By Bryce Barker
As can be seen from reading about Stanhope O’Connor, Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr and Thomas Coward, the lives and circumstances of the officers in the Native Mounted Police (NMP) force were complex and multi-faceted. However, many accounts of individual officers often portray them as either ‘genocidal murderers’ or ‘stalwart keepers of peace on the frontier’, with little attempt to examine their particular circumstances, including their personal lives and their job, within the context of their times.
There is no question that the NMP was set up to assist the movement of Europeans* into Aboriginal lands, and to protect and defend the theft of this land using force. Aboriginal people in nearly all cases aggressively resisted ‘colonisation’ by attacking livestock, property and settlers whenever the chance arose. Disproportionate and often indiscriminate retaliation followed, resulting in well documented massacres and other acts of violence against Aborigines by both the NMP and settlers themselves.
The degree of violence against Aboriginal people by the NMP depended to a large extent on the particular personality of the commanding officer at the time. The fact that there was ‘no measure of law enacted nor any official policy declared to determine the functions of the force or its duties and obligations’ other than ‘they be confined to the protection of the white population on the extreme limits of the frontier districts (Skinner 1975:26) meant that how the NMP carried out its duties was very much decided by individual officers:
… the heavy burden of responsibility for the actions of the Native Police, so far as the executive government was concerned, was to be borne by the officers themselves. Action to be taken by officers was to be left to individual discretion. (Skinner 1975:43)
One specific officer whom it is interesting to consider in this light is Frederick Walker.
Frederick Walker was officially appointed as Commandant of the Corps of Native Police on 17 August 1848 and served in the role until 1855, before Queensland achieved statehood in 1859. Walker established the first NMP camps in what was then northeast NSW but was later to become Queensland at Calloondoon (near Goondiwindi) and Wondai Gumbal at Tchanning Creek near the Condamine River; most of his patrols and operations were carried out north of the McIntyre River.
In accounts from the time Walker is often lauded as having good relationships with Aboriginal people. For example, testimony given before the 1858 Select Committee acknowledged ‘that Walker understood the Aboriginal character and what was necessary to make Aborigines act as a force, and that he was a good bushman’ (Arthur Hodgson as cited in Skinner 1975:28). Indeed he was responsible for recruiting the first Aboriginal troopers to the force from, and it appears that desertion rates amongst his troopers were the lowest in the history of the force.
After he was dismissed in 1855 Walker also ‘wrote many letters of complaint when Aborigines were ‘killed needlessly’ on the upper Dawson and Comet Rivers’ (Skinner 1975:167). He also recognised that the system adopted by many settlers of not allowing the Aborigines access to their stations was, in his opinion, the principal cause of outrages (Frederick Walker to the Colonial Secretary, 1 March 1852, Reel A2/24, John Oxley Library).
Walker also demonstrated rare insight into the difficulties of apprehending the appropriate offenders when he attempted to explain why seemingly indiscriminate retaliation against innocent Aborigines occurred in a letter to the Colonial Secretary in 1850:
A large number of blacks are assembled together armed. Cattle are killed and the remains found in all their camps … Sheep are stolen in large numbers and men are constantly murdered. No man is identified as one of the murderers or thieves. The only evidence which can be obtained is that with my men I can generally track the aggressive party; but this if it implicates anybody would implicate any blacks who may have joined the party since the offence. (Letter from Frederick Walker to the Colonial Secretary 7 November 1850, Reel A2/37, John Oxley Library).
… the murderers against whom warrants were issued had been aided and abetted by a large number of other Aborigines and in attempting to apprehend those subject to the warrants he was obliged to engage the whole party or retire. (Undated letter from Frederick Walker to the Colonial Secretary, NMP, B/4 QSA) .
It seems clear that Walker was someone who was able to reflect to some extent on what he was doing and that perhaps, from a moral perspective, understood that it was problematic.
Certainly in comparison to many later NMP officers, Walker seems to have been somewhat sympathetic to the issues confronting Aborigines. Skinner (1975:112) suggested that ‘Walker’s sympathetic approach to the problems of the Aborigines was not in accordance with the hardening attitudes of many other in those times’, which may have contributed to his eventual dismissal.
Nonetheless it is clear that Walker and his troopers were involved in indiscriminate killings of Aboriginal people. For example, on Beeboo Station on the McIntyre River, John Watts recounted Walker and his troopers acting on just the suspicion of an attack, confronting ‘a large tribe dressed in ‘war paint’’. Watts stated that the police discharged their guns and the Aboriginal people immediately retreated into the scrub; however the NMP immediately followed and, in the words of Watts (1901), ‘the number they killed no one but their commander and themselves ever knew’. Other accounts of this particular event provide no detail beyond stating that people were ‘dispersed’ – the commonly used euphemism for deadly conflict against Aborigines.
Reports of Walker’s ‘intemperance’ affecting his ability to carry out his duties began to be circulated from 1854 onward. Walker was relieved of his duties in September 1854 and ultimately dismissed from the NMP after a Board of Enquiry in 1855. It may be that drinking was used an excuse to get rid of him because of his perceived sympathetic approach to Aborigines – certainly alcoholism amongst other officers did not necessarily affect their careers in such a negative fashion.
The fact that alcohol became increasingly a problem for Walker was reinforced by his apparent absences, failure to respond to correspondence, and the disorder of his accounts. Indeed, he turned up to the 1855 enquiry in Brisbane over an hour late and when he ‘took his seat he was so intoxicated he did not recognise Marshall who was sitting next to him. The board, in view of Walker’s condition then requested him to retire’ (Board of Enquiry to the Colonial Secretary, 20 December 1854. NSWVP 1855, 871, John Oxley Library).
It is interesting to consider that Walker’s alcoholism only manifested itself some years after his being appointed to the NMP, and contemplate whether or not it may have been related to the tasks he was carrying out. In modern society it is well known that people carrying out ‘horrific daily duties’ often turn to self-medication to help them deal with the psychological consequences of their work (Westermann 2016). And it is clear from both the historical and archaeological record that over-consumption of alcoholwas an issue amongst many of the white officers of the NMP.
In 1851 Walker stated that, since forming the NMP, he had had little rest and much anxiety, which had been increased by the illness of his men. He had been out in all weather and had never been in a house except for a few days at a time. He had incurred great responsibility and damaged his health in endeavouring to make his small force as available as possible and had met with a very poor return (Letter from Frederick Walker to the Colonial Secretary 22 October 1851, as cited in Skinner 1975:60). As such, it seems very possible that Walker’s excessive drinking might well have been linked to the nature of the work he was employed to carry out with the NMP.
Nevertheless, in closing, I do not mean to exonerate or excuse Walker from clear cases of extra-judicial killings on the frontier. Rather, I have aimed to explore what may have driven some of his behaviour as a complex individual. People are not necessarily either wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’; their personalities and behaviour comprise components along a spectrum, leading to actions that can be both contradictory and multifaceted. We need to avoid black and white representations of NMP officers and troopers, such as portrayed in the hagiographic account by Dillon (2018), for example, and instead recognise these men for what they were — complex and often flawed personalities operating within the context of their time.
* We use this term here to include any non-Indigenous persons regardless of their specific heritage; on the colonial frontier of Queensland these people were predominantly of either European or Chinese heritage.
Dillon, P. 2018 Frederick Walker, Commandant of the Native Police. Redland Bay: Connor Court Publishing.
Skinner, L.E. 1975 Police of the Pastoral Frontier. Native Police 1849–1859. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Watts, J. 1901 Reminiscences, 1901. Reel M680 National Library of Australia.
Westermann, E.B. 2016 Stone-cold killers or drunk with murder: alcohol and atrocity during the Holocaust. Holocaust and Genocide Studies 30:1–19.