Friendships on the Frontier: Exploring relationships between Officers and Troopers of the NMP

By Heather Burke

The relationship between white officers and the Aboriginal troopers who served under them is one of the most perplexing and elusive of all interactions within the Native Mounted Police (NMP). What those relationships were like, the bases around which they were constructed, and how they played out day-to-day would have been as varied as the histories, tempers and dispositions of the men concerned.

While we know that many officers were reprimanded or dismissed for excessive ‘discipline’, including extra-judicial killings of troopers, others claimed a strong bond, sometimes even suggesting that a form of friendship existed between them. It seems unlikely that any such ‘friendships’ were truly equal in a system that took young vulnerable men from recently pacified areas and placed them into a military-style structure, and certainly many relationships seem to have been based more on the degree of control exerted by the officer rather than any bond between the men.

It may also be that the possibility for any such relationships changed over time as the NMP itself developed. During the 1857 and 1861 Select Committee hearings into various aspects of the force, several observers claimed that troopers responded better to ‘gentlemen’ than to those who were considered less respectable. This highlights a deep and seemingly unbridgeable class divide between the two tiers of officers: the Lieutenants and the Sergeants. The Lieutenants — who were commissioned officers — came from good educational and at least middle class family backgrounds, with all the social capital this gave them. In contrast, the Sergeants — the non-commissioned officers — were often only functionally literate members of the working class. Middle class values viewed the behaviours of each completely differently:

It was found that the men had not the slightest respect for white men in the capacity of Sergeants, who went into the huts on the stations they visited and associated with the men they found there on an equal footing. I believe that was the reason why the white Sergeants were done away with, and it was thought advisable to get respectable young men to whom the Police would look up as gentlemen, under the name of Sub-lieutenants. (Charles Archer 25 November 1856, NSW Legislative Assembly 1857 Native Police Force. Report from the Select Committee on the Native Police Force; Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence).

63. What was your reason for this recommendation? I thought that the Native Troopers would look with more respect on those who associated with gentlemen, than on those who associated with the labouring men at the stations they visited, and who were continually getting drunk and setting a bad example. (Richard Purvis Marshall 2 December 1856, NSW Legislative Assembly 1857 Native Police Force. Report from the Select Committee on the Native Police Force; Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence).

John O’Connell Bligh went so far as to claim this as a basis for friendship, aligning himself more closely with his troopers than with the labouring class of Sergeants:

111. On what terms do you generally live with your troopers? On very friendly terms, I am on much more familiar terms with them then [sic] I could be with white men’ (John O’Connell Bligh 8 July 1861, Qld Legislative Assembly 1861 Select Committee into the Qld Native Police: 156).

One of the officers who is often cited as having a particularly strong bond with ‘his’ troopers is Frederick Walker, the first Commandant of the Native Police, who established the original force in the Qld-New South Wales border country in 1849. Several squatters to the various Select Committees remarked on the closeness of this relationship: ‘

From what I have gathered of his dealing with these natives, it would appear that Mr. Walker was extraordinarily familiar with them. He was more familiar than we should consider it right to be with servants, for instance—he treated them almost as friends. (William Forster 18 June 1858, Legislative Assembly of NSW Report from the Select Committee on Murders by Aborigines on the Dawson River: 10).

A studio portrait of Frederick Walker (from the James Grant Pattison Collection).

In 1844 Walker had worked as a station manager in the Murrumbidgee District of NSW, a situation which enabled him to recruit men from the region whom he had sometimes known and worked with for many years:

As the natives continued hostile, we found it necessary to punish them for plundering Ross’s camp, and several Murrumbidgee men came to our assistance, John Scott, the Jackson brothers. Williams—an ex-barrister, who lived with them—Lee, and Frederick Walker, who brought with him two fine Murrumbidgee natives— Robin Hood and Marengo—who proved most useful. These two blacks afterwards accompanied Walker to Queensland when he was appointed commandant of the native police. (Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser4 December 1907, p1443)

Then the Native Police Force under Mr. Walker was efficient? That section was more efficient than they have ever been since; because, when he got more to do he had to trust to others. To increase the force, he had to go away a second time to the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan, and those places. Mr. Walker had several advantages: he was a superintendent in these Southern Districts, and knew a great deal of the country, and the blacks there individually, and that enabled him to recruit successfully. (William Butler Tooth 23 June 1858, Legislative Assembly of NSW Report from the Select Committee on Murders by Aborigines on the Dawson River:26–27).

Walker’s first recruiting drive on the Murrumbidgee took place in 1848; his second in 1850.

These long-established individual, personal relationships are probably the best explanation for the bond that Walker seems to have shared with his troopers, although how Walker maintained that relationship is less clear. By all accounts he was a harsh disciplinarian:

62. What is the mode of punishing them? There is none now. Under Mr. Walker they used to be flogged, with great efficacy …

64. But you have understood that he flogged them? Yes — a regular scourging — the fellow being tied up and flogged by one of his mates.

65. By the Chairman: And that had a beneficial effect? Decidedly; it is an excellent way of appealing to the feelings of a black trooper.

66. By Mr. Cowper: The men did not abscond in consequence? No; I never heard of the men absconding in Mr. Walker’s time; he could flog them, and the next moment be friendly with them.

67. Who inflicted the punishment? One of themselves. He had corporals and sergeants among them.

68. Do you know whether any form of trial was observed? Yes; he used to call them all up and tell them — “this fellow has been doing so and so—isn’t he a great rascal — hadn’t we better flog him”; and then he would have him tied up and flogged. My brother has seen it. (William Archer 22 June 1858, Legislative Assembly of NSW Report from the Select Committee on Murders by Aborigines on the Dawson River:17)

James Blain Reid, a squatter on the Burnett River, summed it up most succinctly: ‘‘He was very severe, more so than any other person has been since” (J.B. Reid 23 June 1858, Legislative Assembly of NSW Report from the Select Committee on Murders by Aborigines on the Dawson River: 24).

Despite his harshness, there are various other pieces of evidence pointing to a significant bond.

Although none of the troopers appear to have left the NMP immediately following Walker’s dismissal in 1854, we know that by 1861, when Walker was commissioned to search for Burke and Wills, eight former troopers went with him: Jemmy Cargara, Jingle, Coreen Jemmy, Patrick (Paddy), Rodney, Jack, Harry, and Walter. All of these men, with the exception of Jemmy Cargara, came from the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Edward rivers area, presumably enlisted on Walker’s second recruiting drive there in 1850.

An 1864 photograph of Trooper Patrick, who had been recruited by Frederick Walker (from the Murray family album).

In traversing — and in many instances first mapping — the country between the Nogoa River and the Gulf of Carpentaria, Walker thought enough of some of these companions to name geographical features after them, including Patrick Creek (‘I called this the Patrick, after one of my old comrades (aboriginal)’) and Mt Rodney (‘About 1 mile lower down than where we crossed the Alice, was a range on the right bank, which I named Mount Rodney, after one of my Murray men’).

The location of Patrick River (from a map of Walker and Landsborough’s routes April 10th 1862 by W. Collis NLA MAP RM 1086).
The location of Mt Rodney (from a map of Walker and Landsborough’s routes April 10th 1862 by W. Collis NLA MAP RM 1086).

Walker also named a creek after Jingle, whom Walter Clark described as ‘Walker’s favorite henchman’. In remembering Walker, Clark recounted an incident that Jingle was fond of telling from the Burke and Wills expedition:

Jingle was and had been in the old corps with him. Of course a great part of the fun of the incident consisted in the dramatic effect Jingle employed in the recital of it. According to the sergeant, Walker had taken him as escort when reconnoitreing some country on Gulf waters some distance from the camp. One afternoon when it was nearly dusk and their horses were knocked up, entering on an open plain they found a large mob of natives at a distance of about a mile away. As soon as the natives noticed them the mob began to move towards them at the double quick. The idea of being surrounded by the savages with knocked up horses didn’t suit. Walker consulted Jingle, pointing to the peril they were in. Jingle’s wit came to the rescue with a novel expedient for which Walker ought have created him a field marshal on the spot. One of the horses was far fresher than the other. Addressing his commander, Jingle suggested he should make his escape on the best horse, leaving Jingle to his fate. Walker replied he would not leave Jingle, but if necessary die with him. Then Jingle made a proposition, saying “I tell you, Murro-billa,” i.e., in the native vocabulary — big nose — the commandant’s native name, “we leave done- up horse, take’m good fellow, you ride murry quick ahead, Jingle run behind, bye and bye I been no more run; Jingle been ride little bit, Murro-billa been run. Then Jingle more run.” They adopted the expedient and gradually the two gained ground on their pursuers who threw up the sponge. The escapees camped that night in the bottom of a dry creek. The horse left behind was never got. The saddle they had placed in a tree and was recovered. A space round the tree was covered with tracks but the blacks had been afraid to handle it. When relating the matter to me, Jingle would yell with laughter as he mimicked Murro-billa’s running for at that time Walker was immensely corpulent. (Gympie Times and Mary River Mining Gazette, 2 June 1906, p7)

Both Jingle and Coreen Jemmy had been dismissed from the NMP four years before for engaging in “conduct which could not be overlooked” (Skinner 1975:363). Along with Boney, Larry, Billy, and Coreen Neddy, they were sent packing by Edric Morisset — the man who took over from Walker as Commandant — for leaving their barracks at Wandai Gumbal to attend a corroborree with local Aboriginal people.

For his part, Walker had been living on the Dawson River since 1854, operating as a successful speculator for new pastoral runs. By 1857 he was living on the station of Hornet Bank (McManus 1903), where, on the 29 October 1857, 11 members of the Frazer family were killed by Aboriginal people.

Certainly both Jingle and Coreen Jemmy were with Walker by the beginning of 1858. In January of that year Andrew Scott, the owner of Hornet Bank, and his neighbour, Pollett Cardew, organised Frederick Walker, another ex-NMP officer, Thomas Ross, and ten ex-troopers into a private police force to protect them and patrol their Dawson River runs. According to Morisset this ‘armed party’ consisted of the men he had dismissed from Wandai Gumbal (Skinner 1975:359).

60. By the Chairman: You know the late Commandant of the Native Police—Mr. Walker? Yes.

61. Where is he now? He has a small Native Force of his own about Euroombah and Hornet Bank.

62. Who employs him? I believe some of the neighbouring squatters keep him to patrol about their stations.

63. Has he many troopers? Eight or ten, I think; I do not know exactly. (E.M. Royds 22 June 1858, Legislative Assembly of NSW Report from the Select Committee on Murders by Aborigines on the Dawson River: 21).

Another ex-trooper — Jemmy Sandeman — was also with Walker in late October 1857 when they were attacked near the Expedition Range by some of the same people supposedly involved in the Hornet Bank murders (Inquirer and Commercial News, 20 January 1858, p3). We don’t know whether he was also a member of Walker’s private police force.

George Dickson later claimed that this private force was still employed on stations around the Dawson and Comet Rivers in 1862–63, after the expedition in search of Burke and Wills, including on his own run, Arcadia Downs:

As Mr. Walker had no further employment for his troopers, Mr. Dickson arranged to employ them, and, with their assistance, had little trouble with the blacks, who were let in to the station. (Northern Star, 13 February 1913, p8).

That these Aboriginal men continued to work and live with Walker — some of them  going to him on the Dawson, and subsequently accompanying him to the Gulf — does suggest a bond beyond the customary officer-trooper relationship, although there were no doubt other factors that affected an ex-trooper’s choices.

Frederick Walker died in 1866 at Floraville, near Normanton, at the end of another exploring trek, this time to establish a telegraph line between Cardwell and Normanton. We know that ‘four of his old troopers’ were still with him on this journey, although none of them were identified by name in the newspaper accounts (Wagga Wagga Express and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser, 10 February 1866, p4). These men disappear from the historical records after Walker’s death.

The grave of Frederick Walker as published in the Brisbane Courier, 22 November 1924, p18.

Jonathan Richards (2005:156) has remarked on the ‘close and affectionate relationship’ that existed between Walker and his troopers, also noting that there was little evidence of this amongst other officers and their detachments. There seems little doubt that Walker certainly felt affection for some of these men. When Tahiti was killed (shot by the NMP) in 1858, Walker seemed genuinely upset:

This poor lad, who was about twenty-four years of age, had been with me at various periods since 1844, had always been noted for his pacific demeanour, his integrity, sobriety, and good conduct during eight years’ service upon the river, and his only fault, for which he has been murdered, has been his strong attachment to me. So much did I value him, that when I left the police force, I left him my sword, sent to me by my mother, and which now has become the spoil of his assassins. (Moreton Bay Courier, 4 August 1858, p2)

Regardless of whether or not he was a harsh disciplinarian and treated the troopers in ways that we would consider inappropriate now, some of those men followed him, and stayed with him, probably until his death.


McManus, M. 1903 Reminiscences of the Early Settlement of the Maranoa District.

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

7 thoughts on “Friendships on the Frontier: Exploring relationships between Officers and Troopers of the NMP

  1. In my online wanderings I’ve discovered that a 500 page biography of Frederick Walker was published in June last year. As it is, to my knowledge, the only existing comprehensive biography of Walker I’ve taken the liberty of ordering it through the inter-library loans service, but… I also encountered the twitter feed and blog of the author, Paul Dillon, who lives in north Queensland and claims to be a retired barrister, and I have to say that the content and tone of, and the standard of literacy apparent on, those pages doesn’t give me much hope that the book will make for an objective, accurate and/or insightful read. I’m counting on the professionalism of his editor at the publishing house, a QLD operation called Connor Court – but then most of its output has an openly and unashamedly pro-Catholic church, right wing bias. Anyway, if anyone’s interested I’ll post a review here once I’ve waded through this tome.

    1. Hi Nigel, Yes we became aware of that recent publication and ordered copies for our various university libraries, though I’ve not yet been back to Broome to borrow it to read. Will be interested to hear your thoughts on it! Cheers Lynley

  2. I collected this book from the library yesterday and am currently struggling my way through it. It’s.. let’s just say for now… an unusual read given its putative subject matter; more to come when I’ve read as much as I can stomach and have formulated some sort of critical analysis.

    1. Hi Nigel, just wondering how you went with Frederick Walker’s biography? We’d be very interested to hear your thoughts. Heather (and the team)

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