As 2018 draws to a close (though we do have one more Christmas themed blog post to come…) we thought it was time to let you know about another initiative of our Native Mounted Police (NMP) project: an online database that we are hoping (or planning … we’re not sure which is the correct verb in this instance?!) to launch to the public in late 2019.
While some sources that contain information about the NMP, such as Trove (a fantastic example of a database), are available online, many others—such as the majority of Qld State Archive (QSA) files—are not (this means that anyone who wants to do their own research using the QSA sources has to go to Brisbane and look at either the original files or microfilm copies of them).
Accordingly, as a key outcome of our project we are pulling together as much information about the NMP as we can find into a single online database. Other people will then be able to login to our database and easily examine the materials stored within it no matter where they are, so long as they have access to an online computer.
A database is more than just a table of information. It isa comprehensive method of storing, managing and retrieving complex information, the individual pieces of which can be related to one another in a myriad of ways. Perhaps the best way to think about it is as a series of tables (like you might make with an Excel spreadsheet), each one about a different aspect of the NMP, and all of which are interconnected. Although many people have done research into the NMP before, and might well have used a database to help organise their findings, none of them have made their database available in an online form.
So what kinds of things are in our database and how is it set up? The diagram below gives you an overview of how it is structured. It is focused on four key nodes—People, Places, Events and Sources—and incorporates both historical (i.e. documentary) and archaeological information, all of which are connected to show the relationships that exist between them. We explain a bit more about each of the nodes and main types of information in the rest of this post.
As we note above, although perhaps not immediately obvious from the above diagram, there are essentially two sets of ‘sources’ in the database: (1) documents (in the broadest sense — so these can be primary documents, secondary documents, journal articles, books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, plans, sketches, video files and audio files), and (2) information about the archaeology and objects. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The bulk of the ‘source’ information comprises articles/letters from historic newspapers accessed through Trove, or are government records available from the QSA. Other sources include Ancestry and the Australian Dictionary of Biography, diaries and letters. Secondary sources, such as books about the NMP (for example, Skinner  and Richards ), are also captured in the database, and cross-referenced to People, Places and Events, as relevant. Although transcriptions of primary sources are available for many of the documents in the database (so users can read and download both a PDF of an original document and its transcription), we do not guarantee that they are error free and readers are cautioned to refer to the original documents wherever possible.
This part of the database has information about five key categories of people, each of which is tailored to meet the needs of that particular category, and has its own limitations and challenges.
These are records relating to the non-Aboriginal members of the NMP, and in some instances their senior commanding officers (though such men were often in charge of non-NMP officers as well). Official staff files for some of the officers (and which often mention their NMP colleagues) survive in the QSA, and have been copied and entered into our database. In other instances officers are referred to in sources such as newspaper accounts and other official government correspondence (such as letters to and from the Colonial Secretary); again, all of these have been copied, transcribed and uploaded into the database.
As you would expect, the quantity of information available on each man is highly variable. For some we have only one mention of a name as an aside in a source, while for others there is an extensive file in the QSA, and even photographs; most men lie between these two extremes. In some instances it is unclear whether men were employed in the NMP or the ‘regular’ police force, and in others it is clear that they moved between appointments in both. In these cases we have flagged such uncertainties.
Wherever possible NMP officer entries provide summary biographical information about each man (such as their birth and death dates, and information about their spouse and children), a history of their time in the NMP (such as where they were posted and when, what ranks they held, who their commanding officer was, who the Troopers were in their detachment), and what “events of frontier conflict” they were involved in.
The image below is a screen capture that shows part of an entry for NMP officer William Armit. You can see on the menu on the left that we have 98 documents that mention or relate to Armit in some manner, that he was involved in seven “events of frontier conflict”, that we have three photographs of him, we know in 14 instances where he was posted, he held at least four different ranks during his time in the Force, and there are five non-primary sources (‘references’, these are books or journal articles) that also mention him. Any and all of those items can be clicked on and examined by the user.
These are records relating to the Aboriginal members of the NMP, though our list of troopers is not exhaustive, since many were never referred to in any documentation at all. Unfortunately, there are no official staff files for any Aboriginal trooper, even though they were paid members of the Qld Police Force. As such, we have far less information about these men than we do about officers. Complicating our attempts to identify them is the fact that most were given a European ‘first’ name when they joined the Force – rarely were they given a surname and rarely were their Aboriginal names used (though interestingly the latter seems to have happened more often in the early decades of the Force). As such, there are many troopers with the same name and it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between them. In such instances we have resorted to allocating them a number after their name to distinguish them and indicate in the entry when we have reason to suspect that two entries may refer to the same individual. Each entry provides any biographical information about each man (such as when they joined and left the Force, their death dates, the region they were recruited from, and sometimes information about their spouse and children), a history of their time in the NMP (such as where they were posted and when, who their commanding officer was, and what “events of frontier conflict” they were involved in.
“Associated Individuals” are people who were not members of the NMP, but were in some way associated with it. This includes officers of the regular Qld Police Force, Police Magistrates, Justices of the Peace, politicians, land owners, pastoralists, shepherds, miners, victims of attacks, and the wives and/or children of NMP officers and troopers. Often the same people show up in multiple sources, such as pastoralists who were petitioning for visits from the NMP, and/or who were then themselves involved in conflict events. Another example of people who fall into this category are medical practitioners, as doctors were often involved in carrying out autopsies or tending to people who were wounded during conflict events.
This is a fairly straightforward category, and includes entries for all of the researchers on the QNMP project. Some of our researchers are academics at various institutions or companies, while others are graduate students working on discrete aspects of the overall project. Aboriginal and other community members who have helped with the archaeological fieldwork are also included here, particularly when they have been actively involved in fieldwork. The image below shows the record for team member Bryce Barker. You can see that Bryce is associated with one audio file, 31 records of scarred trees (meaning he helped record them), 94 excavation contexts (meaning he helped excavate 94 units at various sites), he occurs in two photographs, and he recorded four of the sites we have visited to date.
The “Events” category contains instances of cross-cultural conflict on the Qld frontier, which we categorise under four broad headings: (1) attacks on livestock or property; (2) attacks on Aboriginal people; (3) attacks on the NMP themselves, and (4) attacks on non-Aboriginal people. We have done this to try and present a holistic view of the state of the frontier, since high profile ‘massacres’ rarely happened in isolation and were often either the culmination of a series of more minor skirmishes that had happened in the preceding weeks and months, or that led to a series of recriminatory actions.
Further, the events documented in our database are only those that can be tied to some sort of specific location, although more often than not these events still cannot be mapped with any accuracy. For example, we might know that an event happened on a particular road or station, or at a certain distance from a township, but no more details are available about exactly where it might have been. Unfortunately there are many more accounts of frontier conflict in the literature that are too generic to be mapped at all and therefore aren’t included in our database. In addition, because these events are taken from written sources, they privilege accounts of European deaths over those of Aboriginal people. For this reason in the infographic at the end of this post it appears that there were far more attacks on Europeans than on Aboriginal people, even though this is not the case. Most attacks on Aboriginal people drew only a single line mention in historical sources and potentially involved large numbers of people being killed, while an attack on a European was routinely widely reported in contemporary newspapers, with explicit details being provided.
We acknowledge that this part of the database is by no means exhaustive and have drawn heavily on the existing research of historians such as Ray Evans, Noel Loos and Timothy Bottoms, supplemented by our own research.
Event entries record information such as where and when the event happened, who was involved (be they officers, troopers or other individuals), what other events led up to it or happened after it, and all of the written accounts that refer to that event.
The image below shows the start of the entry for the deaths of the Fraser family at Hornet Bank station on 27 October 1857. In this example you can see on the left that the database contains 29 documents (mostly newspaper accounts or original correspondence by the Police) about this event, that there are five other “events” that are related to it, and 10 references (such as books and journal articles) that discuss it.
The ‘Places’ node of the database is generally separated into NMP camps versus ‘other places’. Within camps, we have a sub-category of camps that we have physically relocated on the ground, versus those that we know about from documentary sources but for various reasons we’ve not been able to find their physical location. Other places are exactly that—any place that is referred to in a source that is not an NMP camp, such as a watercourse or travel route, the name of a pastoral run or a township.
We didn’t envisage our database as containing just historical documents, although these are obviously an important part of the NMP story. We also wanted it to be a repository of information about all of the archaeological sites and artefacts we have been studying.
We have thus far visited 41 NMP camp sites, and notes, descriptions and photographs from our visits to these sites are included in the database. Of those 41 sites, we have excavated eight. For these excavated sites the database also contains all of the excavation forms, photographs, and field notes, as well as descriptions of all of the artefacts we have collected. Each artefact is given a unique identifier number that corresponds with a unique entry in the database that records its basic attributes and often includes a photograph of it. This means that other people will be able to ‘see’ all of objects we have found, and to potentially use them for their own analytical purposes.
Generally artefacts are categorised in the first instance as belonging to one of the categories shown in the screen shot below.
Different types of information are then recorded about each artefact, depending on which category it belongs to. The image below shows an entry for one of the cartridges recovered from excavations at the Boralga NMP camp.
Where We’re At Now…
In closing, the infographic below is a snapshot of the resources our database currently holds and the research we have completed to date. We’re generally adding new information to the database every day, and anticipate doing so for many years to come, so it is very much a work-in-progress rather than a static object, and the sheer volume of information we’re dealing with is the key reason we’ve not yet made it available to the public. However, we feel we’re suitable progressed and comfortable with the set up that we’ve now entered the stage of working with our designers (the fabulous team at Environmental Systems Solutions) to develop a more user-friendly public interface for the database. We’ll likely be looking for some beta-tester once we have some of the kinks in the interface software ironed out, so will be in touch when that time comes!
Richards, J. 2008 The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Skinner, L.E. 1975 Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849-59. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.