Policing and communications were both crucial in enabling the mostly European settlers to establish themselves in the ‘Sunshine State’ in the nineteenth century. The Qld Native Mounted Police (NMP) were tasked with protecting settlers from Aboriginal resistance, while the early telegraph system linked both the remote detachments with senior officers stationed elsewhere, and the State with the rest of the nation. My PhD research is exploring the connections between these two spheres—policing and communication.
All official NMP correspondence had some form of connection to “Her Majesty’s Government”, whether it was in the form of the royal crest on the Police Commissioner’s seal (Figure 1), or references to “On Her Majesty’s Service” (often abbreviated to “O.H.M.S”). Similarly, the official insignia of the Post and Telegraph Department in Qld was embossed on early telegrams and envelopes (Figures 2 and 3). Given that the NMP and Telegraph Service staff were employed by the State, their reporting lines ultimately extended to Queen Victoria, the reigning English monarch at the time.
Whether it was telegrams being sent to the NMP asking for urgent assistance, or sent from the NMP to the Commissioner of Police asking for further supplies, as soon as it became available (after 1861 in Qld) the telegraph was a widely used means of communication. The link between the two frontier groups employed “On Her Majesty’s Service” extends even further when mapping the connections between communications and policing.
Archival records and maps often mentioned the NMP in relation to early telegraph stations, and we can see in Figure 4 the relationship between the NMP camp and the telegraph station at Boralga in Cape York Peninsula (CYP). However, it is more difficult to assess at a state-wide level just how closely connected the NMP and the telegraph stations were.
In order to find out more about this, I used specialised mapping software (ArcGIS) to plot the locations of telegraph stations and NMP camps together on a map: so far, we know of 191 NMP camps that were closely associated with a telegraph station (Figure 5). Even where a telegraph station and NMP camp were further apart, they remained within two day’s ride of each other on horseback (but more often than not, NMP and telegraph stations were much closer than this).
Some NMP camps were set up to protect the labourers who were out building the lines, while others were intended to protect the offices once the stations had been built. Some telegraph stations, such as those on CYP, also had their own protection built in to the fabric of the building as well—such as the gun turrets on opposite corners of the building at the Musgrave Telegraph Station, seen in Figure 6.
Apart from the stations and the workers who had to be protected, the Telegraph lines themselves were constantly being damaged by local Aboriginal people in search of new and better raw materials. Ceramic insulators, for example, were highly valued as an alternative source to fine-grained stone, since they could be easily knapped to produce sharp cutting tools (Harrison 2002; Powell 2008). The use of these insulators by Aboriginal people proved exasperating to settlers:
A MESSENGER just arrived from the Telegraph camp tells me the blacks have been amusing themselves stripping the tops of posts of the hoop-iron binding for a distance, here and there through the scrub, of three miles, while several insulators have been removed by the same coloured gentlemen … (Brisbane Courier, 20 February 1871, p3).
The wire from the lines was also used to make better tips for spears and therefore was constantly being cut and removed:
NORMANTON, May 20 … Last week the blacks cut and carried off some 9½ chains of the telegraph wire between Normanton and Kimberley, and so stopped communication for a time. The line was cut in two places, about two miles apart. Doubtless the niggers will shortly be interviewed by the troopers, and taught to tip their spears with things other than telegraph wire. It is not very often, however, that the blacks are troublesome so near town. (Queenslander, 6 June 1885, p895).
Many of these wire and insulator tipped spears were later used to deadly effect on Europeans.
In contrast, none of this material appears in the archaeology of the NMP camps (apart from one broken telegraph insulator found at Boralga, shown in Figure 7), no doubt because the troopers and their wives were well aware of the importance of such communication systems and the consequences of damaging them. For us, this means that telegraph material culture will only be found on the sites occupied by local Aboriginal people well away from NMP camps.
There are many social and political implications of the very close relationships that the NMP shared with telegraph operators and facilities. While these are still being studied, the effects include the NMP ensuring that the telegraph stations and lines could be built and that they remained operational for the benefit of the State.
The fact that NMP camps were situated so close to roads, crossroads and mail routes also exemplifies the vital role that the NMP played in facilitating communications networks across early Qld. In many ways the presence of the NMP was what created these networks in the first place, since mail routes were often specifically routed to connect pastoral stations and NMP camps. Between Gayndah and Gladstone, the NMP went one step further:
For the benefit of those who contemplate moving over to Port Curtis, or that neighbourhood, it may be advantageous to state that there is a regular mail running between Gayndah and Port Gladstone, the service of which is performed by troopers of Native Police (Moreton Bay Courier 1854).
Harrison, R. 2002 Archaeology and the colonial encounter: Kimberley spearpoints, cultural identity and masculinity in the north of Australia. Journal of Social Archaeology 2(3):352–377.
Powell, E. 2008 What’s the point? The debate over Australia’s magnificent spearheads. Archaeology 61(5).