A uniform, in any setting, is an institutional garment. Conformity to it has certain goals and the experience of wearing it is a critical part of adhering to a particular set of rules. For the troopers of the Native Mounted Police (NMP), the donning, wearing and maintaining of their uniforms was considered by the officers to be central elements in developing military discipline:
Officers and troopers will at all times wear correct uniform when on parade, patrol and other duty; and in this respect it is particularly necessary that the officers should be careful in showing a proper example; as thorough cleanliness in person, clothing and accoutrements must be rendered compulsory on the part of the troopers, every inducement should be held out to them to assume a smart and soldierlike appearance (Qld Government 1867:260).
The external appearance of such uniforms and the sensation of wearing them, however, were probably poles apart. In 1857 Dr Henry Hort Brown, former Medical Officer to the NMP, thought that the uniforms constituted a health hazard for troopers. When questioned by a Parliamentary Select Committee, he noted that
… they wear very warm clothing, which they throw off when they are in a state of perspiration, and otherwise live, to a certain extent, artificially …
Could you suggest anything in their management which would lead to other results?
Yes; I would recommend a lighter suit of clothing, and as near an approximation to their natural habits of life as practicable (Legislative Assembly of NSW 1858).
Apart from the uniform, Hort Brown also noted the troopers’ susceptibility to introduced European diseases, such as influenza and mumps, all of which combined to reduce their life expectancy: ‘You think their tendency to mortality is increased by the mode in which they are clothed? Yes … By Mr. F. Rusden: Do the Police die off very rapidly? Yes, for the reasons before stated’ (Legislative Assembly of NSW 1858).
This may have been one of the reasons for the persistent practice amongst troopers of abandoning their uniforms when on patrol (Richards 2005:269), apart from the fact that the material would catch and the clothing would tear in the scrubs into which Aboriginal people customarily fled to escape them. Frederick Wheeler, who was questioned by another Select Committee in 1861, noted that troopers often went out of his sight and that ‘when they go into the scrub they then dismount and take off their trousers’ (Frederick Wheeler, Qld Legislative Assembly 1861 Select Committee into the Qld Native Police:16). This practice of undressing for patrol was captured by one observer from the Illustrated London News in 1863 (Figure 1).
Several images from the Lower Laura (Boralga) NMP camp, quite possibly taken by Charles Marrett in the 1880s, also show the troopers both with and without their uniforms, although all of them were posed, so are perhaps not directly reflective of reality. It is noticeable that both the Laura photographs and the Illustrated London News etching still depict the troopers in their caps (kepis), perhaps implying that these were valued above most other elements of their uniform.
This may have been more a strategy for self preservation, however, since once divested of the remainder of their uniform troopers would have been indistinguishable to trigger-ready Europeans. W.H. Corfield (1921:69–70) recalled an incident at the Laura River in 1876, when, on going down to wash before dinner, he saw ‘a mob of blacks bathing, and one running towards the bank.’ Without a second thought he sprinted back to his camp, yelling to his companions to ready their rifles. Instead, this turned out to be Sub-Inspector Edwin Townsend’s detachment from Boralga. They, too, had decided to have a wash before dinner and the man that Corfield had seen running ‘went to get his uniform cap to denote a trooper’, presumably to avoid being shot. For the same reason, Corfield noted that the troopers took their caps when on patrol to ensure that they recognised each other at a distance when it counted most:
It was a weird procession, as we wended our way along the river. Five naked blacks in single file in the lead, their only dress consisting of a cartridge belt round the waist, and cap in hand. The latter they were most particular in wearing on their head when going into action, otherwise they would have difficulty in recognising each other (Corfield 1923:95).
Some, even rarer, images of former troopers, however, show them continuing to wear their kepis and uniform after having left the NMP. These are tantalising glimpses into the self-image of a trooper, or at least those who lived in European-controlled settings, such as missions.
Research by Grace Karskens (2011) on the Aboriginal-European history of early Sydney has looked at the choices being made by Aboriginal people when adopting certain items of European clothing. In the case of men such as Bungaree these were often the red coats or blue jackets adopted by senior Aboriginal men as symbols of their allegiance with Europeans. Wearing such a coat was a highly visible message to other members of Bungaree’s community and signalled the access to European goods that such relationships provided him.
The conscious wearing of an NMP trooper’s uniform, however, while clearly sometimes a message to other troopers, was more often intended for those outside the force—most obviously the ‘other’ Aboriginal people they were sent to police. In this sense the visual components of the uniform conveyed a clear message of colonial power and authority.
In this context the kepis were not signalling safety, but its opposite. Noelene Cole’s extensive and detailed work on contact rock art in Cape York has identified a series of paintings that depict hatched lines on the lower halves of human figures, as well as sometimes on their arms (Figure 3).
These figures were identified by local Aboriginal people as Native police men, leading her to suggest that the lines were perhaps a depiction of the uniform, and particularly the trousers worn by troopers with their distinctive red stripes down the outside of the leg (Cole 2010:22). More importantly, many of these figures were associated with paintings of objects or animals symbolising death and so may have been sorcery images intended to cause harm to the NMP.
At the same time, the trooper cap was used as a different form of signal by people in Cape York Peninsula:
The Aboriginal hand sign for ‘bullyman’ was an open hand across the forehead followed by a gesture which meant ‘run away quickly’ … As the troopers wore caps at all times to distinguish them from local Aborigines … it is likely that the depiction of the cap symbolizes this practice. The lines across the foreheads of some police [paintings] are reminiscent of the hand sign (Cole 2010:24).
These crucial elements—the red stripes and cap—came to stand for so much more than just a wage or an individual’s sense of pride. For Europeans they connoted protection for themselves, their family and their livelihoods, for the troopers a place in a world so entirely transformed that there were few other options available to them. For other Aboriginal people they represented the danger, violence and death that for them constituted the frontier.
Archaeologically very few traces of these material symbols are still available to us. No known NMP trooper uniform survives, although the buckles, armaments and ammunition often made their way into archaeological deposits. The most tangible reminders of the discipline of dress are the brass buttons that are sometimes found in large numbers, by us and others.
These buttons were only on the full dress jackets, not the shirts, and not the ordinary uniform ‘jumpers’. They were thus on garments that were not worn very often, although the Sunday full dress parades stipulated by regulations would have required them. As such, we suspect they were seldom worn by the troopers and probably remained in camp, especially as those regulations also specified that ‘before leaving the police station, the officer in command will see that such clothing as may not be wanted on patrol is carefully put away’ (Qld Government 1867:259).
This doesn’t really explain why we find so many of them, though—especially as we know that uniforms were highly regulated, often recycled and presumably also carefully conserved given the constraints on resupply and the general lack of funding that characterised the NMP.
Regardless, in the absence of any preserved trooper uniforms, it is the buttons that have come to stand in for the whole. These things are both collectible and highly symbolic. As a reflection of a particular type of policing they condense an entire system of intent and activities—as well as its repercussions—into some of the smallest objects, seldom worn and seemingly easily abandoned. In representing the entire history of a uniform, they speak as much to the expectations of wider society as they do to the lives of the people who wore them, both then and now.
Cole, N. 2010 Painting the police: Aboriginal visual culture and identity in colonial Cape York Peninsula. Australian Archaeology 71:17–28.
Corfield, W.H. 1921 Reminiscences of Queensland 1862-1899. Brisbane: A.H. Frater.
Corfield, W. H. 1923 Reminiscences of North Queensland, 1862-1878. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 2(2):81-96.
Karskens, G. 2011 Red coat, blue jacket, black skin: Aboriginal men and clothing in early New South Wales. Aboriginal History 35:1–36.
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 Government 1867 Rules for the General Government and Discipline of the Native Mounted Police Force. Queensland Government Gazette, 10 March Vol VII, No 28:258–261.
Queensland Police n.d. A brief history of the Queensland Police uniform. Police Bulletin 342:32–36.
Richards, J. 2005 ‘A Question of Necessity’: The Native Police in Queensland. Unpublished PhD thesis, School of Arts, Media and Culture, Griffith University, Brisbane.