The New South Wales Native Police force was formed in 1848 after graziers met determined resistance on the Macintyre River, west of the Darling Downs. The perceived urgent need for a military option, and the apparent success of a previous Native Police Corps in the Port Phillip district, led Governor Charles FitzRoy to write to Colonial Secretary Edward Deas Thomson:
‘Circumstances having been recently brought to the Governor’s notice, in respect of certain collisions which have taken place, in parts beyond the Settled Districts, between the white inhabitants and the Aborigines, which appear to him to require that immediate steps should be taken for their repression, he transmits to the Council an Estimate for the formation of a small Corps of Native Police, to be employed on this service, amounting to £1000’ (NSW Legislative Council, Votes and Proceedings, 8 June 1848, p. 315).
This notice, titled ‘Native Police Beyond the Settled Districts’, was ‘ordered to be printed’ and duly published.
“Illegal” (or unregulated) violence by squatters was replaced by state-organised “policing”, but some settlers complained that the force was “inefficient” because they wanted even more drastic action. Crushing “resistance” was an urgent priority for many early colonisers.
The duties of the force were not clearly defined, and in October 1849, five months after the force’s arrival on the MacIntyre River (near present-day Goondiwindi), Commandant Frederick Walker wrote to Sydney requesting ‘instructions’. He was informed the Native Police would ‘escort carriers’ drays, visit Stations, assist settlers during floods, and build Barracks’. The ‘lamentable collisions between the settlers and the aboriginal natives which have invariably occurred when a new portion of this colony has been at first occupied’ were not mentioned in his orders.
In the beginning, the New South Wales force consisted of a Commandant, one white Sergeant and ten Aboriginal troopers, but Walker was granted four extra troopers so he could divide the force into two detachments. He soon asked for more. Native Police detachments operated as both regular patrol units, and as reactive shock-troops. Patrols usually took several weeks and involved circuits visiting the various pastoral stations.
Retribution after acts of Aboriginal resistance took as long as ammunition lasted or the resistance continued. Officers were ordered to patrol ‘disturbed districts’ when horses and strength allowed. The greatest constraints on patrols were the condition of horses, and the desertion and sickness of troopers. Worn out horses needed continual spelling and replacement but the government was always trying to reduce costs. Troopers sometimes deserted faster than they could be recruited.
After the first camp was built at Callandoon, other Native Police barracks were established in the Condamine, Burnett and Wide Bay and Maranoa districts, which allowed more areas to be patrolled. The closest Native Police camp to Brisbane, at Sandgate, was established in 1859. Barracks were often temporary structures, sometimes made from bark. Only a few buildings were erected or purchased for the officers of the force.
The force’s cost was a constant issue, and parliamentary debates over Estimates for the Native Police were widely published. In 1854 a proposed increase in trooper’s pay from 3d to 5d per day was rejected. By 1857, the annual cost of the Native Police in the Northern Districts was about £16,000. Policing expenditure was considerably greater than the funds allocated to Aboriginal people for blankets or food.
By the mid-1850s, detachments were patrolling throughout the Port Curtis and Fitzroy districts as well as the Maranoa and Mary rivers, which meant detachments had covered over 300,000 square kilometres. In 1856, some divisions had ‘no fixed substations, but patrolled as required’. Determining patrol routes is therefore an important part of tracking the movements and the actions of Native Police detachments.
Walker’s dismissal in 1854 followed a number of complaints about his leadership by Burnett River squatters and some of his own officers. The chain of command from the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales through the colony’s Inspector-General of Police to the Commandant of the Native Police lasted until 1 December 1856, when J. C. Wickham, the Government Resident at Moreton Bay, was placed in control of the Native Police in the Northern Districts.