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‘A Large Comet Appeared in the West’: The Daily Journals of Three NMP Camps

By Heather Burke

Jonathan Richards (2005:1–9) has pointed out the rich veins that can be tapped when searching for Native Mounted Police (NMP) records in the Qld State Archives by burrowing through general file series, such as the Colonial Secretary’s inwards and outwards correspondence, the inquest files of the Justice Department, or the Executive Council Minutes. Much of this material relates to the economics or logistics of the force or the conduct of its men. More specific sources of information in the archives include individual police staff files for officers—although 60% of known NMP officers have no surviving staff file—and the 29 police station files relating specifically to NMP camps.

A particularly rare series of items are the daily journals kept by camp keepers to document the everyday routine inside NMP camps. The keeping of official journals of Native Policing activity was mandated in various regulations beginning in the 1850s. The second of Commandant Edric Morisset’s regulations of 1858 specified:

Every such officer will keep a public journal of all incidents happening in the course of public duty, whether in patrol or in camp, in order that he may at any time be able to furnish the Commandant with a report of the daily duty performed by himself or others of his division or detachment, or of any circumstances that may have occurred within his district, in which he or they may have acted in his or their official capacity. (Queensland Legislative Assembly 1861:151).

This requirement was kept intact in the Gazetted Regulations of 1866, with the addition that each officer ‘will also keep a diary of the duty performed on patrol, stating time of arrival at and departure from each station he may visit, to which, when possible, he will obtain the signature of the proprietor or person in charge’ (as cited in Richards 2005:391). When taking up his first posting to Spring Creek in the late 1860s, Edmund Kennedy noted this obligation to “Keep a full and daily journal of your doings” (1902:133–134). All of this suggests that, while a single journal may have been kept for each camp prior to 1866, after that date two were required: one for the camp and one for the officer on patrol.

Even excluding pre-1866 diaries, if we assume that each Sub-Inspector and camp keeper for every NMP camp after that date kept those journals (the successful completion of which was subject to scrutiny by the relevant district Inspector on annual inspections), then the 150 camps across Qld that post-date 1866 should have generated around 300 journals documenting the activities of the NMP over the course of the nineteenth century*.

We know of four.

Remarkably, three of the four that survive form an almost continuous record of the same detachment. They cover a brief, six year period (from September 1878 until February 1885, although 19 months are missing between 25 October 1882 and 21 May 1884) in the life of three different camps: Craigie, Oak Park and Herberton.

The survival of these journals is presumably due to Sub-Inspector William Nichols and his somewhat chequered career. The detachment recorded in these journals was first posted to the Craigie camp, northwest of Charters Towers, under Sub-Inspector Maitland Tyrell Day. Day and the troopers serving under him were transferred to Oak Park in 1879, where he was replaced by William Nichols in May the following year. Nichols remained with this detachment through their move to Herberton in 1883 until he was arrested on the range to Port Douglas in January 1885 in relation to the Irvinebank killings.

These books must have accompanied the detachment through their various moves, presumably along with all of the other bureaucratic records, until Nichols shifted the entire camp to Herberton. His arrest, and the subsequent arrest of six troopers, for the massacre of three Aboriginal people at Irvinebank in November 1884 transformed the most recent of the journals into evidence: the Herberton camp diary was ‘Exhibit A’ in the magisterial enquiry of 1885 (QSA847145 1885 Regina v Sambo, Sandy, Larry, Willie, Jimmey & Pituri 19 January, In letter 85/989). It must have been this unique sequence of events that preserved them—we have William Nichols to thank for packing these journals and shifting them along with all of the other camp records, and then we have his subsequent fall from grace for preserving them in the longer term (apart from the journal for 1883).

So what do these records reveal about the NMP?

These are the daily journals kept by the camp keeper, not the patrol journals that Nichols himself would have kept. As a result, the overwhelming indication is one of monotony. Most entries are largely domestic in nature and describe the hum-drum and somewhat trivial daily routine: who was in camp, who was mustering the police horses, the arrival and departure of the mail, the weather, the arrival of rations, and whether the Sub-Inspector was in his office dealing with paperwork, on patrol or working in the camp on other duties.

Occasionally there are insights into other dynamics, such as the turnover in troopers. This is not a straightforward record, however, since the camp keeper’s notes only occasionally refer explicitly to a trooper’s desertion, discharge or recruitment. More often than not the name of a particular trooper will either simply appear in the journal or disappear just as abruptly, without explanation. These sudden appearances and disappearances are closely linked to patrols—new troopers appear after a patrol, and so are clearly brought back to camp by the Sub-Inspector— whether willingly or not—and disappear when on patrol. Often these patterns can only be identified by comparing the numbers of troopers in camp with occasional mentions of their name. “Pituri”, for example, appears for the first time in the Oak Park daily journal on 8 December 1879, although the numbers make it clear he must have been there on 3 December, when Nichols came back from patrol. He almost immediately ran away on the 8th, but was returned by patrol four days later. He subsequently remained with Nichols for the next five years, including through the Irvinebank massacre and trial. What happened to those whose names disappear from the journals (again, always on a patrol) is unknown, but can be imagined.

Clearer patterns are the ongoing and extensive contribution of Aboriginal women to the daily running of camps, the extent to which the Aboriginal men and women hunted to supplement their European rations, and the average length of patrols.

Although rarely mentioned by name, Aboriginal women were a completely unpaid labour force for the NMP and were regularly employed at a wide range of specific tasks, including tailing the horses, cleaning the camp, laundering the clothes, cutting and carrying timber, and grubbing grass. If not described as performing a specific activity their work is often characterised simply with the all-purpose phrase, ‘general useful’. There is little information about where these women came from, although an occasional comment indicates that some were brought back from patrols, such as Jinny, whose appearance in the Oak Park daily journal is simply indicated by the notation ‘and one gin Jinny for Trooper Parnell’ (QSA86146 1882 NM Police Oak Park Daily Journal, Mfilm Z658).

Resupplying rations was a continual chore for the camp keeper, and the camp was in constant contact with the pastoralist who supplied them, usually the same squatter upon whose run they were based. The fact that both Aboriginal men and women spent considerable time hunting—an activity which was regularly noted in the daily journal, since it took them away from the camp for at least a part of the day if not longer—indicates a continued preference for (or reliance on) native foods. The daily journal for Oak Park in 1882—which has the highest frequency of mentions of this activity—pinpoints both troopers and women hunting multiple times every month, regardless of when rations were supplied. In some months, they also went fishing.

Patrols were relatively regular, taking place every month and sometimes more than once a month, although the majority were relatively short, ranging from 1–8 days. Longer patrols (of 20–30 or more days) only occurred once, possibly twice, a year.

Other, occasional notations record the movement of stock, the capture and escort of prisoners, or the fact that on the night of Sunday 18 June 1882, Constable John Stewart saw  ‘A large comet [appear] in the west about 7 p.m. visible half an hour’ (QSA86146 1882 NM Police Oak Park Daily Journal, Mfilm Z658).

‘The comet, as seen from Sydney’ (Australian Town and Country Journal 24 June 1882, p32). Tricky things to draw, comets.

Regardless of the mundane insights obtainable through these journals, their very domesticity screens so much more. Take the case of the trooper known as “Tommy”, who appears in the Oak Park daily journals from 1879 until 1880. On 25 March 1880 Sub-Inspector Nichols and four troopers (including Tommy) left camp on patrol; their return three days later was recorded by camp keeper Andrew Cahill as ‘Sub Insp returned to camp with three Troopers and nine Tr horses Tr Tommy shot by Sub Insp Day in self defence while on patrol’ (QSA86146 1880 NM Police Oak Park Daily Journal, Mfilm Z658).

Tommy was the man identified by James Cassady in one of his many outraged letters to the Editor of the Queenslander about ‘The Way we Civilize’. Cassady, from the lower Herbert River in north Qld, claimed that Tommy,

… was recruited here 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).

Cassady subsequently alleged that ‘to add to the brutality of this case, I am informed on reliable authority that this boy Tommy was shot while out on patrol at the Gilbert under Sub-inspector Day’ (Brisbane Courier 27 October 1880, p5).

Without descending into conspiracy theories, the survival of these few journals alone begs the question of what happened to the estimated 297 others that were required to be kept by the officers, especially all of the Sub-Inspector’s journals that provided required information about patrols, none of which survive in archives. If any NMP files were ever deliberately destroyed in the 20th century, then these journals are the most likely candidates.

An annotation at the end of the Herberton Daily Journal by Inspector John Bacey Isley notes:

Since 1st Instant I have been engaged in overlooking old papers as far back as 1873. The principal part of which being utterly valueless I have destroyed …

Jno B. Isley
Insp 2/C
Nigger Creek
NM Police Camp
3 March 188[5]
(QSA86147 1885 Herberton NM Police Daily Journal, Mfilm Z659)

Fortunately, he didn’t—or couldn’t—destroy this now rare sequence of books, preserving the only daily records of life in an NMP camp from nearly 60 years of policing across Qld.

*Not including the other volumes that were also likely to be kept, such as Ration or wages and account books, or any private diaries kept by NMP officers, such as those who later wrote their memoirs (the likes of Robert Johnstone and Edward Kennedy spring immediately to mind). The Qld State Archives holds one Ration book only, and no NMP officer diaries have been identified to date in any public collection.


Kennedy, E.B. 1902 The Black Police of Queensland: Reminiscences of Official Work and Personal Adventures in the Early Days of the Colony. London: Murray.

Queensland Legislative Assembly 1861 Report from the Select Committee on the Native Police Force and the Condition of Aborigines Generally Together with the Proceedings of the Committee and Minutes of Evidence. Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, Queensland. Brisbane: Fairfax and Belbridge.

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

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