Treachery or a Matter of Survival? The Attempted Murder of Sub-Inspector Brabazon Stafford

By Heather Burke

.. six of the Native troopers at the Laura [have] done their level best to disperse Sub-inspector Stafford and his camp-keeper  … the occurrence shows vividly the dangers to which Native Police officers are exposed from their own men, who when they break the bounds of discipline become so many wild beasts of prey. The situation is not very pleasant just now, as four of the infuriated demons got away and are doubtless at present scouring the bush watching their opportunity for murder and rapine; the fifth was captured and stands committed for attempted murder. (Brisbane Courier 31 July 1880, p7)

The revolt by the troopers of the Upper Laura NMP detachment in Cape York Peninsula in June 1880 was an extremely rare act. Despite being predictably presented in the newspapers of the time as a tale of the treachery of troopers, dissatisfaction was far more frequently expressed via desertion than mutiny or outright violence. The real value of this event lies not in its supposed insight into the tendencies of troopers, but the window it offers into the psychology of an NMP detachment.

Commanded by Sub-Inspector Brabazon Stafford, the Upper Laura NMP camp was a relatively short-lived post on one of the main travel routes between Cooktown and the Palmer River goldfield. Stafford, originally from England, was 35 when he took charge of the Upper Laura camp in 1878; he was also relatively recently married and Adria, his wife of three years, lived with him at the camp. In May 1880 the desertion of one of his troopers—“Bismarck”— left him with five men: “Alec”, “George”, “Frank”, “Jerry” and “Tom”*.

Dan alias Tom
Trooper “Tom”, who had been in the Gold Escort under William Hill at Byerstown in 1876, where he was known as “Dan”.

Several researchers (e.g. Richards 2005; Skinner 1975) have noted how frequently violence was employed as a means of control by officers over their detachments. Within the NMP this was sometimes represented as necessary ‘discipline’, although at the other end of the spectrum were the excesses of some officers—sometimes resulting in the death of troopers they were ‘disciplining’—that led to their dismissal. In any case, how such measures were intended by the officer and how they were received by the troopers may have been poles apart.

It is difficult to know where Brabazon Stafford fell on this spectrum. Dominic Heavey, his camp keeper on the Palmer, accused him of physically abusing Aboriginal men and women, including leaving a man chained to a verandah post until Stafford returned from patrol, a charge which Stafford himself admitted (Richards 2005:36). The rumblings of discontent amongst the Upper Laura detachment prior to the revolt related to feelings that ‘”Marmie” make too many work … – He make gin work when sick’ (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Trooper Jerry 30 June, In letter 80/3846). One particular trooper—George—had also had an argument with Stafford at the beginning of the year, when, according to Stafford, George had led the detachment seven miles off their route:

[I] [h]ave no objection to state my treatment of Trooper Georgey to which attention has been made when patrolling the Endeavour some months ago—on this occasion he was in the lead. I directed him to proceed to a former Camp and he mislead[?] me taking me seven (7) miles out of my proper direction. On discovering this I halted, rode up to him and struck him with my open hand on the side of the face – he raised his hand to return it whereupon I ordered him to dismount had him handcuffed and made him walk back the distance he had taken me wrong – seven miles. I intended keeping him handcuffed all night but confessing his mistake and promising it should not occur again, I let him go and thought no more about it. This is the only time I ever hit him. (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Brabazon Stafford 30 June, In letter 80/3846)

Stafford misunderstood (or ignored) the animosity this raised:

Georgey had row with Marmie on the Mac Ivor, he was “Coolah”** then—Georgey say “Marmie” at the 8 Mile, Marmie frightened belong to me, on Mac Ivor – I heard him talk like that twice in this camp. (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Trooper Jerry 30 June, In letter 80/3846)

For Stafford this seemed nothing out of the ordinary and certainly nothing to be concerned about. That is, until his detachment tried to murder him.

George, along with Frank and Alec, became one of the main instigators in what happened next. On the evening of 10 June one of the Aboriginal women warned Stafford that the troopers were plotting to kill him:

“You had better look out Marmie three boys talk along camp they round you up first time you go along bush and shoot you, then put spear along bullet hole, look like Blackfellow kill you.” (QSA847027 1880 Letter from Brabazon Stafford to Hervey Fitzgerald 25 June, In letter 80/3846)

Stafford immediately clapped the troopers in irons (handcuffs) and confronted them with the accusation:

… one boy Jerry said that what the gin had told me was true, but that he had tried to convince them that such a course would not do, all the others said nothing. (QSA847027 1880 Letter from Brabazon Stafford to Hervey Fitzgerald 25 June, In letter 80/3846)

Stafford spent ten days debating what to do next, eventually deciding to dispense martial punishment and then take the troopers into Cooktown to the lockup for subsequent trial. On 21 June all five troopers were given four dozen lashes each with a split girth “to prevent them carrying their threat of killing me into execution” (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Brabazon Stafford 30 June, In letter 80/3846) and handcuffed together in the saddle room. The next afternoon they were marched out of camp—each trooper handcuffed to the same chain—by Stafford and the camp keeper, Thomas Hogg.

By this time the troopers had also spent ten days thinking about their fate. They became convinced that they would either be tried, found guilty and hanged, or that Stafford would simply take them into the bush and shoot them (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Trooper Jerry 30 June, In letter 80/3846). While this seems an extraordinary leap, summary executions of this type were known in the NMP (see Richards 2005:185), and perhaps well acknowledged amongst the troopers. White officers who defied their superiors were disciplined or dismissed; Aboriginal troopers clearly expected a more permanent punishment. Their certainty came to a head on the march into Cooktown:

After dinner time we start. All boy handcuffed one hand to chain – Georgey lead, me second, Frank third, Alic fourth, Tom fifth – You go along a cattle station Marmie say this to Georgey. Marmie come behind Sergt come behind. Boy talk along o’ road – Georgey say—”we want to jump along of Marmie” – Aleck say also “we want to jump along o Marmie” to Dan. Tom say “we catch hold of him” Tom say “we catch hold of him along of scrubby ridge another side plain”. I say nothing—At this time boy, he all handcuffed. Georgey say I think Marmie shoot me – Alic and Frank say no, he take us along Brisbane jail and hang us altogether. (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Trooper Jerry 30 June, In letter 80/3846).

It was when the group reached an open plain that Stafford made the critical decision to ride ahead and dismount. He had his carbine in his hand when he did so. According to both Stafford and Hogg, this was simply so that the prisoners’ handcuffs could be examined. For the troopers, however, this signalled only one possible intention. In the middle of nowhere, with no other witnesses, their Sub-Inspector had overtaken them and descended from his horse, holding his gun—obviously, he was going to shoot them. Instead, they attempted to kill him first.

I saw then suddenly the prisoners Georgey, Aleck and Frank rush Mr Stafford and knock him down and saw them also pounding his head with stones and sticks – I don’t remember clearly what was done then, before I could go to his assistance, I was hit by a stone weighing some (5 lbs) on the side of the head or temple by Trooper Tommy alias “Dan” and was knocked to my knees … Mr Stafford was then on the ground with the prisoners on top of him I saw him try to regain his feet when prisoner Tommy hit him with a heavy stone on the cheek bone – he was then covered with blood.

I seized my rifle when Trooper Tommy broke it with a stone on the small of the butt. Mr Stafford rose to his feet with the prisoners Georgey, Aleck and Frank hanging on to him. For about half a minute the struggle ceased — Mr Stafford wound round in the coils of the trace chain. Prisoner Georgey then said to me “Sergeant you go home we want to kill Marmy” — I said no I will not go, but wait till you let him go.

Georgey then wrested the revolver from Mr Stafford’s belt, the others holding him by the arms and body and snapped it twice at his face at two (2) feet distance — it missed fire — About pulling the trigger a third time Jerry held his arm saying “don’t shoot Marmie” — it exploded, and sent the bullet through Trooper Jerry’s shoulder on one side out the other.

“Georgey” then held the revolver by the barrel and threw it at me hitting on the left arm about the elbow and nearly breaking it — it crippled me for some time afterwards. Mr Stafford then made a rush and managed to get clear and got his rifle.

My rifle was broken and at my feet. I could not get near Mr Stafford all this time on account of the stones that were flying — he must have been hit more than two (2) dozen times, a regular pounding match was kept up while he was on the ground.

The “boys” then made off for the timber, all five handcuffed together — Trooper Jerry got free and came back – Tommy and the others also got off the chain and disappeared together in the direction of the Range. I believe they were all free at this time — I fired a random shot when they were running. Mr Stafford fired also one shot but he was blinded with blood and aimed wildly. (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Thomas Hogg 29 June, In letter 80/3846)

It was Stafford’s simple action—stopping the party by riding ahead and dismounting to make certain that the troopers were adequately chained—that prompted the “revolt”. Stafford maintained incomprehension of his troopers’ state of mind, claiming, “I cannot conceive what would have induced the troopers to plot my murder as my conduct towards them has been very kind, but I am quite convinced that it was their purpose to kill me” (QSA847027 1880 Letter from Brabazon Stafford to Hervey Fitzgerald 25 June, In letter 80/3846). It certainly seems that way: George fired Stafford’s own revolver at his head at point blank range twice. The gun misfired twice. On the third shot, Trooper Jerry saved Stafford’s life by deflecting the gun just as it fired:

Georgey got Marmie carbine fire long o Sergeant miss em, but just touch em Sergeant no Fire – Marmie no fire. Georgey then catch hold Marmie again – Frank & Alec all hold Marmie.

Geordie [sic] take Marmie revolver along of belt and put him revolver twice along o head he touch him face with revolver – he snap him – no go off.

I jump then and take Marmie part and catch him revolver along o’ front. Georgey me and Marmy all together, other boy hold Marmie.

Marmie had chain around his neck – Georgey held em pistol one end me another – then he fire and shoot me shoulder – I tumble over. Marmy never shot me. Georgey shot me when I hold revolver. (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Trooper Jerry 30 June, In letter 80/3846)

What made Jerry intervene is unclear, but he had been the only trooper (according to his own testimony—admittedly the only trooper testimony that was given) to try and ameliorate the incendiary situation even before the revolt. We don’t know where Jerry came from or who he was, but he was only 18 when all of this took place. According to Stafford, “nothing but Jerry’s action saved my life and I cannot sufficiently commend him for it” (QSA847027 1880 Letter from Brabazon Stafford to Hervey Fitzgerald 25 June, In letter 80/3846). Hogg put it more succinctly:

I am prepared to swear that he got shot in trying to save life – Had it not been for “Jerry” Mr Stafford would have received the contents of the pistol in the face (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Thomas Hogg 29 June, In letter 80/3846).

While at one level the troopers’ attack can be seen as a panicked reaction, honed by the expectation that death was more likely than justice, there were apparently other, more ominous and premeditated plans afoot, none of which were described in the participants’ direct statements. Hervey Fitzgerald, the Inspector in Cooktown, later claimed:

The plans of these mutineers if successful in killing S.I. Stafford, as related by the troopers are horrible – they bear special reference to Mrs Stafford and the Camp Keeper’s wife, and through this lad’s intervention have been frustrated. (QSA847027 1880 Letter from Hervey Fitzgerald to Commissioner of Police 2 July, In letter 80/3846)

Of the four troopers who fled, Dan was the only one subsequently recaptured; the other three successfully escaped (QSA847027 1880 Statement of Brabazon Stafford 30 June, In letter 80/3846).

For his part, Stafford, after so narrowly escaping death, faced only ridicule and censure from his superior officers:

I find great difficulty in understanding how it was that Sub Inspector Stafford and his Campkeeper armed and mounted could have been so easily overpowered by five native troopers unarmed and in irons; but I feel convinced that an officer who could let his detachment get into such a condition and so completely lose control over his men should never again be trusted with the command of native troopers (QSA847027 1880 Letter from Commissioner of Police to Colonial Secretary 6 July, In letter 80/3846).

Almost immediately his services were ‘dispensed with’. Famous (second) last words. Stafford reapplied to join the NMP for a second stint a year later and was accepted. He served another nine years, before being appointed a Police Magistrate in 1888.

References

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

Skinner, L.E. 1975 Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849-59. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

*The practice of renaming troopers for European convenience meant that their names could change regularly. “Tom” had previously been in the Gold Escort under William Hill, where he was known as “Dan”. This was a lucky coincidence because, as a result, he is the only one for whom we have a photograph, produced here as Figure 1.

**Angry

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