In an earlier post we considered some of the mechanisms through which Aboriginal boys and men may have been enticed, or forced, to join the NMP. In this post, we consider what is perhaps the most perplexing type of “recruitment” of these men: that of voluntary enlistment. Our starting point is the question, ‘Why would any Aboriginal man—many of whom were very young and all of whom were from areas that had been subjugated by European systems of power and colonial control—willingly take on a role that required them to physically subdue other Aboriginal peoples?’
In 1848 Frederick Walker, the first Commandant of the NMP (before the separation of Qld from New South Wales), travelled to the Murrumbidgee area of southwestern NSW to find Aboriginal men to work for him as troopers in the new Force. He intimated that men from those southern tribes signed up so willingly that there was in fact an abundance of choice:
I have the honour to inform you that I had no difficulty in getting volunteers for the police; on the contrary, I could have obtained ten times the number, the pick out of eight tribes. In the present force of fourteen, there are men from four tribes, each speaking a different language. (Frederick Walker to Colonial Secretary, Moreton Bay Courier, 29 June 1850, p4)
Even 30 years later, it was suggested that recruits, this time from the Mackay region (an area which had itself been recently subjected to the brutal actions of the NMP), were volunteering willingly to join up:
Three aboriginals from the reserve left by the Bronzewing, on Monday morning, last en route, to join Sub-Inspector Carr’s detachment of Native Police at Cairns. These blacks expressed a wish several months ago to volunteer for this service. Mr. Brooks has been careful in selecting only those whom he thought would do credit to the Native Police force. The boys looked quiet, healthy and intelligent, and we have no doubt their new master will be able to report favourably upon their future conduct. (Mackay Mercury and South Kennedy Advertiserof 7 May 1879)
Other historical accounts also suggest that men did genuinely volunteer. For instance, Francis Nicoll at the Wandai Gumbal NMP camp in 1854 noted,
… there is a very nice lad in this neighbourhood who is extremely ambitious of joining the N.P. “He is a well knit, well set up, smart & very intelligent boy; his age about seventeen. He speaks English well, and has applied four or five times to be enlisted. He is at present with Coxon [a local pastoralist], who gives him a good character. He has a good open countenance, which is a great thing, &, I have no doubt, would make a very active policeman. (Francis Nicoll to Commandant Native Police 20 March, 1854, QSA86141)
This “lad”, Bungaree, did eventually join the NMP, being engaged by Lieutenant George Fulford as his ‘servant’ (later being referred to as a Superintendent) at Wondai Gumbal, and was paid the then-unheard-of salary of 25 pounds per year, when the usual rate for a trooper was 3 pence a day (Collins 2000).
Lieutenant Robert Walker claimed to have encountered many potential recruits on the Darling in 1861, but would not accept those whom he considered to be of greater value to European employers:
In obtaining these recruits the rule I invariably followed, was to take men who came voluntarily and offered themselves as candidates for the force. As many of those men I doubt now would be a loss to those with whom they then resided, I did not consider it right to induce them in any way to join (Robert George Walker to Commandant Native Police 16 April, 1861, QSA84674 Mf1492).
The suggestion that there was an abundance of willing recruits continued to be the case in following decades:
A very different work was accomplished on Sunday also, when Captain Brown, Superintendent of the Native Police, enlisted nine blackfellows as members of the Native Force. On Monday, two additional blacks were admitted, making eleven recruits during the week. The selection was made out of a large number of aboriginals, who presented themselves as candidates. (Rockhampton Bulletin, 1 February 1873, p2)
… the most significant sign of the possibility of establishing friendly relations with the tribes is the desire shown in an unmistakable manner, prevalent [sic] among the Cape Bedford blacks to join the Native Police force. (Mackay Mercury and South Kennedy Advertiser, 30 July 1881, p2)
The truth of these one-sided records and the extent to which such Aboriginal service in the NMP was voluntary is unknown but, given what else we can deduce about recruitment practices, it seems unlikely that many of the recruits were “genuinely willing” when they joined up.
If we return to the case of Bungaree, his background hints at what may be the underlying motivation for such “volunteering”: a long-term familiarity with European systems and ideals, most likely acquired through a lifetime of servitude—often from a very young age. Bungaree was actually raised and educated amongst Europeans, but despite having parallels in upbringing with the white son in the family, his career options were far more restricted.
Historian Bill Thorpe described this as “colonised labour”, and argued that the broader structural violence that fostered this system transformed the Aboriginal workforce into one that was basically “unfree”, regardless of how it appeared on the surface or was otherwise described.
Collins, P.J. 2000 John Bungarie, the Coxens and the Native Police. Royal Historical Society of Queensland Journal17(7):303–320.
Thorpe, B. 1996 Colonial Queensland: Perspectives on a Frontier Society. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.