By Heather Burke
[The Native Police] are clothed in a uniform of blue with scarlet relief, armed with Snider rifles, drilled in semi-military fashion (Brisbane Courier, 15 June 1878, p3).
From the start of the Native Mounted Police (NMP), the uniforms worn by officers and troopers were a central element of their structure and presence. The lure of a uniform was thought to be one of the key attractions for Aboriginal men to join the Force, although more often than not this was seen as vanity by white observers:
Mr. Clohesy has found some eight men, all new to the service, and has rigged them out in the uniform of the troopers of which they are evidently not a little proud (Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser 15 February 1872, p2).
In giving evidence to the 1857 Select Committee enquiry into the deaths of the 11 members of the Fraser family and their employees on the Dawson River, William Foster thought that the troopers, ‘… seem to be a better race than the wild men they were taken from. The vanity of each individual is affected by having an uniform, and being made a soldier of, and an esprit de corps is formed among them.’ (Legislative Assembly of NSW 1858:11).
It is more likely that the uniforms were seen by Aboriginal men as a visible symbol of a labour agreement between themselves and Europeans. Given how important reciprocal (exchange) relationships were in Aboriginal society, the guns, hats, boots, uniforms and rations that were exchanged for their labour were critical ‘proof’ of a European promise. Failure to deliver could result in dissatisfaction or even desertion, as was the case in 1853 when three recruits from the Macintyre River—“Herbert”, “Luke” and “Owen”—deserted because ‘they had been for six months kept at drill, without uniforms, saddlery, or arms, and consequently without anything to gratify their feelings of pride, or self respect’ (Moreton Bay Courier, 29 January 1853, p.3). Eight recruits deserted from Rockhampton in 1862 for the same reason, suggesting that the Native Police’s supply chain had not improved in the intervening 10 years:
It was reported to me on my return that eight Recruits had been sent from Moreton Bay to Head Quarters by Lieutnt Wheeler but that they had all deserted a fortnight after their arrival here; the men had been led to expect a full supply of Clothing, Arms and Accoutrements and deserted in consequence of their disappointment. (QSA846765_1862_John O’Connell Bligh to the Colonial Secretary 15 December, In letter 62/2994, Mfilm Z5623)
Supplies were often hard to get on the frontier, and the system of distributing uniforms from far-distant centres meant that camps could go without for long periods. Scarcity also created frugality, and it was not uncommon to recycle uniform components between successive troopers. Lieutenant George Fulford, for example, noted that a collection of clothing sent to Wondai Gumbal from the Dawson included several torn and useless items, including one jacket that appeared ‘to have been worn for some length of time and has the name “Ralph” in it’ (Fulford to Commandant 5 August 1855). All we know of “Ralph” was that he had been a trooper in the Clarence/Macleay region of NSW in 1854.
The troopers’ uniform of the 1850s consisted of a dark blue cloth jacket, a choice of blue or white trousers, a shirt, boots and a forage cap (QSA86141 Native Police Work Downs Maranoa 1849-1857). The 6th and 8th sections, who were posted to Wondai Gumbal (between Dalby and Surat) and Yabba (between Nambour and Kingaroy), respectively, were also issued with a cloak. Edric Morisset, the second Commandant of the NMP, thought that little change needed to be made to the uniform in 1861 other than to increase its durability and introduce a full dress outer jacket:
[R.R.Mackenzie] Would you suggest any difference in the clothing?
[Morisset] It might be made of much more lasting material, but it would add considerably to the expense; that is why the clothing is at present made of colonial tweed.
[R.R.Mackenzie] Do you think those blue jumpers they wear are good?
[Morisset] Yes, for the bush.
[R.R.Mackenzie] And you believe they are not expensive?
[Morisset] No, very cheap.
[R.R.Mackenzie] Do you think there should be jackets for the men to appear in parade in?
(Qld Legislative Assembly 1861:149)
Like their arms, ammunition, swords and badges, these uniforms would have been supplied by the NSW Government (QSA846738 60/2100), since the first explicitly Queensland police uniform was not introduced until 1864. The first ordinary, or ‘undress’, Queensland uniform was very similar to its predecessors, consisting of a dark blue jacket (also called a ‘jumper’) and shirt, a forage cap and dark blue trousers, with the option of white or drab cord breeches (Qld Police nd). For the Native Police the trousers were further accented by red stripes ‘strapped’ down the outside of the leg, the jackets with red cord (Queensland Government 1867:261) and the shirts with red facings (Moreton Bay Courier 18 December 1860, p3). These red accents were only added around 1861, since Frederick Carr, when questioned by the 1861 Select Committee, thought it was ‘a very good idea they are acting on—that of getting blue shirts, striped, with a red facing ‘ (Qld Legislative Assembly 1861:135). The uniform appears to have remained fairly consistent throughout the 1860s, 70s and 80s.
The full dress uniform was different, of course, but was also only worn on ceremonial occasions (Figure 2). Amongst the officers status distinctions were maintained through the number of cords in the sleeve ornament (one for a sub-inspector, two for an inspector and three for the Commissioner) (Qld Government 1867:261). The sword that accompanied it was also only for display, even though troopers were usually still drilled in it, and often became very proficient (Qld Legislative Assembly 1861:157).
Jacket—Dark blue cloth, Garibaldi pattern; standing collar, rounded in front, and edged all round with round gold cord; two rows of round gold cord down the front; one-quarter inch apart; Austrian knot of round gold cord on sleeve; round gold cord shoulder-straps.
Trousers—Dark blue cloth, with two strips of gold lace, oak leaf pattern, half an inch wide and quarter an inch apart, down outer seam.
Spurs—Steel, crane neck
Sword—Light cavalry, scabbard steel
Sword-knot—Gold cord, with acorn end
Sword-belt—Cavalry pattern, pale Russia leather, snake clasp
Pouch-belt—Pale Russia leather, two and a-half inches wide
Pouch-box—Pale Russia leather, Q.P. in gilt on flap
Sabretache and three slings—Pale Russia leather, Q.P. in gilt
Head Dress—Blue cloth forage cap, with black oak leaf band, Q.P in gilt in front, straight peak.
Jacket—Same as for full dress, except that red cord is substituted for gold
Trousers—Dark blue cloth, with two stripes of red cloth, half an inch wide, quarter an inch apart, on outer seam
Boots—With trousers, Wellington boots, with box spurs, steel crane neck; with pantaloons, Napoleon boots and hunting spurs
Head-dress—Same as full dress
Gloves—White leather (Queensland Government 1867:261).
The 1866 Rules for the General Government and Discipline of the NMP Force required that ‘the men at out stations, when in quarters, will, invariably, parade on Sundays in full dress’. It is difficult to imagine the detachments at some of the furthest-flung NMP camps complying, even though many of them seemed to have been organised around open central spaces that probably did serve as parade grounds. When in town the troopers were not to ‘appear in the streets unless dressed strictly according to order’ and were ‘at all times … expected to be smart and clean’ (Qld Government 1867:260).
The red and blue colour scheme of the NMP uniform became a distinctive part of their identity. In 1861 Charles B. Dutton disparagingly referred to troopers who came on to his run as ‘bluemen’ (Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 8 February 1862, p6) and a series of rare 19th century drawings by a young Aboriginal man from north Qld known only as “Oscar” captured the vivid colours as the essential markers of a trooper.
Oscar was ‘obtained’ by Augustus Henry ‘Gus’ Glissan, the manager of Rocklands Station, near Camooweal, in 1887, when he was only 9 or 10 years old. It is likely that his family were killed, since he was handed over to Glissan by the NMP, who were renowned for kidnapping women and children following ‘dispersals’ across the frontier. Oscar came from the Palmer River area, and nearly half of his drawings describe activities and people on the Palmer River or in Cooktown, the Palmer River’s main port. Several of his sketches depict groups of troopers dressed in full uniform, including boots and caps (Figure 3).
Oscar was a keen observer, including details such as slashes of red on the troopers’ shoulders, down the fronts of their jackets (and possibly also on their breast pockets), both sides of their trousers, and across their caps. For Oscar, these were obviously crucial identifying markings, highlighting the red facings on the jackets, the red shoulder marks and the trouser stripes that are also very distinctive in the reproduction trooper’s uniform on display in the Police Museum in Brisbane (Figure 4).
These red accents echo the uniform of the third incarnation of the Victorian Native Police, who operated in Victoria between 1842 and 1849. Their colour was green rather than blue, but their uniform maintained the distinguishing red contrasts on cap, trousers and jacket for both troopers and officers (Figure 5).
The earliest photographs of members of the Qld NMP date from the 1860s, apart from one isolated image from the 1850s. Interestingly, they show that the dominant form of headgear for both officers and troopers seems to be the kepi, rather than the forage cap (Figure 6). The kepi was typical of most 19th century police and military, and was issued to the NMP with a removable ‘Havelock’ sun shade that could be fitted over the cap to protect the back of the neck (Lamond 1949:32).
Apart from the Havelock, none of the elements of the uniform seem particularly suited to the Qld climate, particularly as settlement spread further west and north. It was only toward the end of the century that uniforms were changed, including introducing helmets, supposedly as better protection against the sun (Qld Police n.d.).
While the non-dress uniforms of the mid-19th century showed only subtle distinctions between officers and troopers, in 1896 Commissioner William Parry-Okeden introduced two further changes: a looser tunic in khaki and a soft felt hat for ‘bush duty’ (Qld Police n.d.; Figure 7). The adoption of Parry-Okeden’s uniform seems to have resulted in two parallel systems operating within NMP camps. At Coen in 1900 these were described as ‘Blue and khaki’ and at Eight Mile in 1902 as ‘khaki and N. Police’ (Report on Inspection of 8 Mile Police Station 2 December 1901, QSA290298 Police Stations –Durhan, Eight Mile, Highbury). In other words, while the officers adopted the new khaki, along with the ‘bush’ hat, the regulation for troopers remained the blue tunic with blue or white trousers and kepi.
What this means is that the original emphasis on dark blue with red accents for the Aboriginal troopers remained essentially unchanged throughout the second half of the 19th century and was even carried over into the 20th century through the trackers’ uniforms (Figure 8). While the image of officers changed to reflect wider changes in the nature of policing, this doesn’t seem to have been the case for the Aboriginal members of the force.
Fulford, George to Commandant 5 August 1855, QSA86141 Native Police Work Darling Downs, Lower Condamine and Maranoa 1849–1857.
Haydon, A.L. 1911 The Trooper Police of Australia. A Record of Mounted Police Work in the Commonwealth from the Earliest Days of Settlement to the Present Time. London: Andrew Melrose.
Lamond, H. 1949 Native mounted police. Walkabout November 1:31–32.
Legislative Assembly of NSW 1858 Report from the Select Committee on Murders by the Aborigines on the Dawson River; Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix. Sydney: William Hanson, Government Printer.
Queensland Legislative Assembly 1861 Report from the Select Committee on the Native Police Force and the Condition of the Aborigines Generally together with the Proceedings of the Committee and Minutes of Evidence. Brisbane: Fairfax and Belbridge.
Queensland Government 1867 Rules for the General Government and Discipline of the Native Mounted Police Force. Queensland Government Gazette 7(28):258–261.
Queensland Police n.d. A brief history of the Queensland Police uniform. Police Bulletin 342:32–36.
Whittington, A. 1965 The Queensland Native Mounted Police. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 7(3):508–520.