Willing Volunteers? Recruiting Aboriginal Boys and Men to the NMP Part II

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

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)

George Pultney Malcolm Murray (second from left) with Trooper Carbine and Corporal Michael (back row) and troopers Barney, Hector, Goondallie, Balantyne and Patrick (front row, left to right), Rockhampton 1864.

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.

See Part I 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.


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.


7 thoughts on “Willing Volunteers? Recruiting Aboriginal Boys and Men to the NMP Part II

  1. Dear Lynley Wallis, Heather Burke, Bryce Barker and Noelene Cole, A question re the photo of a group of native police officers and troopers shown in your blog, “Willing Volunteers? Recruiting Aboriginal Boys and Men to the NMP Part II”. I see that you have dated the photo 1864. I have seen this photo published elsewhere and dated c. 1862. Could you advise what indication you have for dating the photo 1864. Thanks.

    1. Hi
      The original caption on the reverse of the image reads “To Miss Minnie Murray Warrawang from your affectionate brother G.P.M. Murray, Lieut. Comm. Of 1st Division Police Native Mounted Police. Headquarters, Rockhampton, January 12, 1864”. Back row, left to right: Carbine, 1st Lieutenant, 2nd Lieutenant, Sergeant, Corporal Michael Front row, left to right: Barney, Trooper Hector, Trooper Goondallie, Trooper Balantyne, Trooper Patrick.
      (Murray family album http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110370372?_ga=2.238369605.475002987.1510459613-684827130.1508239792). It is possible the image could have been taken earlier, but given Murray dated it, that would appear to be conjecture or an error.

  2. “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”

    Hello, I found this statement to be not very academically rigorous. It’s not factual and illustrates the philosophical mindset of the author/s. I’d argue the truth of your one sided deduction is unknown and/or unlikely.

    On another issue, pre colonisation various aboriginal groups warred with each other, including night massacre raids. Look up what a death spear looks like.
    All around the world various invading colonial cultures found willing participants from some native tribes who hated other native tribes (or just wanted to be warriors or rapists) to fight alongside them i.e. in India, North America, Mexico, Roman times etc… History is littered with examples.
    Australia was the same.

    1. Hi Michael
      Thanks for reading our blog. In response to your comment, we’d like to note that we only said ‘many’ not all. Our statement is based on our research – such as it is from the fragments that exist. This includes reading everything we can get our hands on (which to date is more than 7000 documents from various sources), as well as speaking with descendants of troopers who recount their family histories and information that has been passed down to them through oral traditions.

      We provide more thorough information in our published paper on recruitment which, if you have not come across it previously, you can access from the Publications section of our blog (https://archaeologyonthefrontier.com/publications/)

      We do not disagree with you that there are humans who are willing to kill, and to say that some Aboriginal people weren’t would be untrue, which is not what we are suggesting.

      Understanding the NMP, why people (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) would sign up for it, why they leave the Force, what they did whilst serving, and how they felt about their activities are all very complex issues that we will clearly never fully understand, especially given the passage of time. We try to present that complexity rather than suggesting there are any simple, one-size-fits-all answers and think these are issues worth discussing rather than ignoring.

      Kind regards
      Lynley and Heather (on behalf of the team)

      1. Hello Lynley and Heather, thankyou for your response, I didn’t think I was going to get one (due to a recent experience with another academic on the Colonial Massacre map website- who I discovered was involved in the History Wars). I read the additional article, I’ll have to have a look at the rest of them. It was heartening to read the quote from McLaughlin “flesh-and-blood humans adjusting to changing political, social and economic conditions with limited foresight at their disposal” as too often everyone is put on an un-natural pedestal.

        One quote “Their powerlessness was not only manifested in their dispossession,poverty and enslavement but also through the violent treatment of their mothers, wives and daughters at the hands of Europeans” whilst most probably true, should also mention the violence prevalent before European contact as seen in the skeletal evidence for parry fractures, and cranial depressions (36% for women vs 26% for men) as per “Violence and Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers” pg125. It’s also interesting the stats William Warner gathered in the 1920’s in NE Arnhem land on payback and revenge killings i.e. their mothers, wives and daughters were also receiving violent treatment in traditional society.

        I wonder about the descendent histories- if the passage of time and the change in what is considered acceptable, starting with the trooper in older age, has introduced censoring i.e. he may have been 18 and living it up, but when he was 50 reminiscing on the killing altered his thinking and downplayed certain things, and then no descendant wants to have had a willing exterminator in the family tree? I guess if there were reports of willingness amongst some of the oral histories that would be interesting.

        The Wilkie quote ““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.” reminded me of an aspect of Blackbirding I remember reading one time- how sometimes older men on an island would sell the young men, so that the older men would have monopoly access to the young women i.e. independence from the elders, and access to young women can be a strong motivator.

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