We have previously written about the processes of recruiting Aboriginal men to the NMP (Recruiting Part 1 and Willing Volunteers?). However, we didn’t have room there to consider another element of the trooper experience: the interpersonal relationships that existed, both amongst the troopers, and between them and the officers under whom they served (Figure 1). Understanding the familial and personal relationships that existed between the men helps us to understand a little better some aspects of what it might have been like to be an Aboriginal trooper in the NMP.
Some troopers worked for the NMP for many years. So far we have gathered information for 177 troopers with known ranges of service, although, given that no individual trooper staff files exist, true periods of service for most men in our database can’t be known. The data tell us that the average span of service for an Aboriginal trooper in the NMP was just over four years, although there are some exceptions.
The longest serving trooper we have been able identify is “Jacky Styles”, who was in the NMP for 21 years from 1852 until 1873, serving in the Dawson River, Port Curtis and Rockhampton areas. Given the hardships the lifestyle of a trooper would have likely entailed, this is an extremely long period, and perhaps speaks to the fact that at least some of the Aboriginal men serving found life in the Force not to be entirely negative. Sadly, as reported in the Telegraph newspaper of 13 December 1873, Jacky was killed by Aboriginal people before his impending retirement:
On Thursday morning, from information he received from the blacks, Mr. Commissioner Gill proceeded to a spot about half a mile from the town [Milchester], where he found the body of his native orderly, Jacky Styles. Two blacks—a third escaped—are in custody on suspicion of the murder. Very little doubt exists as to their guilt, but, unfortunately, the necessary evidence is not likely to be obtained to ensure their conviction. Jacky Styles was an old and valued trooper in the native mounted police, in which he had served twenty-one years. He had accompanied Mr. Gill from the Etheridge, intending to go to Brisbane, where he would have become the recipient of a pension, to which his long and faithful services had entitled him.
Whether this was payback from local Aboriginal people in retaliation for Jacky’s service in the NMP or due to some other transgression is unknown, though the former would not be unexpected given the role of troopers.
Several other troopers also served for extended periods of time, suggesting Jacky was not alone in his commitment to the NMP. We know, for example, that “Paddy”, “Warbregan”, and “Geewar” all served for at least 13 years each. Paddy was described in the Queenslander of 10 June 1899, as follows:
Before starting on the original expedition from Bungil Creek barracks an officer there allowed as a great favour one of his troopers to join Lieutenant Marlow’s party. This “boy,” not being an Irishman, was called Paddy, and ranked as a corporal. Among his other accomplishments he was represented as a regular “fire eater” in every sense of the word. He was certainly a good bushman, and almost by nature a good horse man.
In 1856 Paddy was accused by Lieutenant Edric Morisset of involvement in the murder of Trooper Binghi, but his commanding officer, Lieutenant Robert Walker, considered Paddy to have “always been a most excellent character, having been for two years under my command, and was certainly the very last man whom I should have supposed guilty of an act so atrocious”. Ultimately Paddy was exonerated by John Murray, who dismissed the accusation (QSA86137 Native Police work Port Curtis 1853–1858).
Geewar (aka Geegan or Geegwaw) is one of the few troopers about whom we know a little regarding his origins. He was recruited from the Edwards River region in southwest NSW by the first NMP Commandant, Frederick Walker, and served in the force from 1849 until 1862 with his spouse Kitty.
Another man, Warbregan, served from at least 1851 to 1864 (although he did leave the Force briefly in 1857, he was re-hired that same year by Lieutenant Edric Morrisset). Warbregan was amongst the troopers sent to the Nogoa with Lieutenant Charles Blakeney in response to the Wills Massacre at Cullin La Ringo in 1861.
There are also instances of several members from the same family serving together, for example the brothers “Aladdin” and “Paddy”, and “Jacky Jacky” and “Wygatta”. No doubt these relationships provided these men with a strong connection to their former lives and families before their “recruitment” to the Force.
The bonds that existed between troopers from the same region, and the importance of personal relationships, are borne out in the following poignant account published in the Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser on 15 September 1864:
On Friday last four black troopers, belonging to the Queensland native police, under charge of Mr Inspector Murray and a white sergeant, arrived by Cobb’s coach in Echuca. About fifteen years ago, Mr. Walker, the well known Queensland explorer, visited this part of the country, and succeeded in inducing a large number of aboriginal youths to join his troop of blacks, and they proceeded with him up the Darling into Queensland. These four men are about the last remaining alive of that lot. They lately applied for leave of absence to visit their tribes, and, as the Queensland authorities were anxious to get some more from the same district, if possible, the leave was granted, the opportunity being taken to recruit in this part of the country. … One of the old troopers, while sauntering through Echuca the other day, accidentally met his father. The meeting is said by those who witnessed it, to have been one of a most affecting nature. All the men … bear signs of age. We noticed a sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve of the oldest looking amongst them. They were to the knowledge of the writer of this paragraph, all mere youths when Walker took them away.
Another element to understanding the ‘trooper experience’, is the personal relationships that existed amongst the Aboriginal troopers and the European officers. For example, in 1848 Commandant Frederick Walker explicitly noted that past personal histories with certain troopers aided him in his recruiting drives in NSW and Victoria. He had lived and worked in the Murrumbidgee district for years before being appointed to form the NMP, and at least one, if not more, of his first intake of troopers were men he had personally known and worked with in his capacity as superintendent to William Charles Wentworth on his “Tala” station on the Murrumbidgee. Walker, in fact, claimed these past personal histories as a main organising tactic of his original force “having picked my experimental party from among men who for five years had known me well.” Two of these men were “Robin Hood” (whose period of service in the NMP spanned 13 years, from 1848 to 1861) and “Tahiti” (who served in the NMP for 8 years, from 1849 to 1857). Both had worked with Walker on Tala station, and in fact “Tahiti” had known Walker since he was ten years old.
Such longstanding, personal connections between Aboriginal men and particular settler families are an under-recognised factor in recruitment to the NMP. In another instance, a trooper known as “Sambo” had worked for Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr before either of them enlisted and, as a consequence, Uhr petitioned to have him released when he himself resigned from the NMP in 1869:
… as I brought nine troopers in the force with me, may I be allowed to get (Trooper Sambo 100) who I had for years before I joined the Police Force.
William Landsborough, Commissioner for Crown Lands in the 1860s, also noted that two NMP troopers who accompanied him to Burketown in 1866 were, “before they enlisted, servants to my brothers [James and John, with pastoral interests in Wide Bay and Port Curtis], and have been with them as such from childhood.”
This suggests that, for some Aboriginal men, their careers in the NMP provided them with at least a partial sense of belonging and family that they were otherwise unlikely to experience in the fragmented world they found themselves occupying after their own tribal groups had been decimated by colonial forces.