Reading Archival Documents
The Native Police records assessed for this project are a mixture of mundane and extremely important documents, ranging from petty house-keeping details to powerful insights into the policing of Aboriginal people on the pre-separation frontier. Some are torn or damaged, which means they are frustratingly incomplete and unusable. Others simply show mathematical calculations without any evidence of their creators, or the date of their making.
Some documents on the other hand are very detailed, and provide us with a rich understanding of the daily lives for members of the Native Police. For example, W.C. Wentworth’s 1850 invoice to Commandant Walker (QSA item 86143) includes multiple purchases of tobacco, of different qualities, both rough ‘Negro Head’ (presumably for troopers) and better ‘Colonial’, probably for the officers. Tobacco was a form of currency on the frontier, as was alcohol.
The same document provides insight into the normal diet of Native Police, listing bags of flour, lots of beef, and sugar. Soap was the only luxury item.
Details of officers’ consumption of alcohol and cigars are listed in other documents (QSA item 86143). Supper was provided when members of the force stayed in town, along with fodder for their horses.
The 1854 invoice (QSA item 86143) from Martin Byrne, at Gatton’s ‘Rose Inn’, is particularly illuminating, showing that Walker purchased dinner, mutton and beef, flour, corn, tobacco, and a clay pipe for his men.
Other records (QSA item 86143) show clothing purchases, especially white and drill trousers. All men were given boots and shirts.
Equipment issued to the officers and troopers of the force is listed in one document (QSA item 86131), showing that each man was provided with a saddle, bridle and carbine. Some troopers were also issued with knives, combs, pistols and handcuffs, while all members of the force carried belts, blankets and capes.
The force’s mobility and success depended on their horses, and the purchase of horsefeed was mentioned in several records. One invoice (QSA item 86131) from North Brisbane saddler M. Wallace listed repairs to saddles and other riding equipment, and the sale of ‘one strong bridle’.
Another document (QSA item 86136) showed the transfer of officers’ salaries through an account at the North Brisbane branch of the Bank of New South Wales.
Most importantly, the files provide us with rare insights into the policing activities of the Native Police. One (QSA item 86144) is a warrant issued by the Government Resident at Moreton Bay (J.C. Wickham, J.P.) for the arrest in 1850 of an Aboriginal named “Papoolia”, ‘and any nine other native Blacks who can be identified’, wanted for robbery with violence.
An 1851 document (QSA item 86144) refers to the theft, one year earlier, of the Ipswich mail and the subsequent discovery ‘by the Blacks’ of ‘a very large parcel of orders’ near Ipswich. In 1853, timbercutter Hugh McGowan, gave a statement (QSA item 86144) about an Aboriginal attack on a hut at Pine Mountain near Ipswich.
Some records show that the Native Police did more than just fight Aboriginal resisters. Sub Lieutenant John O’Connor Bligh, who later became the Commandant of the Native Police, wrote to Acting Commandant Richard Marshall in 1854 (QSA item 86144), describing his capture of an escaped convict John Fahay “alias Kanbary” at Ubee Ubee (Obi Obi) Flats on the Upper Mary River.
In 1856, the Native Police were placed under the command of Government Resident J.C. Wickham, who wrote to all the officers in the force advising them of the change, and asking for ‘any suggestions you may consider calculated to increase the efficiency of the corps, and render effective protection to the inhabitants of the northern districts’ (QSA item 86134).