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Recruiting Aboriginal boys and men to the NMP: Part I

By Lynley Wallis, Heather Burke, Bryce Barker and Noelene Cole

One of the infamous euphemisms in historical documents relating to the Native Mounted Police (NMP) is “dispersal”. This word has now been convincingly demonstrated to actually refer to the shooting and killing of Aboriginal people (Richards 2008). We suggest here that another euphemism is the term “recruitment”. This seemingly inoffensive phrase suggests an orderly process of calmly signing up people who were seeking work, but deeper investigation suggests that the process was almost certainly not as innocent, straightforward or mild as the term implies.

There are only scant descriptions of what took place during NMP “recruiting drives”. For instance, when Lieutenant John Bligh wrote to the Colonial Secretary on 8 October 1862, he mentioned that:

Lieutenant Murray returned from a recruiting expedition to Wide Bay on 14th August last bringing nine Recruits who have since been well drilled and declared fit for duty … Lieutenant Carr has been actively and successfully engaged in procuring Recruits in the neighbourhood of Brisbane and I have made arrangements for travelling these men to the Condamine. (QSA846764 Mf2512)

There are certainly no known accounts from troopers themselves, even though Aboriginal men constituted the numerical bulk of the Force’s personnel through its five decades long lifespan. A careful reading between the lines of fragmentary mentions in historical records, and from the oral histories handed down amongst troopers’ descendants, however, suggest several possible methods, including coercion through forcible or other means, kidnapping, various forms of inducement and, sometimes, perhaps, voluntary enlistment.

Given everything else we know about Aboriginal labour on the frontier (see, for example the excellent books by Dawn May on Aboriginal workers in the pastoral industry of Qld listed at the end of this post), it seems reasonably to assume that forcible recruitment into the NMP was probably common. And in some cases we don’t have to assume this, since several written sources tell us as much: such as the boy “Tommy”, from Tchanning station on the Condamine, who was “seized for Native Police service while on his way back to Ferrett’s station after attending a bora” (John Ferrett to Frederick Wheeler undated, Records of the Colonial and Home Secretary’s Office 1859–1896, QSA SA846747 61/1712, M/film Z5602).

And another “Tommy”, 18 years later, was also allegedly seized from the Lower Herbert for service at Oak Park near Georgetown:

He was recruited here [Lower Herbert] about the end of November last [1879], taken away against his will from his wife; I might safely say a prisoner, as the sub-inspector here told me they would have to keep him in irons at night on his way to the Oak Park detachment. (Brisbane Courier, 27 October 1880, p5, letter to the Editor from James Cassady, Fairview, Lower Herbert)

Oral testimonies from trooper descendants certainly support the notion that many men’s families were threated with—or in some cases suffered actual—physical violence if they failed to sign up. And such forcible recruitment persisted throughout the life of the NMP: Constable Daniel Whelan, the officer in charge of the Palmer River NMP camp, was accused of doing it on the Mitchell River as late as 1903 (Richards 2005:154).

Another element to consider in the recruitment puzzle is the age of recruits and what this might tell us about whether their enlistment was willing or otherwise. Although the average age of troopers in our database—where this can be known—is 25, many troopers were young, more rightly described as boys when they joined the NMP (Figures 1 and 2). Colonial authorities no doubt considered fit young men as potentially dangerous and the demographic group most in need of controlling.

Figure 1 Constable Daniel Fitzgibbon and Native Mounted Police on Cap York Peninsula (possibly Coen) 1906 (Qld Police Museum image PM0189).
Figure 2 Two young Aboriginal boys sweeping the path at the NMP camp on the Laura River (QSL Neg No 34566).

At least a portion of those recruited to the NMP were raised from childhood in European households, since the kidnapping of Aboriginal children was a standard part of the frontier. Such kidnappings were often conducted directly by the NMP who might capture children in the course of attacks or during settler reprisals, after their parents and family had been killed. For example “Jemmy,” a trooper who accompanied William Landsborough in his search for Burke and Wills in 1861 was noted at the time as being a “native of Deniliquin, NSW, his mother and father having been shot by whites, he was taken to Brisbane and placed in the police, to which force he still belongs” (Bourne 1862, Monday 10 February).

Given such traumatic histories, to would have been very difficult for such victims of the frontier war, having been brought up from childhood in captivity and servitude, to have resisted developing a reliance on, if not a level of allegiance to, European values and systems, and therefore been easy to “manipulate” into “willingly” joining the NMP.

John Wilkie, the manager at Darrdine Station in 1852 provided an assessment of what he perceived to be the incentives of life in the NMP for Aboriginal recruits:

The gay dress – the constant itinerancy – the lazy life – the independence of the elders of the tribe – and last tho’ not least, the ability to make love to a choice of lubras in every tribe they visit, with perfect impunity. (JP Wilkie to Henry Hughes, 25 October 1852, State Library of New South Wales, Dixson Library, D14)

Such a European gloss was tightly bound up with racialised notions of Aboriginal society, as well as ignorance of complex Aboriginal values and social, territorial and economic structures. Such simple explanations offered by uninformed observers reduced Aboriginal motives to little more than a childish desire for European accessories, symbolised in various observations that it was the uniforms, guns, boots, horses and buttons that most attracted them to the NMP (Figure 3). For example, the Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser of 15 February 1872 noted that:

An officer of police much respected during a long residence in the district, Sub-inspector Clohesy, has been sojourning at Maryborough for the last week or so, on leave, and during his stay has been engaged in collecting some of our aboriginal natives as recruits for the native police force under Inspector Marlow, in the far North. 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.

Figure 4 (left) A ‘Native Police Boy’ in uniform as drawn by Oscar and (right) a reproduction uniform at the Queensland Police Museum, Brisbane.

Henry Lamond, the son of former NMP Sub-Inspector James Lamond, wrote a short article for the ‘Walkabout’ magazine in 1949 in which he talked about his knowledge of the NMP, largely derived from having grown up in NMP camps with his father. He spoke of the uniform of the trooper placing them “among the gods”, noting “the boys loved drilling. It was almost a recreation for them to be mustered on the parade ground, to be put through drill, to obey orders they did not understand. They were as keen in the care of their horses and equipment” (Lamond 1949:32).

In other contexts in which Aboriginal people preferentially adopted certain elements of European material culture, such as clothing, the argument is usually presented in light of the social standing that such highly visible symbols of European reciprocity brought within Aboriginal social networks (Karskens 2011). In the context of the Native Police, however, these signals were not intra-community messages, but overt symbols of European power, influence and control in the identity they projected to others (Mackay 2001).

A connection was certainly noted between clothing and money as the physical expressions of a labour agreement and continued service in the NMP, as John O’Connell Bligh implied in a letter to the Colonial Secretary dated 8 October 1862 (QSA846764 Mf2512): “I left headquarters on the 7th August last and visited first that detachment stationed at Broad Sound where I found much dissatisfaction amongst the Troopers owing to the reduction in their pay and want of clothing.” The Moreton Bay Courier of 29 January 1853, attributed the desertion of three recruits to the fact,

… 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.

A more insidious “inducement” to recruit Aboriginal men to the NMP was offering enlistment as an alternative to criminal prosecution and punishment – although when set against a long prison sentence or the death penalty such “inducement” seems a lot like coercion. After the Hornet Bank massacre and reprisals, for example, Lieutenant Francis Nicoll “held out an inducement for the committal of further crimes by recruiting for the Native Police from among the murderers” (Skinner 1975:302).

The idea of offering employment in the police force had older antecedents connected to recruiting practices amongst colonial militias. In Qld the system became formalised to some extent in 1878, when the Executive Council approved remission for prison sentences if men joined the NMP (Richards 2005:171).

This practice continued throughout the 1880s, although the extent to which it could be regarded as “voluntary” is problematic, given that some of the sentences, and the evidence they were based on, were no doubt highly questionable:

A blackfellow, named Dickey, out in the Mitchell district, was arrested on a charge of murdering his gin. As there was no evidence against him except his admission to the constable who took him, he was discharged. It is stated by the M. and G. Mail, that this amiable aboriginal has been induced to join the Native Police, and will be sent to one of the detachments in the Townsville district. (Darling Downs Gazette, 8 January 1883, p2)

Having now considered some of the mechanisms through which Aboriginal boys and men may have been enticed or forced to join the NMP, our next post considers what is perhaps the most perplexing type of “recruitment”: that of voluntary enlistment. Stay tuned.

See Part II of our series of posts on the issue of recruitment here.
See Part III of our series of posts on the issue of recruitment here.


Bourne, G. 1862 Bourne’s Journal of Landsborough’s Expedition from Carpentaria, in Search of Burke and Wills. Melbourne: H T Dwight.

Karskens, G. 2011 Red coat, blue jacket, black skin: Aboriginal men and clothing in early New South Wales. Aboriginal History 35:1–36.

Mackay, M. 2001 Captors or captives? The Australian Mounted Police. In B. Creed and J. Hoorn (eds), Body Trade: Captivity, Cannibalism and Colonialism in the Pacific, pp.47–65. New York: Routledge.

May, D. 1983 From Bush to Station: Aboriginal Labour in the North Queensland Pastoral Industry, 1861–1897. Townsville: History Department, James Cook University.

May, D. 1994 Aboriginal Labour and the Cattle Industry : Queensland from White Settlement to the Present. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J. 2005 A Question of Necessity’: The Native Police in Queensland. Unpublished PhD thesis, School of Arts, Media and Culture, Griffith University, Brisbane.

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

Skinner, L.E. 1975 Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 184959. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.




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