning in order to survive when rationing at the camp was insufficient.
Richards, J. 2008 The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.