Return to:  Chapter 1, 1826

"The involvement of the mounted police in the displacement of the Aborigines ..."

[Picture source: O'Sullivan J, Mounted police in N.S.W., Rigby (1973)

" ... As for the great majority of Aborigines, they saw no reason why they should abandon their own country, or, for that matter, why they should refrain from dining on the four-legged creatures that were driving the kangaroo and goanna from the land. Naturally the owners of the cattle and sheep, who were only in the benighted bush for the purpose of making money and that quickly, were infuriated by the Aborigines' propensity for their stock. The squatter was especially infuriated at the Aboriginal habit of killing a beast for a single mouthful or for the kidney fat. Mutual recriminations issued in bloodshed, the police soon found themselves involved in the conflict between squatter and Aboriginal.

The involvement of the mounted police in the displacement of the Aborigines is, of course, one of the main recurring themes in the history of Australian mounted police forces. It necessarily brought the police into questionable episodes; this is so even in the best conducted forces. In some, such as in the Queensland native police, there would be outright massacre. However, in all cases it is probably true to say that the intervention of the police had the effect of reducing the number of Aborigines who would otherwise have been killed, for the squatters and their men, in the main, were more immediate and unrestrained in their reactions to Aborigines. The Australian police had to perform the tasks that in the United States, for example, were performed by the army. This could account in part for Australian attitudes to police today for it meant that the Australian police were inevitably involved in actions that departed widely from the standards of legality observed, for example, by police in England. At the same time, it would be hypocritical in the extreme for a community that has complacently accepted the Aborigines' country to affect to see the forces that presided over much of the dispossession as being in some way the special villains of the story.

Obviously the police have to be judged by the standards of their own times. It would be absurd to expect the soldiers of the mounted police, for example, to deal particularly gently with the Aboriginal when his own life was often brutal with its floggings and appallingly high mortality rates and when his betters usually regarded the Aboriginal as little higher than the kangaroo. The police were, in the main, the products of their environment as are the people who are so ready these days to criticise the pioneers over their treatment of the Aboriginal.

Inevitably the police incurred criticism over some aspects of their handling of the Aborigines. For example, four Aborigines were captured on the farm of a James Glennie at Fal Brook. To get one of these the police had to fell a tree. Another of the four was one, Cato, who had long been sought for various depredations. Cato refused to cross a brook and it took the flats of the police swords and four of the police half an hour to get him across. Cato was never seen again. Glennie heard a shot not long after the police and their prisoners crossed the brook. The other three Aborigines were released. Another prisoner who was shot while attempting to escape had been impressed as a guide to lead the police to the scene of the murder of some fencers. The sight of blood splashed about made the black nervous and, according to a settler with the police, he made a run for it. Later some workmen tied his body in a tree as a warning to the Aborigines.

The police were not without some justification in shooting at escapees and they would have done the same with white men. In the case of the Aboriginal there was, if anything, even greater justification, for the idea of confinement was totally unknown to him. Once taken the wild black would often struggle to escape with a determination going far beyond that of the European. His bodily agility made him hard to hold and he rarely adopted the fatalistic attitude of the European in the face of great odds. Of course, once off into the bush he almost certainly would get away. Should a prisoner escape the police responsible were liable to military punishment.

Sergeant Lewis and Privates Castles and Lee were in trouble in August 1826 for shooting their prisoners. Three of their prisoners bit through the cords binding them and had to be shot. The police had other prisoners to guard, and in any case they would have been unable to follow the blacks into the scrub.

However some shooting of Aborigines lacked even that degree of justification. In 1826 the military police in the Hunter Valley unwittingly played a part in the slow process of assimilating the Aborigines to the white man's laws. This came about through the trial of one of the force's officers for murder.

In 1826, a civilian constable, Thomas Farnham, who had come out as a convict, was escorting an Aboriginal malefactor, Jacky-Jacky, to prison after a settler, Dr Little, had apprehended the Aboriginal for the murder of a stockman. The constable was heading for Newcastle with his prisoner, but at day's end they had got only as far as Wallis Plains. This was a convenient place at which to stay the night as a detachment of the 40th Regiment was stationed there as also was a section of the mounted police under Lieutenant Lowe, an active officer. With an easy mind Farnham gave his handcuffed prisoner into the charge of the military, saw him secured to a post near the fireplace in one of the huts, and then went to obtain lodgings for himself.

Next morning Farnham was ordered to Newcastle with despatches and before setting off he went to check on his prisoner. To his surprise he saw soldiers leading his prisoner to Government House, as the headquarters was called. He followed, and as he was later to swear, he heard Lieutenant Lowe order the soldiers to take Jacky-Jacky into the bush and shoot him. Four soldiers took the Aboriginal about half a kilometre into the bush and stood him against a tree. Farnham followed them though he was not able to intervene to any purpose. Three of the soldiers shot the Aboriginal and then the fourth went up to the body lying beside the tree and emptied the contents of his musket into the body.

In the face of pressure from numerous sources Farnham did his best to bring the shooting to the attention of the authorities, and the matter was finally taken up by the Sydney newspapers. This in turn led to the government sending a legal official to try to get at the truth, a difficult enough task in the face of the hostility of a large proportion of the settlers of the Hunter. 

So far as Lowe was concerned the abstract ruling had no effect, for he was acquitted to the cheers of his friends in court. It was not difficult in those days to discredit witnesses. Not only Farnham but two other witnesses to the shooting and burial of Jacky-Jacky had to admit they were former convicts. A number of free settlers were then called to give the prosecution witness the worst possible character and Lowe walked out of court.

How popular the decision was that Aborigines were protected by the courts may be gauged by the fact that during the debate preceding the trial of Lowe, the newspaper, the Australian, urged a policy of extermination against the blacks."

[Source: O'Sullivan J, Mounted Police in N.S.W., Rigby (1973) (