Policing the Outback

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Policing the Outback Empty Policing the Outback

Post by phildidge on Sun Mar 31, 2019 1:21 pm

The Native Police was one of the most deadly death squads in Australian history, considered by some historians to be the single biggest killer of Aboriginal people in the colony during the late 19th century. The consequences are still playing out today.

News travelled slowly in colonial Queensland, despite the best efforts of the bush telegraph: gossip passed in whispers along mail routes and cattle droves and between overlapping station hands, ferrying rumour and supposition up and down the frontier. Daily papers rarely reached the outback. If you were lucky the mail came once a week. This meant that for much of the 19th century the Queenslander weekly journal, first published in 1866 in the colony’s capital Brisbane, provided a valuable summary of goings-on, by way of a digest of newspaper articles printed over the past seven days.

Many of the Queenslander editions have now been digitised by the National Library of Australia, and are there for us to peruse. It is a fascinating resource. Here, for example, is a piece originally from the Northern Argus (Queenslander, 13 February 1875), lamenting the resignation of a police officer. The article unwittingly reveals not only the brutality of one of the most deadly death squads in Australian history, but also the attitude of apathy and cover-up that allowed such a force to thrive:
We understand that Inspector Wheeler has resigned his position as Inspector of Native Police at Marlborough … Inspector Wheeler is one of the oldest officers in the force, and we are informed that in a very short time he would have been entitled to a retiring pension. Few probably know the full extent of the onerous duties devolving upon an inspector of native police, or the fatigue and hardships which he is sometimes called upon to undergo. In our own neighbourhood, at one time, the blacks used to spear cattle, and do all sorts of mischief; but Inspector Wheeler, with his little band of black boys at his heels, inspired the aborigines with such a wholesome dread, that it was only necessary, when on any of their marauding expeditions, to say [his name] and they would go yelling pell-mell into the bush. Times have changed for the better in this part of Queensland; and let us hope that Inspector Wheeler may long enjoy, in his retirement, the peace and quiet which he has so well earned.

Beneath the jocular tone and apologetic subtext, the reality of colonial policing is chillingly exposed. The Native Police operated from Queensland’s formation in 1859 until the early years of the 20th century. It is considered by some historians to be the single biggest killer of Aboriginal people in the colony at that time. Frederick Wheeler was one of its most infamous officers. While there is no mention of the circumstances surrounding his resignation, or of the various warnings and reprimands issued to him over the years, less than a year later Wheeler was reinstated, only to be soon charged with murder after beating a young Aboriginal man to death. He absconded before trial, disappeared, then turned up dead in Java six years later, meaning he was never held accountable for his crimes, but his legacy is clear. Such was Wheeler’s arrogance that before an earlier Parliamentary Inquiry into the practices of the Native Police, he brazenly explained that there was only one order to which he adhered, namely to ‘disperse all assemblages of the blacks’. And what did disperse mean in this context? ‘Firing at them,’ he said.

Policing the Outback 02_Police
Native Police, Rockhampton, 1864

Wheeler might have been one of the most infamous Native Police officers but he was certainly not unique. This was a job that attracted a particular type of man. Patrolling a hostile frontier hundreds of miles west of the established colony (the coastal cities and smaller settlements along the dividing range) with scant supplies and in punishing heat, they each led a small platoon of Aboriginal troopers, often recruited from far away. The Native Police were charged with protecting the lives and livelihoods of white settlers and with ‘dispersing’ (that word again) Aboriginal people as and when they saw fit. Free from proper oversight and the standards expected on the coast, they roamed the remote reaches of the colony on horseback and policed it in a manner of their own choosing. An editorial in the Queenslander wrote, on 22 December 1877, that ‘The black police should, in our opinion, be used both to protect and punish the aborigines. At present it does neither; it attempts, with more or less success, to terrify or exterminate them.’


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