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Defending Victoria


HMCSS VICTORIA, 1861--1864


From the earliest days of European settlement in the Port Phillip District of New South Wales (now Victoria), Aboriginal people were employed in 1838 as trackers on the Revenue Cutter Ranger and as a cavalry-style unit, the Native Police Corps (1837-1853). During the early 1860s, Thomas Bungalene served in the war steamer HMCSS Victoria, during the epic mission to the Gulf of Carpentaria to rescue lost explorers Burke and Wills, and up to 1864 when the ship began to be involved in Marine Surveys of the coasts of Victoria. It is possible and even likely that others may have served in the colonial volunteer forces . . .


A Native Police Corps was established at Port Phillip in September 1837, with a South African, Christian De Villiers as Officer in Charge. Allegations of misconduct led to his resignation in December. His place was taken temporarily by missionary George Langhorne, perhaps the first and only time such a unit was 'commanded' by a missionary. The unsuitability of this arrangement led to the reappointment of De Villiers in September 1838. Further complaints against him, principally by a local publican, led to his second and final resignation in January 1839.

The force was re-established in October 1839, this time under the direction of the newly formed Aboriginal Protectorate Department. Three of the Assistant Protectors of Aborigines were allocated five Native Police each. One, Pinter-giller, was appointed as a sergeant. The men were issued with muskets. This second attempt to form a Native Police Corps again failed.

The third attempt began in 1842 under Captain H. E. P. Dana, lasting only a short while after his death (from pneumonia) in 1852. The Corps was equipped and drilled as a cavalry unit.

Black trooper (mounted) of the Native Police Corps 1851 Another sketch by William Strutt
Black troopers of the Port Phillip (later Victorian) Native Police Corps
in 1851. From sketches by William Strutt. Reproduced here with
permission from the Victorian Parliamentary Library. The uniform
was a smart drab green with red stripes and oppossum facings.

A recommendation against ever forming Aboriginal Police had been made by a British House of Commons Select Committee in 1837. The likelihood was for them to repay old tribal scores. Certainly, at Port Phillip (Victoria by 1851), many Aboriginal people were killed by the Native Police especially in the Western District and in Gippsland. Several reports of pitched battles between Aboriginal warriors and the Native Police exist. Later, as Aboriginal resistance to European settlement diminished, the Corps was used to guard goldfields, hunt bushrangers and parade on ceremonial occasions.

Some European Officers and NCOs were reputed to be heavy drinkers and, worse, to sometimes drink with the men. Several of the Aboriginal troopers were 'unreclaimable drunkards' by the time they left, writes historian Michael Christie. A scandal occurred in 1851 when a European sergeant named Walsh shot and wounded Subaltern William Dana (brother of the Commandant) in a fit of jealousy when Dana helped Walsh's wife dismount from her horse.

For the most part, the Native Police Corps had its headquarters at Narre Warren and Dandenong. When disbanded, some of the Aboriginal native police were absorbed as trackers into the Victoria Police.

A Mounted Police and a Border Police also existed. The Border Police were expected to live off the land. As with the Native Police Corps, both these units were also involved in actions against Aboriginal war parties and others.


Christie, M. F. Aborigines in Colonial Victoria 1835-1886, Sydney University Press, 1979.

Deverall, Myrna and Ian MacFarlane:
My Heart Is Breaking: A Joint Guide to Records about Aboriginal People in the Public Record Office of Victoria and the Australian Archives, Victorian Regional Office: 1993: in three editions: 206pp, ISBN 0 644 32498 8.

Fels, Marie H. : Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853: Melbourne Universiry Press: 1988.

Historical Records of Victoria, Volumes 2A and 2B, Chapters 9 & 18, Victorian Government Printer, 1982 & 1983.

Monie, Joanna: Victorian History and Politics, Vol 2, La Trobe University: 1982.


about the Victorian Native Police Corps
Public Record Office (Victoria): VPRS 90: Day Book of the Native Police Corps: 1845-1853: A journal of the activities of the force including daily occurrences, duties, drills, names of troopers and their horses, and occasional mention of hard-drinking habits of the European NCOs and Officers.
PROV: VPRS 4466: Native Police - Unregistered papers. One such letter (dated 17.3.1849) describes the plight of a small party of Native Police guarding the Daisy Hills goldfield -- two years before the official discovery of gold. Their leader, a European sergeant, wrote that he was 'half-naked' and his men were 'much in need of blankets'.

Port Phillip Aboriginal trackers in the 1840s

With their high reputation as trackers, the Native Police were usually called in when white children lost themselves in the bush-or, worse still, were thought to have been abducted by "cannibal blacks".

In July 1842 Mrs Nathaniel Simpson, wife of the ploughman at Narre Warren Aboriginal Station, took her two small children for a walk and became lost in the bush for nine days. The Native Police immediately turned out, and despite heavy rain, tracked them to the nearby hills. They arrived just after James Dobie, the pioneer of Monbulk, found mother and children alive, although almost comatose from exhaustion.

In April 1846 the five-year-old son of squatter James Willoughby was allegedly taken away by Mornington Peninsula blacks near Arthur's Seat. The body was later found near a native camp-fire, but showed no marks of violence. Protector Thomas believed the boy had died of starvation, and strenuously defended native constable Nunuptune against rumours that he was implicated in a kidnapping.

Later in 1846 a child of T. M. Atkinson, pound-keeper at South Yarra, wandered from home. Native Police and Protector Thomas spent thirty-five days on horseback and twenty days on foot searching for the child, apparently without success.

At the end of December 1847, Mrs Ellen Riley, wife of a stockholder at Dandenong, temporarily left her three children with Mr and Mrs John Jones on a neighbouring property. The youngest child, Catherine Riley, just over two years old, wandered away from the homestead. She was missed within a few minutes. Searching began immediately, but without success. Even Henry Dana and his black troopers could not trace her.

Eventually, after five weeks, the child's remains were found on open ground under a tree, on a neighbour's property only a mile or so away. No explanation of this strange circumstance could be produced at the inquest.

In January 1849 the young son of rate collector James Ballingall disappeared. The Native Police were again called in. They searched closely at Brighton, where many blacks had camped, but eventually the boy was found drowned in the Yarra.

SOURCE: Cannon, Michael: Who Killed the Koories: William Heinemann Australia: Melbourne: 1990: pp. 110-1.

Visit the PROV Site   (Public Record Office Victoria)

Forgotten Heroes

Three Victorian Aboriginal men were killed on the same day--9 August 1918--and are buried close together at the military cemetery at Harbonnieres in Northern France.

Two of them, Pte. Reg Rawlings and Cpl. Henry Thorpe had distinguished themselves in earlier fighting. Both men were awarded the Military Medal.

The third soldier to be killed was L/Cpl. John Firebrace. Six days later, his brother Pte. William Firebrace was also killed nearby.
Victorian Aboriginal people made similar sacrifices in World War II, and fought in Korea and Vietnam.

A good source:
Jackomos, Alick & Fowell, Derek: Forgotten Heroes: Aborigines at War from the Somme to Vietnam: Victoria Press: published by the Law Printer, Victoria: 1993.


WW2 Aboriginal Soldiers from Lake Tyers
Aboriginal Settlement, East Gippsland.
Photo in the Koorie Heritage Trust Collection
     You can visit the Koorie Heritage Trust website by clicking here (external site).
Arrow    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family heritage--AIATSIS (free call 1800-730-129).


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Books about Aboriginal people and War

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