“Taking French leave”: Desertions amongst the Troopers

By Lynley Wallis and Heather Burke

The numerous accounts in official records of desertions by Aboriginal troopers lend weight to suggestions that many men did not join the Native Mounted Police (NMP) force willingly. In some cases entire detachments deserted, such as in 1865 when Lieutenant Charles Blakeney had this happen for the second time:

The native police have again thought proper to take French leave. The whole body decamped last week, leaving behind an unfortunate gin, who being in an interesting situation was incapable of travel. Mr. Blakeney of course was much annoyed at this loss of his second detachment; he attributes the cause to the fact of their all being of one tribe, and recruits at the same time. This may be the reason, as it is somewhat singular that a blackboy from the Valley of Lagoons, a native from the same district, has been down here previous to the occurrence of both desertions. (Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 9 March 1865, p2)

It seems that Blakeney was not well suited to life as an officer in the NMP; he was ultimately dismissed from the Force in 1867 for failing to patrol the Fort Cooper district (Richards 2008:224). Nevertheless, this seemingly didn’t have a detrimental effect on his career, as he went on to become a solicitor and was admitted to the Queensland Bar in 1871, following in the footsteps of his barrister and judge father, Charles William Blakeney.

Blakeney wasn’t the only officer to have an entire detachment desert while serving under him. This unhappy circumstance also happened to Sub-Inspector Alexander “Black” Douglas and Sub-Inspector Edward Dumaresq in the 1870s:

The Native Police. — We learn that the whole of the Broadsound detachment of the above force belonging to Sub-Inspector Douglas’ division, deserted on the night of the 8th, so far as can be understood, from no ostensible reason. (Northern Argus, 16 October 1873, p2)

By the by, we hear that Sub-inspector Dumaresq’s native troopers have all left him on the Palmer, and he is with out a “boy,” so that Mr. Douglas will have to patrol the road to the Palmer. (Queenslander, 15 August 1874, p6)

Earlier to this, Lieutenant Frederick Carr in giving evidence to the 1861 inquiry into the NMP, offered the following information about the prevalence of desertion by troopers:

116. Have you frequently desertions among your men ? Do you mean from myself?
117. Yes. There has never been any desertion, except on one occasion.
118. You have never had but one deserter—one man leave you ? That is all.
119. Have you known of many desertions? Yes.
120. Have you known a section to leave altogether ? Yes, I have known an entire leave; the other day Mr. Patrick, from Rockhampton, was on the Zamia Creek, and I believe his section deserted altogether.
121. Have you known of any other officers losing men, whom you assisted in recruiting? Yes, Mr. P. Phibbs.
122. How many ? I am not sure ; I know of five.

It isn’t always clear why Aboriginal troopers chose to leave their positions, but based on historical sources and oral histories we can make a few informed suggestions. The brutal treatment of troopers is well recorded and likely contributed to the high desertion rate. In support of this, a petition to Governor Bowen prepared by a Brisbane solicitor on behalf of an NMP trooper (known as “Macbeth” while in the force, but also as “Georgey” thereafter), provides one of the few accounts in a trooper’s own words about why he chose to desert:

I entered the native police about two years and a half ago, and continued a trooper until about December last, when the camp sergeant, a white man, having taken from me my gin, and, on my speaking to him about it, having cruelly ill-treated me, I left the force without leave of my officer … I ran away because I knew that the Native Police had shot Boys who left the force without leave and I knew a Boy had been shot in the Camp under arrest for desertion and that I was threatened to be shot too. (The Courier, 7 May 1863, p3)

Lending further weight to allegations of the harsh treatment given to some troopers, during an 1876 inquiry into the deaths of two troopers, Constable Thomas testified that:

Sub-Inspector Carroll directed me to bring trooper Echo from the dray to which he was handcuffed … the boy was then handcuffed to a tree … Mr Carroll … brought out two stockwhips … I struck the trooper twice on the back with the whip. Mr Carroll then flogged him … until the boy fainted … I do not know the number of lashes but it was over thirty … his head was hanging back and his eyes set. Mr Carroll struck him three more times with the whip. I took the key … to release the boy when Mr Carroll told me to let him there for two or three hours it would do him good … about a quarter of an hour afterwards I missed the boy from the tree and never saw him again … I did not report this matter … [as I was told] that it was a general occurrence in every Native Police Camp and not to mention the subject anywhere as people would call us tyrants … I have seen troopers on a former occasion flogged quite as much by Mr Carroll with wire. (as cited in Evans et al. 1975:57)

Those troopers who deserted and did not return were often blamed, whether rightly or wrongly, for having joined the ‘wild blacks’ and subsequently leading attacks against settlers. A correspondent writing from the Herberton region in 1884 suggested in a letter to the Telegraph published on 24 November that “From my own experience I believe that deserters from the black trooper force are the principal instigators of the many depredations committed, and that their semi-civilisation gives them a superiority over their compeers, who are thus led on to onset any deed”.

In another example, at Cave Creek on 31 May 1871, two troopers were alleged to have master-minded the murder of John Corbett, a well known storekeeper:

It is stated on reliable authority that two black troopers, who deserted from the police, were in company with the tribe that committed the murder. I also hear that a numerous body of volunteers, well mounted, have started from Western Creek for the purpose of avenging the death of Mr. Corbett, but it is feared by those who know the locality that it will be a difficult matter to find the blacks amongst the conglomerate, if they do they will show them no mercy. (Brisbane Courier, 14 July 1871, p3)

The blacks, it would appear, have amongst them some who have either been with the troopers, or have been long acquainted with white men in some other capacity. These are the ringleaders and under their teaching the wild blacks of these districts have lately become so dangerous that it is not safe to travel alone, or without being well armed. (Border Watch, 5 August 1871, p4)

The headstone of John Corbett (sourced from http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=592284.36).

Another ex-trooper named “Willoo”, who frequented the Flinders River area in particular, was described as:

A deserter from the native police, and scion of a coast tribe, he had, by some means, not only ‘saved his skin’ amongst these his hereditary enemies, but even become their leader, feared for — what seemed to them — his super human knowledge, and admired for his cunning … Though tall and orignally [sic] well featured for an aborigine, a blow from the butt of a carbine, received at the time of his desertion, had disfigured his face. His profile, from, one side, was not ill-looking, but from other his face, like his true character, was devilish. (Darling Downs Gazette, 4 May 1895, p2)

Willoo was alleged to have lured a pastoralist by the name of Vicars — “a kindly, simple soul, naturalist, geologist, and scholar”—to his death by suggesting he knew the whereabouts of missing explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, when in fact an ambush awaited him. Vicars’ companion, a pastoralist by the name of Mowbray, survived the attack, which is how the tale of betrayal by Willoo came to be related.

Likewise, on the Palmer River goldfield, troopers who had deserted were also alleged to have been the ringleaders of attacks on stock and property in 1874:

It was at Pine Creek that they made a reconnaissance in force recently, and commenced spearing horses in every direction, until they were right in the midst of the tents, where at least eight horses were seen to fall at their hands. The blacks were supposed to number no less than 200 or 300, and on more than one occasion men in search of horses were encountered by them, and compelled to run for their lives. Things began to look serious, and diggers were naturally apprehensive that at any moment a regular raid might be made on the camp. At last, when it was known beyond the shadow of a doubt that at least fifty horses had been speared, it was resolved to put a stop to this wholesale massacre if possible. With this object twenty-two diggers, well armed, mustered one evening, and proceeded up the creek in quest of the blackfellows’ camp. After travelling nearly all night, their fires were at last sighted, and the avengers, dividing into two parties, and posting themselves conveniently for the work of dispersion, waited patiently for the dawn. When at last day broke, something like 200 blacks were seen squatting about the fires. The white men soon made their presence known, and in a moment the yelling of the blacks, thus taken by surprise, was horrible. They did not show fight, but ran right in the direction where the second party, who had not yet shown themselves, were posted. In the camp were found the skeletons of fourteen horses, the flesh of which had been eaten, and the bones cleaned as artistically as Jack Edwards himself could have done it. There were also two or three broken guns, miners’ dishes and other tools, Crimean shirts, and heaps of other articles taken from murdered white men, or stolen from diggers’ tents. There were also about twenty mat coffins full of human bones, which they at first attempted to take with them, but gave up the attempt very quickly. The exclamation “b—— whitefellow,” was frequently used amongst the blacks when running away; and it is thought very probable that Dumaresq’s black troopers, four or five of whom bolted some time ago [mentioned earlier in this blog post], were amongst them, and directing their movements. (Queenslander, 17 October 1874, p10)

Troopers who deserted were not simply left to their fate. Instead, the NMP oftentimes went after them. Alexander Douglas was reported to have been “close on [the] heels” of the detachment who deserted him in 1873 mentioned at the start of this post. In another example, in 1872 four troopers deserted the detachment led by Sub-Inspector George Nowlan on the Belyando. Some weeks later,

Information was received by the police last week that the deserters were camped with other black follows in the Gracemere scrub. Mounted Constables Stretton and Devine were despatched on Saturday morning in pursuit of them, and, under the guidance of a darkey, entered the scrub. They were obliged to dismount, and, after walking about a quarter of a mile, came upon a camp of blacks. The whole camp took to their heels, and scampered into the scrub. Stretton and Devine having marked their men, went in chase. Three of them got away, but the fourth fellow was captured, and brought into town. At a later hour of the day, Stretton heard that one of the three was in the neighbourhood of the Range, and, with a blackfellow, renewed the hunt. He was concealed for some time in a water closet, and thinking the coast clear, broke cover. Stretton speedily sighted him, and a warm chase across the flat ensued. The deserter made for one of the small scrubs, but was headed by the constable. The runaway made a stand at the rear of Mr. Melbourne’s stables, and showed fight, hurling a large piece of timber at Stretton’s head. The latter dodged the missile, and soon had the handcuffs on, and his prisoner conveyed to the lock-up. After Stretton had dismounted, and was returning his revolver to its case, the weapon accidentally exploded, and the ball passed through the fleshy part of the leg of the blackfellow who was assisting him. The wound was fortunately not a serious one, and the blackfellow appeared to think very little of it. (Rockhampton Bulletin, 24 September 1872, p2)

Portrait of George Nowlan in Roma in 1871 (SLQAPA-74 Album of Carte de Visite Portraits 1868-1875). Four of the troopers in Nowlan’s detachment deserted the year after this image was taken.

Following recapture, extra-judicial executions were not uncommon—historian Jonathan Richards (2008) lists many troopers who were shot for desertion at different times and places during the NMP’s history.

But it wasn’t only the NMP who would extract punishment on troopers for desertion —they were also at risk of violence from the Aboriginal people through whose country they then had to travel and/or live. For example, an account published in the Capricornian on 6 October 1888 recounted the tale of two troopers who deserted from the McIvor NMP camp:

… [they] were brought to town yesterday … from Granite Camp, both suffering from spear wounds in several places. They state that while travelling through the bush with their gins they came across a mob of blacks who invited them to camp, to which they consented. At night time the tribe turned on the deserters, took the gins away, and speared them out of the camp. The deserters fled to Granite Camp, where they took refuge in a Chinaman’s hut till discovered by the police, and brought to town. The spear wounds were severe and painful.

Likewise, Freddy, a trooper who deserted from another of George Nowlan’s detachments (this time in 1879) was later found murdered on the road between Tinaroo and the Mulgrave:

MURDER OF AN ABORIGINAL. A telegram from Cairns has been received, stating that the dead body of an aboriginal has been found on the road between Tinaroo and the Mulgrave. The man had evidently been murdered. From a description of the body it is believed to be that of Freddy, a deserter from Nolan’s detachment of native troopers and that he met his death at the hands of wild blacks. A body of police have been sent to the scene of the murder. (Telegraph, 11 December 1879, p2)

That men would openly risk their lives by deserting, knowing that they would likely be shot during the attempt or afterwards if they were captured, or might suffer hostile attacks from local Aboriginal groups even if they did successfully outwit the officer and troopers following them, attests loudly to their desire to remove themselves from the Force by whatever means possible. This speaks in some manner to whether in fact they were genuinely willingly recruited for service in the NMP, an issue that we will explore in one of our later posts.


Evans, R., K. Saunders and K. Cronin 1975 Exclusion, Exploitation, and Extermination: Race Relations in Colonial Queensland. Sydney: Australia and New Zealand Book Company.

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

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