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Violent Etymologies

By Heather Burke

A map is a frail thing, although the politics that underlie its construction and naming practices are not. In 2017 Queensland removed several racist place names from the map, prompting debate over whether memorials to Robert Towns and John Mackay—the namesakes of both Townsville and Mackay—should tell their history more fully, given that both made fortunes from South Sea Islander coerced labour. Further afield in Victoria, the Melbourne electorate of Batman (named after Melbourne founder John Batman, who was allegedly involved in massacring Aboriginal people in Tasmania before journeying to Victoria and attempting to purchase land around Port Phillip Bay from the Wurundjeri people) was recently renamed Cooper in honour of Yorta Yorta activist and leader William Cooper.

Cooper is rare [1]: naming places after well-known explorers, rich founders or other notable pioneer figures (usually white men) is much more common, and part of the toponymy we engage with every day. When those streets, rivers, towns or mountains commemorate people who might today be considered more infamous than famous, however, a different perspective emerges on our once familiar landscape.

Jonathan Richards alluded to the web of connections between the Native Mounted Police (NMP) and place when he investigated the naming of Mt Wheeler (Richards 2014) and pointed out that Patrick Street in Brisbane, and Douglas, Seymour and Uhr Streets in Cloncurry were all named after NMP officers (Richards 2005:12). The map is much larger than this, however.

Some of the NMP officers whose names and careers have been immortalised in place and species names: a. John Marlow; b. John Murray, c. John Isley, d. George Murray, e. Robert Johnstone, f. William Armit, g. Thomas Clohesy, h. Reginald Uhr, i. Alexander Douglas

The Clohesy River between Mareeba and Cairns in far north Qld is named for Thomas Clohesy, an Irish Catholic NMP officer in charge of the gold escort from the Palmer River goldfields in the 1870s who went on to become an Inspector. The Marrett River north of Cooktown celebrates Sub-Inspector Charles Marrett, who, in the tradition of all explorers, claimed naming rights for having ‘found’ it (Courier Mail, 5 May 1936, p12). Over his 20 year career in the NMP he was also involved in numerous ‘dispersals’ of Aboriginal people across the state.

John Marlow, who served for 14 years on the Maranoa and around Bowen, Dalrymple, Rockhampton and the Burdekin River, is more prolifically memorialised in the naming of Mount Marlow (near Proserpine), Cape Marlow (Townsville) and Marlow Street (also Townsville) (Mathew 2008:27, 83). What was originally called the Marlowe River, near Cardwell, was also named in his honour by George Dalrymple in 1864, although, ironically, the Aboriginal name for this watercourse—Meunga Creek—seems to have triumphed. Townsville also sports Isley Street in North Ward, named after NMP officer, John Bacey Isley, who served with Marlow at Port Denison in the 1860s. Isley was involved in several reprisal attacks against Aboriginal people in the mid-1860s around Proserpine and Bowen.

Other Qld places are tied indelibly to the NMP [2], including:

It’s not only geographical places that memorialise the officers of the NMP. The NMP were often amongst the first Europeans into many parts of Queensland, their patrols taking them into areas that were either relatively or completely unknown. Their presence—predicated as it was on the task of hunting out Aboriginal people—gave them unparalleled access to new places, species and objects, making them invaluable sources of information to a wide range of people.

For example, renowned botanist Baron von Mueller honoured Reginald Uhr for the support he gave botanical collector John Dallachy by naming a species of vine from north Qld Melodorum uhrii (John Dowe, pers. comm.).

Robert Johnstone, who served for 13 years from 1867–1880 and was implicated in several dispersals of Aboriginal people in the far north, differentiated the freshwater from the saltwater crocodile and shot the freshwater specimen that was ultimately named  Crocodilus johnstoni (mispelled at the time).

Crocodilus johnstoni, named after NMP officer Robert Johnstone. From Gray, J. E. 1874 Crocodilus johnstoni, Krefft. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, pp.177-178.

The Johnstone River also bears his name, courtesy of George Dalrymple who credited Johnstone with discovering it while part of the north coast exploring expedition in 1873. On the same expedition Johnstone collected Aboriginal weapons for the Queensland Museum from camps that he and his fellow NMP officer, Ferdinand Tompson, had dispersed (QSA846915 1873 Letter from Ferdinand Tompson to Commissioner of Police 1 November, In letter 73/1570).

William Armit gained a reputation as an ethnographer, botanist and ornithologist, conferring his patronymic on a species of north Qld grass, acacia and bird (no less than the yellow headed Gouldian finch). Armit Creek in Mourilyan Harbour also commemorates his presence.

Eriachne armitii (

The irony of the NMP being the ones to ‘preserve’ Aboriginal cultures even as they killed the people who created them and disrupted the ceremonies and systems of knowledge that supported them, seemed entirely lost on Armit:

We know very little about the blacks, and that little is exceedingly fragmentary and based mostly on carelessly collected facts. The blacks will have disappeared from this continent before another century has come and gone. Their habits and customs are constantly changing or falling into disuse, since they came into contact with the whites; it therefore behoves us to obtain properly authenticated facts relating to everything connected with their past history. No one can be more fortunately situated for such work than Native Police officers, and the Queensland Government would confer a lasting boon on the present and future generations of this country if they would sanction and foster any research tending to the fulfilment of so valuable an object. Our national Museum would soon be enriched by a vast and valuable collection, as varied as unique, illustrating the successive stages through which the aborigines have passed since our advent, enabling the student to arrive at definite conclusions by comparison and classification. I have for eight years devoted all my spare time to such subjects, but was forbidden to publish any information which could give the public even the slightest glimpse into the doings of the Native Police. (Queenslander, 4 September 1880, p307)

The troopers of the NMP are less well represented in the contemporary landscape, although we have already written about Patrick Creek, Mt Rodney and Jingle Creek, named by Frederick Walker for some of his long-term troopers.

These eponymous legacies highlight a network of connections beneath our present-day physical and scientific geographies. The transformation of violence and dispersal into socially acceptable forms of ‘civilised’ knowledge is a neat sleight of hand, and one of the lesser known legacies of the NMP.


Mathew, J. 2008 Highways and Byways. The Origin of Townsville Street Names. Townsville: Townsville Library Service.

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

Richards, J. 2014 ‘Many were killed from falling over the cliffs’: The naming of Mount Wheeler, Central Queensland. In I.D. Clark, L. Hercus and L. Kostanski (eds), Indigenous and Minority Placenames: Australian and International Perspectives. Canberra: ANU Press, pp. 147–161.

[1] A more recent rarity is naming the viaduct on the new Toowoomba bypass Multuggerah Viaduct, after a local Indigenous resistance leader.

[2] Not to mention place names in other states, such as Coward Springs in SA, named after Thomas Coward before he became an NMP officer and Salmond River in the Kimberley region of WA, named for Alexander Salmond, a licensed surveyor and NMP officer around the Gulf, Cloncurry and Blackall in the 1870s.

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