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Indigenous Law Resources
Reconciliation and Social Justice Library

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10.5.18 Aboriginal police and police trackers played important roles during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people assume that they must have been traitors. It was true that a divide and rule strategy was often effectively used by imperial powers, and clan rivalries were exploited by colonial police. However, frontier struggles were not polarised solely according to one's place as coloniser or colonised. Aboriginal Australia was not one 'nation'; it was many. And like all societies, it was not static. Aboriginal contributions to policing can be seen as adaptation and cooperation to changed historical circumstances.

10.5.19 The first experiments with 'native police' forces commenced in Victoria in 1837, with subsequent forces set up in 1839 and 1842. Paramilitary in character, the prestigious Port Phillip Native Police Corps were proudly uniformed and mounted on good horses. As well as providing a deterrent to Aboriginal attacks on pastoral properties, they played a wider policing role, capturing non-Aboriginal offenders, and later policing the diggings and escorting gold into Melbourne. Their story was one of cooperation with Europeans; leading Aboriginal men applied for recruitment and then actively pursued their position to their own advantage. They refused to capture kinsmen by claiming inability to track them, while eagerly pursuing someone from an 'enemy' group. It seems they were also involved in some murders of other Aboriginal people.

10.5.20 New South Wales and Queensland native police had a well-deserved reputation for violence. The Queensland force was called in specifically to dispense 'justice' towards Aboriginal people. They were ordered to 'disperse' any large numbers of Aboriginal people and, in the words of a contemporary senior police office, the term meant 'nothing but firing at them'. 39 This made Aboriginal meetings and ceremonies impossible. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal people were often employed as police trackers, though frequently on a casual basis. They were sometimes engaged by police after spending a time in gaol. They were offered shorter sentences for agreeing to work. Sometimes they took the opportunity of being armed (firearms were otherwise prohibited for Aboriginal people) to carry out attacks against enemies. In some cases where they took the blame for shootings, it seems they served as scapegoats for over-zealous non-Aboriginal police.

10.5.21 Members of the native police forces were all male. Many Aboriginal men and some women worked as police trackers. Their bush expertise was used to assist in police hunts on a casual basis, while others worked for longer stints, with duties such as doing the rounds, grooming horses, and offering general assistance. Often they were only paid a few shillings a week, with rations supplied to their families. Aboriginal trackers were immortalised in Aboriginal oral histories and in fictional works such a Ion Idriess' Mantracks and in the detective series of Arthur Upfield's Boney. Henry Reynolds' With the White People depicts their important role in Australian history. 40

10.5.22 Aboriginal communities gradually came to use the police, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, as an outside authority structure which could be employed for internal policing purposes. Trouble-makers could be sent away, sympathetic kin could protect someone due for a tribal punishment or likely to do something 'dangerous' to others. Sometimes gaol was used to discipline or calm someone down. Aboriginal law enforcement structures were not as strong as they once were owing to forced migration, illness, alcohol, unemployment, and the intrusive power of Western culture. Western control mechanisms could thus be easily used by Aboriginal people to meet their own agendas--though this strategy proved problematic, for they often encountered people who did not understand their language, actions or intentions.

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