Aboriginal Rock Art and the Native Mounted Police

By Noelene Cole

Image making, an ancient and universal human practice, was revolutionised when photography became more portable and affordable in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although it was initially conceived as a means of objectively representing reality, photography was soon recognised as a powerful, persuasive medium of visual communication. Hence, for the British engaged in colonising Aboriginal Australia, photography became ‘a key part of the project of colonisation and was used to document its progress’ (Art Gallery of NSW 2015).

The image of Native Mounted Police (NMP) officers at Coen shown as Figure 1 is an example of British colonial photography from the 1890s. As Queensland’s libraries and archives hold many such photographs, it seems that this type of portraiture was considered to be an ideal method of communicating the inexorable progress of colonisation as symbolised by the NMP.

Figure 1 Native Mounted Police detachment at Coen, Cape York Peninsula, in the 1890s (John Oxley 08944).

Likewise, image making was of prime importance in Aboriginal Australia because of its ancestral origins and cultural, social and political functions. In the Quinkan region of Cape York Peninsula, a key genre was rock art, an age-old tradition which involved painting and engraving the rocks with images of totemic ancestors, spirit beings, men and women, animals, plants, artefacts and other subjects of cultural significance. In remote areas around Laura and Cooktown, rock painting continued through the tumultuous years of the frontier war (1873–1890s). Post-contact imagery is telling, as it includes exotic items (horse, pigs, steel axes) and elemental symbols of the war (guns and policemen).

In 1873, the massacre of Aboriginal warriors at Battle Camp showed the futility of open combat against the NMP, but failed to halt Aboriginal resistance. A writer in the Cooktown Herald on 24 June 1874 opined that miners were having to ‘enter into guerilla warfare, and risk their lives against the sable foes, who were immeasurably their superiors in tactics and bush fighting’. The resistance, although effective, resulted in violent offensives and reprisals by the NMP for many years after the initial battle. Aboriginal records of the warfare, which survive as rare documents from the ‘other’ side of the frontier, include images of the NMP.

Paintings of the police first came to wider attention in the 1960s when senior Aboriginal men identified them during visits to rock art sites with Percy Trezise (1969). As related by Trezise, the Aboriginal men were born and raised in the colonial era, and had experienced at first-hand the methods of the NMP. For example, Willy Long escaped a massacre of the Olkola people by the Musgrave police; Caesar Lee Cheu and his family, Koko Warra by tribal identity, evaded the police for years before coming in to a local cattle station; retired police tracker Harry Mole, who spoke a Thaypanic language from around Laura, was captured as a child by the police during an attack on his people at Jack Lake. At a later date, information was provided by George Musgrave (1926–2006) and his brother Tommy George (1919–2016), fluent speakers of Kuku Thaypan (Agu Laya) and community elders of Laura. Over three generations, members of their family worked as police trackers, beginning with George Wanaya who was forcibly recruited in the late nineteenth century (Cole 2010). According to George Musgrave and Tommy George, their Old People made the police paintings not only to kill the police, but to ‘get strong to fight them’ (George et al. 1995:33).

When Willy Long identified certain paintings as ‘bullymen’, the Aboriginal English word for policeman, he explained that the sign for policeman in Aboriginal sign language was an open hand across the forehead to indicate the trooper cap, followed by a gesture which meant ‘run away quickly’ (Trezise 1985). Discs painted on the heads of some of the figures were identified by Caesar Lee Cheu as the distinctive caps. The figures are aligned upside down or horizontally in ‘death’ positions (such as in Figures 2 and 3), and are usually painted next to symbols of sorcery – snakes, weapons, crocodiles. Image sorcery could be used to kill an enemy, for example a man could make a bark effigy of a crocodile to kill his enemies or could paint a picture of the victim attacked by snakes (Trezise 1971). In the sorcery ritual, a piece of apparel containing the victim’s sweat or hair was taken to a rockshelter and buried, and the man’s image was painted while the participants chanted a curse.

Figure 2 Field drawing of police painting in a Laura rockshelter (by Noelene Cole).


Figure 3 Painting of policeman with black bittern, a bird associated with death (Trezise 1971).

One sorcery symbol, a snake, has lines projecting from its mouth to a policeman’s foot, representing snake venom meant ‘to put the poison’ in him (Caesar Lee Cheu, cited by Trezise 1993:51). Pecking at the arm pits of two police figures are black bitterns, elusive birds associated with bones and mortuary rituals (Trezise 1971). A bulge on a man’s leg was identified as a revolver holster, possibly a sign of a European policeman, as revolvers were only issued to white officers of the NMP (Jonathan Richards pers. comm.). In a ‘dead tracker’ painting identified by Tommy George, a prone figure clutches the reins of the horse which has evidently thrown him to the ground (Figure 4).

Figure 4 ‘Dead tracker’ painting at Giant Horse (photograph by Noelene Cole).

As indicated in the Coen photograph shown as Figure 1, the formal police uniform of navy blue shirts, caps and trousers and the ominous display of guns were powerful symbols of colonial authority. In the Aboriginal paintings, guns and uniforms are signs of the police. The fairly simple, elongated shapes of rifles suggest that at this point, Aboriginal people had only vague impressions of them. Rounded feet may indicate boots, and clothing (shirts and trousers) is implied by lines and contrasting types of infill (Figure 5). Eyes and/or a mouth are often painted in, and most figures have prominent positions with views across the landscape. Perhaps this was a way of indirectly connecting with victims and making them aware of their likely fate.

Figure 5 Police paintings located by Trezise (1993).

The painting sites are located on high escarpments overlooking river corridors and goldfields tracks. Here, safely out of reach and with access to shelter, freshwater springs and bush foods, Aboriginal groups defied the invasion for years. The distribution of the paintings and their similar styles are testimony to the concerted, widespread nature of Aboriginal resistance. Historian Henry Reynolds (1982:86–87) has argued that sorcery was ‘at least as important as physical confrontation’ in resistance. However, at another level, the police figures represent the role of rock art imagery in keeping people strong. As visual culture records, these images offset official representations of colonial authority by communicating the courage and tenacity of Aboriginal land-owners in resisting it.


Art Gallery NSW 2015 The Photograph and Australia: The Exhibition.

Cole, N. 2010 Painting the police: Aboriginal visual culture and identity in colonial Cape York Peninsula. Australian Archaeology 71:17–28.

George, T., G. Musgrave and the Ang-Gnarra Rangers 1995 Our Country, Our Art, Our Quinkans. Laura: Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation.

Reynolds, H. 1982 The Oher Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia. Ringwood: Penguin.

Trezise, P. 1969 Quinkan Country: Adventures in Search of Aboriginal Cave Paintings in Cape York. Melbourne: A.H. and A.W. Reed.

Trezise, P. 1971 Rock Art of South-East Cape York Peninsula. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Trezise, P. 1993 Dream Road: A Journey of Discovery. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin.

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