Wired: Aboriginal People and Colonial Communication Networks

By Lynley Wallis

In a previous post, Alyssa Madden discussed the relationship between telegraph stations and the Native Mounted Police (NMP) across colonial Queensland. Seven years after the first telegraph office in the Southern Hemisphere was opened in Melbourne in 1854 (Gerrand 2014), the line from Brisbane to Ipswich was operational, and was connected to NSW in November 1861 (Rea 1971; Figure 1). Heading northwards, the line from Brisbane was connected to Port Denison (Bowen) by 1867, and then Cardwell in June 1869. Another line extending from Cardwell to the Etheridge River was completed in October 1871, and a further extension to Burketown in the Gulf of Carpentaria was opened for traffic at the start of 1872. The telegraph line from Cooktown to Thursday Island, completed on 25 August 1887, gave coverage across the entire state (Rea 1971:217).

Figure 1 Erection of thef irst telegraph pole on Overland Telegraph Line Samuel Calvert (1828-1913) from NLA.

Of course, the purpose of the initial surveying and construction parties for the telegraph lines — who would have commenced work with a great flurry of activity, vigorously clearing trees and vegetation from a 40 m wide strip and then erecting regularly spaced poles in the new clearings, stringing wire and insulators between them, and then just as quickly moving on — would likely have been a complete mystery to Aboriginal people. It is entirely possible they came up with novel explanations for this new set of strange European behaviours and structures. One indication of this was an instance where Aboriginal people themselves constructed a replica line running alongside the actual line:

“There was, however, a singular and ludicrous discovery made by the line-repairer the other day between Georgetown and one of the stations towards the Gulf, being nothing less than a sort of opposition line, which the blacks had constructed in true orthodox style, running parallel with the real line, post for post, for a distance of a quarter of a mile.” (Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier, 16 October 1875, p19)

What the reasoning behind this construction by Aboriginal people was will likely never be known. Perhaps not understanding how the communication system worked, they thought the construction of a similar looking structure would confer some sort of benefit or advantage for them.

Regardless of how they initially made sense of the telegraph lines, as Europeans relentlessly persisted in building such lines across the state, Aboriginal people gained a clearer understanding of their purpose and responded accordingly:

“It appears that their first idea in thus destroying the line was to prevent it from bearing tidings of their ill-doings to the Native Police camps, they having been incautiously informed by some of the native troopers that it was intended for that purpose.” (Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 14 June 1870, p3).

The desertion of Aboriginal troopers from the NMP would likely have contributed to this understanding: as the account above indicates, troopers would have been familiar with this means of sending messages, and in some cases would have themselves been sent out to ‘punish’ Aboriginal people for destroying the line.

The various telegraph surveying and construction parties were themselves the focus of repeated attacks, with their equipment stolen, travel routes sabotaged, rations ransacked and horses speared. Many such reports were published in newspapers, such as the following example from the Cardwell area:

“… the overseer of the Government telegraph party … reported that three Government horses had been speared, and that two were dead at the camp, about sixteen miles out of town; and that the bridges over the creeks had been broken down for some distance along the road.” (Brisbane Courier, 28 November 1874, p6)

Even after the construction parties had left an area, the telegraph line repairers who replaced them were subject to attack, as were the telegraph station buildings (especially those on Cape York Peninsula which were built with gun turrets at opposing corners to repel attackers). One such line repairer in the north, a Mr Parish, was speared, though not fatally and it appears that he responded in kind:

“The Blacks.— We learn (says the Cooktown Herald) that the telegraph line-repairer, Mr. Parish, was speared by the blacks while engaged some two weeks ago inspecting the line between Palmerville and the Blacksoil. We are led to believe it would have fared much worse with Mr. Parish, but for the timely aid rendered by Mr. Devereux, the line-repairer at the Black-soil section of the telegraph line.” (Capricornian, 14 April 1877, p2).

While the telegraph lines were of vital importance as European communication networks, including for calling in the NMP to ‘disperse’ Aboriginal people after some ‘depredation’ [1] had occurred, they also developed considerable importance to Aboriginal people for an entirely different reason: like the many glass bottles that Europeans left littered around the landscape the telegraph lines were a valuable new source of raw materials.

The ceramic and/or glass telegraph insulators that were strung along the line are well known as having been a specific target of Aboriginal people, who found the thick ceramic excellent for the production of sharp flakes that served the same purpose as flaked stone or glass artefacts (Figure 2). Many flaked ceramic insulators have been reported from colonial period sites across the country (e.g. Walsh and Loy 2004) and, alongside flaked glass, are one of the most common types of artefacts associated with technological change in Aboriginal material culture post-European invasion. We know this was the case across Queensland after 1861 when the first line was established in the state:

“On Monday last a cask of insulators (wardens) disappeared; also, the iron of the wire barrow, together with Mr. Strickland’s pack saddle. On the following day the blacks also burned the cases of insulators.” (Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 28 September 1869, p2)

” A MESSENGER just arrived from the Telegraph Camp tells me … several insulators have been removed … ” (Queenslander, 25 February 1871, p11)

“Only last week, within 10 miles of the main telegraph station, the blacks cut the wires, and carried away some insulators and pegs. The troopers followed them to the head of the Batavia, and found the stolen property in their possession.” (Telegraph, 6 July 1889, p5)

Figure 2 A typical ceramic insulator (Museum of Applied Arts and Science).

Yet a closer assessment of the available evidence suggests that it was the telegraph wire, perhaps preferentially to the insulators, that was the main target of Aboriginal attention:

“Camp near Cardwell, October 1st … The blacks are very numerous there, and he [NMP officer William Armit] was dispersing them, as they had cut the telegraph wire, and stolen some of it.” (Telegraph, 17 October 1872, p3)

“The Blacks …  the removal of 229 yards of the telegraph wire from the poles at Battle Camp was the cause of the last interruption of communication on this line. ” (Capricornian, 14 April 1877, p2)

“COOKTOWN AND THE PALMER … The maintenance of telegraphic communication in this district will soon become very doubtful, if the blacks continue the present system of carrying away the wire. This week again an interruption occurred, and on the line repairer going out, he found fully two hundred yards missing, near the same spot where it was cut before.” (Rockhampton Bulletin, 16 March 1877, p2)

“For the fourth time in six months (says the Cooktown Herald) the telegraph wire has been severed near the Blacksoil by those accursed niggers, who have appropriated, we suppose, some hundreds of yards of wire … ” (Daily Northern Argus, 3 August 1877, p3)

“Cooktown, February 2 … A man patrolling the telegraph line, which was interrupted last Wednesday, found that it had been cut by the blacks at the foot of Normanby Range, and 80 yards of wire carried away.” (Telegraph 2 February 1878, p2)

“Between the hours of eight and nine on Tuesday evening last, and during a thunder storm, telegraphic communication was interrupted. Mr. Parish imputed the circumstance to the storm, but when on the following day the line repairer visited the locality of the break, it was discovered that the blacks had cut away eighty yards of wire …” (Capricornian, 18 January 1879, p14)

“NORMANTON, May 20.…Last week the blacks cut and carried off some 9½ chains of the telegraph wire between Normanton and Kimberley, and so stopped communication for a time. The line was cut in two places, about two miles apart.” (Queenslander, 6 June 1885, p895)

“The blacks have lately been very troublesome in the Gulf country, At Bertiehaugh Station they killed three bullocks, and stole two boats and a large quantity of telegraph wire.” (Morning Bulletin, 26 February 1889, p6).

The miles of strong wire strung between the poles could be used for multiple purposes, the most common of which appears to have been the manufacture of sharpened barbs attached to the tip of the spear (Figures 3 and 4):

“Last Wednesday’s Independent says:—”On Sunday while Mr. George Hawkins and his black boy were coming down the Normanby Gorge, about twelve miles from Oakey, they both dismounted and were leading their horses along the steep incline, the black nine yards in front, when two spears whished down from behind the rocks, one of which went clean through the boy. Hawkins quickly opened fire from his six-shooters and kept it up until they went out of the gorge, but it is not probable that he hit any of the wily and treacherous enemy. Hawkins broke off the spear, which was barbed with telegraph wire, and the boy was conveyed to the hospital, where he now lies.” (Cairns Post, 16 May 1888, p2)

“The poor blacks amused them-selves by spearing one of these [a bullock] on the Ducie, and stuck no less than twenty-five spears into him. Some of these skewers were from eight feet six inches to nine feet three inches in length, and artistically jagged with bits of iron or wire. ” (Morning Bulletin, 4 January 1887, p5)

“…a spear whizzed past Mr. Hawkins and entered the back of the left shoulder of the black boy, passing through the flesh about 9 inches, and protruding over the shoulder about 3 inches. The spear was. 9 feet long, and barbed with a piece of telegraph wire, and was only got out after considerable cutting and pulling … ” (Telegraph, 22 May 1888, p2).

“The blacks, have given considerable trouble, carrying away wire, insulators, pins, and plates, bending down the poles (iron), and generally trying to destroy the (Cape York) line. A large number were employed at this work between Musgrave and Coen last April. Our men from the latter place found a large camp, containing forty gunyahs, and in the camp, besides a number of tomahawks. &c. over a hundredweight of spear-heads formed out of telegraph wire were discovered, showing that the same mob had been guilty on former occasions of interfering with the line.” (Week, 14 April 1927, p48)

“The Telegraph line from the time of its construction has supplied the blacks with material for weapons of the most deadly kind – miles of wire in the immediate neighbourhood having been taken away and communications interrupted every wet season notwithstanding the presence of a detachment of trackers constantly on patrol.” (QSA289937 1891 Petition from the residents of Coen and vicinity to Colonial Secretary undated, Coen, Musgrave NP Camp file, Part 1).

Figure 3 Line drawing of a barb attached to a spear from Queensland collected by Protector of Aborigines Walter Roth (1909 Plate LVII).
Figure 4 Barbed spear heads from a spear collected at Mapoon in 1903 (Australian Museum collection E011771; image by Rebecca Fisher).

Alternatively, rather than being used as small barbs the wire could be sharpened to form the main point(s) of the spear (Figures 5, 6 and 7):

“Mr. Williams also showed us several spears and a variety of other articles, such as chalk, sinews of animals, native working tools, a penknife, a butcher’s knife—all of which were found in a blacks’ camp. Some of the spears are pointed with wire about the size of that used for fencing, one of the number having a sharp pointed piece about 4ft. long. ” (Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser, 18 June 1881, p6)

“…the following articles were found … Shark’s tooth, apparently from a native spear; And a piece of sharpened telegraph wire, about 4 inches in length.” (Extract from the diary of William P. A. Clarke, as published in Queensland Figaro, 23 February 1884, p11)

‘The telegraph line was cut near the Four Mile at a very early hour yesterday morning, and a considerable length of the wire carried off by the niggers. The damage was repaired during the afternoon.’ (Brisbane Courier, 12 March 1878, p3)

“The Blacks.— Our sable brethern [sic] have been at work again, and the telegraph line is down between the Laura and Palmerville. The dark gentlemen have taken a loan of about five hundred yards of wire, and will probably put it back when they have done with it …” (Daily Northern Argus, 31 January 1879, p2).

“…the blacks had cut and carried away about a mile of wire, sixteen miles to the south of Coen. A party was organised and went out in search of the marauders. Very early on the following morning they came on a large camp composed of more than forty mi-mis. The party destroyed the camp and found a large number of tomahawks and over 1cwt. of spear-heads made of telegraph wire.” (Brisbane Courier, 7 April 1887, p4)

Figure 5 Metal pronged spear from western Cape York Peninsula collected 1933 (Museum Victoria DT3968).
Figure 6 Detailed view of prongs on spear shown in Figure 6 (Museum Victoria DT3968).
Figure 7 A fishing spear with wire prongs (from Allen 2011-74, and also Allen and Akerman 2015-85)

Another demonstrated use of the wire was for the production of fish hooks, which until the easy availability of wire were commonly made of shell or bone:

“… they have discovered that they can convert the wire into fishhooks, many of which, manufactured in a very ingenious way, have lately been found in their possession. ” (Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 14 June 1870, p3)

“Communication has sometimes been interrupted by blacks cutting wire from the line. Numerous well-tempered fish-hooks manufactured from line wire, were found in their camps, together with several broke earth-plates stolen from iron poles in the vicinity of Normanton.” (Queensland Votes and Proceedings 1873, p1268)

“A Cardwell correspondent of a Sydney paper says … I have in my possession, at the time of writing, a native fish hook made from telegraph wire.” (Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser,  6 April 1871, p2)

And it wasn’t just the wire that Aboriginal people found new uses for. Although most poles were wood, the final 130 miles of the most western section of the Cardwell-Burketown telegraph line was built using iron poles 24 feet long because there weren’t suitable trees in the area (Rea 1971:213). Like the wire strung between the wooden posts elsewhere, the iron posts themselves were soon being re-purposed by Aboriginal people, this time into axes:

“… recently they removed an iron telegraph pole from the line, near Saltwater Creek, about 70 miles north of the Laura, and carried it away a distance of four miles. These poles they endeavour to transform into tomahawks.” (Week, 28 August 1886, p19)

“Here we flushed two niggers, who were busily engaged in digging up an iron telegraph pole, in order to gut the foot-plate to make tomahawks of.” (Queenslander, 28 June 1879, p812)

The European invasion of Australia resulted in massive, catastrophic upheaval and changes for Aboriginal peoples and their ways of life. But rather than being an ‘unchanging people in an unchanging land’, Aboriginal people were highly flexible, having already adapted to 60,000 years of changing environments and new arrivals from the north. In some ways the British invasion was just another in a long line of events that tested Aboriginal ingenuity and resilience. The erection of telegraphic communication networks across Australia provided opportunities for Aboriginal to respond in multiple ways. Attacks on those telegraph lines demonstrate two of those responses: a conscious choice to deliberately disrupt European communication services, and another to procure raw materials that could then be incorporated in innovative ways into their rich material culture.

[1] This is a phrase that was regularly used by Europeans of the time to describe Aboriginal attacks on people, livestock and property.


Allen, H. 2011 Thomson’s spears: innovation and change in eastern Arnhem Land projectile technology. In Y. Musharbash and M. Barber (eds), Ethnography and the Production of Anthropological Knowledge: Essays in Honour of Nicolas Peterson, pp.69–88. Canberra: ANU E Press.

Allen, H. and K. Akerman 2015 Innovation and change in northern Australian Aboriginal spear technologies: the case for reed spears. Archaeology in Oceania 50(Supplement):83-93.

Gerrand, P. 2014 160 years of Australian telecommunicationsAustralian Journal of Telecommunications and the Digital Economy 2(2), Article 43.

Moyal, A. and I. Jones 1984 Clear Across Australia: A History of Telecommunications. Melbourne: Nelson.

Rea, M.M. 1971 Communications across the generations: an Australian post office history of Queensland. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 9(2):168-226.

Roth, W.E. 1897 Ethnological Studies among the North-West-Central Queensland Aborigines. Brisbane: Government Printer.

Roth, W.E. 1909 Fighting Weapons. North Queensland Ethnography Bulletin 13. Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer.

Walshe, K. and T.H. Loy 2004 An adze manufactured from a telegraph insulator, Harvey’s Return, Kangaroo Island. Australian Archaeology 58:38-40.

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