Queensland Frontier Wars

An essay by historian Dr Jonathan Richards on frontier violence in Queensland, as documented in the records at Queensland State Archives.

detail: QSA ITM103525. Letters received – Surveyor General’s Department, letter no. 1860/725

Histories of violence

Our nation’s longest war occurred during Australia’s colonial and post-colonial periods. State-sanctioned racially-based violence – an issue that many Australians are either ignorant of, or deny occurred – was often carried out by uniformed mass-murderers. This was an integral part of the nation’s creation history. The violence is distressing and confronting.

The truth of our national history stands at complete odds with popular imaginings of Australia as a peaceful continent that has never experienced war. Media, politicians and many citizens deny that a brutal genocide – based on race and colour – ever occurred in the past, and continues to this day. Wars only “happened in other places”, or when “others” attempted to invade Australia. The long and violent British conquest of the southern continent was not, according to this logic, a “war”.

In truth, so-called “collisions” of European invaders and Indigenous resistors occurred throughout the continent, and across the adjacent waters and islands. Disease, starvation and introduced addictive substances (alcohol, sugar, tobacco and other drugs) killed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Dislocation and destruction of Indigenous communities and families began with the First Fleet and continues today.

Settler-colonists formulated specific operational responses to Indigenous resistance. These included denial of their existence (“terra nullius”), the dehumanising of First Nations people (“primitive savages”) and the forced clearance of the landscape (“exterminate the blacks”).  Non-government agents (the employees of early graziers and pastoralists), who often formed spontaneous “posses” or killing squads, did much of the secret killing on the frontier. The number of violent deaths during these “unofficial” events remain unknown.

Two important points need stressing. Firstly, colonisation is a long continuing nightmare, but many non-Indigenous people have little or no idea about the terror inflicted on First Nations people in Australia. Secondly, this fractured history continues through multi-generational trauma and ongoing community disruption.

Our country is not unique in this regard. Similar tragedies occurred in other parts of the British empire, and around the world in other European empires. The dislocation, dispossession, dehumanisation and removal of Indigenous peoples by Westerners has been, and continues to be, a “standard practice” around the world. Any attempt to deny these two crucial aspects of imperialism and colonisation begins with a fundamental misunderstanding of history.

Colonisation is built on historical linkages between capitalism, empire-building, and the Western (or Western European) ideology of materialism. Settler-capitalism depends on the constant expansion of control over ‘underdeveloped’ regions. Slavery, claimed to be ‘right’ and ‘proper’ under prevailing religious and ideological beliefs, was accepted and promoted by politicians, preachers and the press. Many Westerners saw dark-coloured races as incapable of ‘civilisation’ and ‘redemption’. Most members of the white races believed it was their “duty” to ‘take on the burden’ of developing the world.

The hunt for resources such as land, water, minerals and timber underpinned the entire colonial project. Therefore, Indigenous peoples around the world became obstacles to the “progress” and “industry” of the ‘white race’. Western notions of civilisation and justice are key factors in the self-justification of territorial rapaciousness and settler-colonial capitalism. Our official records graphically reflect this intention and achievement.

Queensland history

The primary instrument of government policy towards Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people in Queensland from 1860 up to about 1900 was the Native Police. This  force (sometimes called the ‘Native Mounted Police’) consisted of armed and mounted Aboriginal soldier-police commanded by European officers. The sole purpose of this formation was the violent elimination – often called “dispersal” – of any Indigenous resistance to settler occupation. Units such as the Native Police existed in many colonies.

This essay discusses the written records of this brutal period, and the government agencies and policies that underlay the creation of these archival documents. This includes the files held in this state’s most important repository of paper records, the Queensland State Archives. The records were created by one side of the country’s First Wars – the invaders – and not by the other – Australia’s First Nations. As noted, many unrecorded deaths also occurred.

Our knowledge of frontier violence – the First Wars involving Australians – in Queensland has developed over the last four decades. It began with Henry Reynolds’ and Raymond Evans’ ground-breaking work during the 1970s, followed in the 1980s by Noel Loos’ early survey of frontier violence records. Further research has added to these important contributions. Once, descendants of the British invaders and the European migrants (who flocked to Australia seeking a better life) did the research. Now we have a much richer understanding of the past as Indigenous historians have contributed their perspectives on frontier experiences, which they call “The Killing Times”.

Recent work on archival records has greatly helped our understanding of policies and practices during this period. Digital platforms such as Trove and other newspaper archives give us access to more historical documents. We can now begin to estimate how many colonial records have survived floods, fires, disposal and theft. Governments tried to ensure that the public learned as little as possible about the racial violence occurring in secret, in their name. We know that some white people stole records, or successfully requested their closure to “protect” the reputations of their families.

The surviving records allow us to begin a discussion on Queensland’s true past. We can start to see how the First Wars have inflicted massive inter-generational trauma on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Race-based violence underpins the creation and maintenance of the Australian state, and reverberates down through the generations to the present-day. A careful examination of the records held in the Queensland State Archives can greatly help us in this regard.

The documents that illustrate this bloody history include the official Despatches between successive Governors of the colony and the seat of imperial power in Great Britain, and the correspondence files of the colony’s senior public officer (the Colonial Secretary, later the Chief Secretary and Premier). Records created by the Commissioner of Police are important, as are the files of the Department of Justice, the Colonial Treasury, and the Lands, Mines and Works Departments.

Conflict before 1850

Between 1790 and 1860, the northeast quarter of the Australian continent was part of Britain’s original super-colony in the southern continent, New South Wales. Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) was the second colony and the base for the beachhead of Port Phillip (Melbourne, later Victoria). Settler-colonialism expanded north and west from Sydney, particularly after the European invaders reached the open plains west of the Great Dividing Range. Communication, horses, wheeled vehicles and firearms gave the British colonisers immense logistical and tactical advantages over Indigenous people. Land-hunters, searching for pastoral rewards, pushed out from the “settled districts” controlled by government. They reached inland parts of what would become Queensland during the 1830s and 1840s.

There was sustained and successful Aboriginal resistance in what was then the Northern Districts of New South Wales, particularly on the Condamine and McIntyre rivers. In 1848, the New South Wales government created a northern Native Police Corps, modelled on a similar body already in action throughout the Port Phillip (Victoria) districts. The northern Native Police accompanied the leading wave of graziers and pastoralists throughout southern and central Queensland. As the British expansion continued north and west, Native Police units led the way. Each detachment consisted of six or eight Aboriginal Troopers led by one European officer.

Some records of the (New South Wales) Native Police between 1848 and 1859 have survived, and a number are currently held in the Queensland State Archives. Other documents are held in the New South Wales State Archives. Documents about the attack at Hornet Bank station, in the Dawson River district, have survived. The deaths of twenty Europeans and hundreds of Aboriginal people occurred there in 1857.

Separation, 1859

Queensland’s Separation from New South Wales in 1859 meant the transfer of all government agencies to the new colony, including policing. Authorities in London were well-informed of “progress” on the frontier. In 1860, Queensland’s first Governor, Sir George Bowen, wrote to England, advising that he had organised a local constabulary. This included, he said, ‘the Native Mounted Police, a corps of 100 black troopers stationed in detachments in the remote pastoral districts of the interior, for the protection of the outlying settlers from the attacks of the aborigines’ (QSA ID ITM3681991). He hoped to extend the force to ‘those inland districts, where the settlers are still exposed to danger from the native tribes, which are far more numerous and more formidable in Queensland than in any other portion of Australia’ (QSA ID ITM3681991).

A Parliamentary Committee took evidence in May 1861 on the ‘working of the Native Police’. The resulting report, which criticised some officers for allowing the ‘indiscriminate slaughter’ of Aboriginal people, concluded that ‘the Natives … are addicted to cannibalism … and are sunk in the lowest depths of barbarism’ (Queensland Parliamentary Votes & Proceedings, 1861). This attitude persevered for decades.

Hopes for peaceful relations between British and Aboriginal people virtually ended after an attack in late 1861 at Cullin-la-Ringo station, in Central Queensland, resulting in the deaths of nineteen colonists. Native Police and private reprisal squads quickly killed hundreds of Aboriginal people throughout the region. The Colonial Secretary thanked local pastoralists for ‘so promptly coming forward to avenge the killed’, and informed residents that the government would use ‘every effort to protect life and property’ (QSA ID ITM3682008 and ITM3690309).

Governor Bowen told authorities in London that ‘an uncontrollable desire for vengeance took possession of every heart’ (QSA ID ITM3682012). Aboriginal people sought refuge in towns, hoping that the proximity of other settlers might reduce retaliation by the Native Police and graziers. The graphic history of Indigenous dislocation in Queensland can be traced through records of episodes such as this.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies wrote from Britain to Governor Bowen in 1862: ‘The first lesson of importance which a savage ought to learn from a civilized Government is the difference between discriminating justice and indiscriminate vengeance. I do not know why the Australians should be incapable of learning this lesson and I hope the Government of Queensland is not incapable of teaching it’ (QSA ID ITM3682019).  

detail: QSA ITM3682019. Despatch from Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Governor, letter no. 1862/7,  p.1

There is no record of Governor Bowen and the Queensland government responding to this question. Instead, he reported in glowing terms on ‘the wave of pastoral settlement’ that had spread northwards; ‘during the short space of eighteen months, our pastoral settlers have practically added to the British Empire and pushed on the margin of Christianity and civilisation over a territory as extensive as Great Britain itself’ (QSA ID ITM3682026).  

Governor Bowen wrote to London in mid-1863, describing Aboriginal people as ‘cannibals’, who ‘have no hereditary chiefs or settled form of Government, and no religious rites’ (QSA ID ITM3682026). His ignorance of Indigenous culture was no great impediment, in his eyes, to any possibility of better understanding or negotiation. By the mid-1860s, settler-colonial encroachment extended from Queensland’s southern districts to the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, in the colony’s northwest, and along the eastern coast, north to the tip of Cape York Peninsula.

Queensland’s first Commissioner of Police, 1863

In October 1863, the Queensland Parliament passed the colony’s Police Act. David Seymour, the first Commissioner of Police, would supervise the Native Police. The Commissioner could recommend, but the Colonial Secretary, the Governor and the Executive Council appointed and dismissed officers. Detailed Regulations controlling the Native Police were proclaimed in 1866 (Queensland Government Gazette, 1866, Vol. 7, No. 28:258-61).

Governor Bowen wrote to his superiors soon after: ‘the Queensland Parliament legalized its existence for the first time’ and ‘these Regulations were carefully revised by the Attorney General’ (QSA ID ITM3682041). Officers knew if they could ‘prove that a felony has been committed’, and had ‘reasonable cause to suspect an individual’, they were ‘justified in apprehending him, and using force if resisted’. Caution was necessary as ‘blacks are so much alike’. According to Bowen, ‘in every case the same law applies to Blacks as to Whites, and if the Officers go beyond the law they do so at their own risk’ (QSA ID ITM3682041). There is little evidence of the law being enforced.

The town or ‘ordinary’ police, also had frequent involvement with Indigenous people. They dealt with Aboriginal people who sought refuge in villages and towns from the Native Police and the private revenge gangs. In 1871, a constable killed an Aboriginal man, at Tiaro near Maryborough. ‘It was’, he said, ‘absolutely necessary … that firearms or some other deadly weapon should be used’ (QSA ID ITM2722206). Others were killed while resisting arrest, or while trying to escape. One grazier said the ‘shooting of a blackfellow’ was ‘a good riddance’ (QSA ID ITM2725339). Native Police officers also killed ‘runaway’ Aboriginal troopers who deserted in greater numbers than new recruits joined the force.

detail: QSA ITM3699921. Letter from the Colonial Secretary’s Office to the Commandant of the Native Police Rockhampton. Extract from Letterbooks – Colonial Secretary’s Office, letter no. 1863/423,  p.258

The first Native Police officer accused of the murder of an Aboriginal man, and dismissed from the force in 1863, was Lieutenant J. Donald Harris. The Executive Council decided ‘the act was barbarous, and showed extreme neglect of duty’ (QSA ID ITM2720467, ITM3682029, ITM3690310 and ITM3699921). They dismissed another officer, Acting Sub Inspector Myrtil Aubin, after his detachment killed a number of Aboriginal people near Rockhampton. His superior officers decided it ‘was clearly Mr. Aubin’s duty to disperse that mob of Blacks and it is very much to be regretted that they did not do so quietly’ (QSA ID ITM3682581, ITM3690311, ITM3690312 and ITM3690313).

There were many other violent episodes during the 1860s. In 1864, for example, the son of a New South Wales judge died in western Queensland, and there was no Native Police detachment in the district. Station-workers took ‘measures thought best’ and killed an unknown number of Aboriginal people at Thouringowa station on the Bulloo River in retaliation (Queensland historical manuscripts, 1822-1930; MS 3460, Sir John Ferguson Collection, NLA). First-hand accounts of frontier reprisals, such as this, are very rare. One often-quoted episode  occurred at the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1868, but the full details were never recorded (QSA ID ITM3682584 and The Queenslander, 13/6/1868:4 & 7).

Aboriginal Commissioners

Not all settler-colonists advocated violence, but the loudest critics of the Native Police were those wanted the force to be more “efficient” in ‘exterminating’ Indigenous people. Others called for the killing to stop. Humanitarians in urban centres increased their condemnation of the violence at the margins of settler society. The shipwreck of the “Maria” in early 1872 resulted in the deaths of about fourteen European men. Widescale retaliations by Native Police troopers, Royal Navy sailors and civilian ‘volunteers’ in the Cardwell district caused the deaths of hundreds of Aboriginal people.

At first, the Queensland government rejected calls for a Royal Commission into the treatment of Aboriginal people (QSA ID ITM3690318). In June 1872, politician Arthur Palmer stated that claims of ‘extermination’ were ‘an atrocious libel’. ‘The Government’, he said, ‘never followed a policy of extermination in dealing with the blacks. Their policy had been one of repression’ (Brisbane Courier, 19/6/1872:2). Then, in late 1873, after sustained criticism, the government appointed a Royal Commission ‘to enquire into and report upon the condition of the aborigines throughout the colony, with a view to the amelioration of the race and the utilization of their labor’ (Telegraph, 20/10/1873:2).

The “Maria” reprisals prompted Charles Heydon and Andrew McDougall to write to the newspapers in early 1874. Heydon described the situation of Aboriginal people in Queensland as far worse than the South Sea Islander labour trade. ‘A system of slavery far more atrocious and degrading, and a system of native slaughter far more merciless and complete. Public opinion in North Queensland calls for blood, and yet more blood’, he said. ‘Queensland has deliberately adopted the system of arming the savage for the extermination of the savage’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 2/2/1874:3).

The first report of the Aboriginal Commissioners dealt with Aboriginal evidence and did not mention the Native Police (Queensland Parliamentary Votes & Proceedings, 1874, Vol 2:439-442). The Commissioners thought legislation was more important because ‘the Aborigines have been almost exempt from both the protection and penalties of our laws’. ‘Most persons prefer to submit to losses or inconvenience, or take the administration of punishment into their own hands’ (Queensland Parliamentary Votes & Proceedings, 1874, Vol 2:439-442).

Some rejected the report, including one newspaper editor: ‘What would any average person, past or living, of common humanity think of our treatment of the aborigines, and especially of our Native Police? (Telegraph, 12/5/1874:2). Another described the report as ‘such a timid and milk-and-water character as to be unworthy of republication’. ‘How is it, by the way, that the Commission, have not a word to say, either in praise or blame, of this “peculiar institution” – the Native Police?’ (Maryborough Chronicle, 19/5/1874:2).

The letters reached the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who asked Governor Normanby in Queensland to ‘inquire into the truth of these statements’ (QSA ID ITM3682627). The British government advised the Aborigines Protection Society that ‘the statements made will prove to be incorrect or greatly exaggerated’ (Records of the Aborigines Protection Society [as filmed by the Australian Joint Copying Project], M2431, NLA). Queensland’s Commissioner of Police rejected the claims made about the Native Police. ‘No instances of the wholesale slaughter of the blacks alluded to have ever come under my notice privately or officially, during a residence of nearly fourteen years in the colony’ (Queensland Parliamentary Votes & Proceedings, 1875, Vol 1:625-627).

The Governor’s response reached London, and was sent to the Aborigines Protection Society: ‘The natives in the North and West are numerous, savage, treacherous, and very commonly cannibals, and will generally murder any unarmed white man who may come within their reach. Stringent orders are given to the officers of the native police not to use force when it can possibly be avoided’ (Queensland Parliamentary Votes & Proceedings, 1875, Vol 1:624-5).

Australian correspondents informed the Aborigines Protection Society: ‘Public opinion in Queensland is all against the blacks’. ‘The extermination goes on day after day’ (Colonial Intelligencer, 1/8/1874:101-111). The Society reminded the Queensland Governor of the Queen’s instructions: ‘That you do by all lawful means prevent and restrain all violence and injustice which may in any manner be practised or attempted against them’ (Colonial Intelligencer, 1/8/1874:101-111). They noted that ‘the Commissioners made no allusion whatever to the question of the Mounted Native Police Force’, which meant the committee could not see ‘any investigation as satisfactory or complete which, from whatever cause, has failed to take cognizance of the crimes attributed to the mounted native police’ (Queensland Parliamentary Votes & Proceedings, 1875 Vol 1:627).

In January 1875, Governor Cairns arrived at Brisbane. He informed the Secretary of State for the Colonies in mid-April that the Aboriginal Commissioners were busy with ‘their ordinary duties’. They could not examine charges against the Native Police (QSA ID ITM3699920). Several weeks later, however, he asked the Commissioners to hold an inquiry of ‘a complete and exhaustive nature, into the alleged malpractice of the native police’ (QSA ID ITM3682634). The Commissioner of Police, stating ‘the cases existed but in imagination’, rejected this idea (QSA ID ITM3690319).

John Douglas, a former politician and public servant, wrote to the Aborigines Protection Society. ‘The native police is less effective than it was. I mean by this that it is less under control … and, in my opinion, not strong enough. There is a sustained guerrilla warfare productive of very unsatisfactory results. We are less alive to our duties to the aboriginal than any other Australian colony. It is a question of expenditure’ (Colonial Intelligencer, 1/6/1875:202-203).

In May 1875, the Aboriginal Commissioners submitted their second Report to the Queensland government: ‘We do not consider that any useful or satisfactory result could be arrived at by inquiry at the present time … hitherto no practicable substitute has been suggested  … without an armed force the frontier settlement could not be maintained’ (Telegraph, 8/4/1876:5). European settlers often argued that the only alternative to the Native Police was the complete abandonment of the colony. The fact that the Commissioners, who were appointed to ‘ameliorate the condition of the Aborigines of Queensland’, argued for the force’s continuation is a perfect illustration of the attitude of most settler-colonists towards Indigenous peoples.

The Commissioners recommended two Travelling Inspectors be appointed in the Native Police, and ‘a general Depot established in a central position where both Officers and Troopers can be drilled, and otherwise instructed in their duties’. Governor Cairns informed London: ‘The condition or status of the Native Police does not appear to require that an investigation into their discipline and general habits’. ‘There is no reason to believe that the officers overlook inhumanity towards the wild tribes, or that such inhumanity is that all of frequent occurrence’ (QSA ID ITM3682638). No depot was ever established.

Professor W. Stanley Jevons informed the Society ‘there will soon be no aborigines for them to protect … a fierce private war of extermination is now proceeding in North Queensland, uncontrolled by government, and conducted with little regard to anything but the safety of the English invaders, can hardly be doubted’ (Spectator, 27/5/1876:679). 

‘Your case is hopeless’: police under investigation

In 1876, charges of violence towards Aboriginal people were laid against three Native Police officers, Sub Inspector John Carroll, Sub Inspector Hervey Fitzgerald and Sub Inspector Frederick Wheeler. Fitzgerald, accused of whipping an Aboriginal woman, was advised: ‘Your case is hopeless’ (QSA ID ITM3700113). Mildly reprimanded, Fitzgerald was transferred from the Native Police to the Gold Escort, ‘where his duties will not bring him into contact with Aborigines’ (QSA ID ITM3690314, ITM3690235, ITM3690315 and ITM3690233). Two years later, he returned to the Native Police (QSA ID ITM3690320). The government dismissed Carroll, charged with ‘killing a native trooper’, but found not guilty of murder (QSA ID ITM3690321, ITM3690322 and ITM3690233).

Frederick Wheeler joined the Native Police in 1857. He was chastised in 1858 for advocating the indiscriminate killing of Aboriginal people, and in 1861 for his involvement in the murder of several old Aboriginal men at Fassifern, west of Brisbane (QSA ID ITM2720202, ITM3690323, ITM3690324, ITM3682000, ITM3690325 and ITM3681995). In 1876, he was committed for trial, charged with the murder of a young Aboriginal man at a Native Police camp in Central Queensland (QSA ID ITM3690316). Released on bail, Wheeler absconded from the colony (QSA ID ITM3690326, ITM3690327 and Records of the Aborigines Protection Society [as filmed by the AJCP], M/2427, NLA).

Despite – or as a result of – the ineffectiveness of the Aboriginal Commissioners, the Queensland government rejected further allegations about the indiscriminate massacre of Aborigines by the Native Police. One file was noted ‘If there is any evidence or information in support of these crimes mentioned, it should have been supplied to the Colonial Secretary or to the Commissioners for Ameliorating the Condition of the Aborigines’ (QSA ID ITM3690430).

An editorial from late 1876 offers a good insight into the differing views of the Native Police by colonists: ‘The force seems to be rotten throughout’. Then, ‘Every pioneer who has had experience of the difficulties of establishing settlement on the frontiers is agreed in pronouncing the protection of an armed force an absolute necessity to avert loss of valuable lives among men of our own race, and in declaring that the only efficient force is one of which aborigines form the rank and file’ (The Queenslander, 7/10/1876:16-17).

A massacre by Troopers under the command of Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor occurred near Cooktown in early 1879 (Brisbane Courier, 9/6/1880:3). William Drew resigned in protest as an Aboriginal Commissioner, because of ‘the actions of the Native Police under Sub Inspector O’Connor’. His reasoning was noted by officials as: ‘a downright absurdity’ (QSA ID ITM3690431). Mathew Hale, the Bishop of Brisbane, (who was Chairman of the Aboriginal Commission in 1879), also wrote to the Colonial Secretary. He only received a brief reply ‘declining to answer any questions’ (QSA ID ITM3690433, ITM3690434, ITM3690435 and ITM3690432). One paper pronounced ‘The Aboriginal Commission’ was finished (Brisbane Courier, 9/6/1880:3).          

Soon after, O’Connor and his troopers travelled to Victoria, where they joined the hunt for the Kelly Gang (Victorian Public Records Office, VPRS/4967/1). Despite Kelly’s alleged ‘fear’ of the troopers, O’Connor wrote to The Queenslander in late 1880, saying Aboriginal people on Cape York Peninsula told him: ‘a white man always shot at a blackfellow when he had a chance’ (The Queenslander, 18/12/1880:786).

Opinions continued to polarise, with some criticising the violence of Native Police. From 1880, newspapers carried articles and editorials such as ‘Black and White’, ‘White and Black’ and ‘Civilising the Blacks’ (The Queenslander, 15/5/1880:625-6; The Queenslander, 29/5/1880:688; The Queenslander, 19/6/1880:784; Queensland Figaro, 5/7/1884:8). Supporters of the force’s operations thought that retaliation was “essential”.

In late 1881, a telegram reached Brisbane saying native canoes had been seen at Lizard Island near Cooktown. Mary Watson, her baby and two Chinese men, left there by her husband, could not be found. Troopers searched the surrounding islands and coast (QSA ID ITM3690436 and ITM3690437). One of the officers involved was Hervey Fitzgerald, reinstated and promoted to Inspector. Police destroyed Aboriginal camps during the search, and several Aboriginal men made false “confessions” to her murder. The number of killings was not recorded. The discovery of her body in early-1882 revealed that Mary and her baby actually died of thirst. The water-tank that she had used to escape from Lizard Island was later installed at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane.

QSA ITM3690437. Telegram from B.Fahey. Extract from Treasury Department general correspondence, letter no. 1881/2029,  p.217

Massacres and humanitarians

More Native Police killings occurred in the Cloncurry district during 1883 and 1884. Sub Inspector Frederic Urquhart (appointed in 1882) reported that his detachment shot dozens of people in reprisal of the murder of one European (QSA ID ITM3690438 and ITM665853). Public sentiment towards Native Police operations further divided after the detachment under Sub Inspector William Nichols killed a number of ‘inoffensive’ Aboriginal people at Irvinebank, North Queensland, in late-1884. They burned the bodies in an attempt to conceal the murders (QSA ID ITM2727097). Police charged six troopers with murder. Nichols, tried with being an accessory, was dismissed for his ‘inexcusable conduct’, and the government sacked the troopers (QSA ID ITM3690439; ITM3690440 and ITM3690441).

Journalist Archibald Meston (who soon afterwards reinvented himself as a humanitarian Protector of Aborigines) commented. ‘If a native police officer is to be any use at all he must occasionally shoot blacks: if he never shoots them he is neither use nor ornament. Undoubtedly it is necessary sometimes to shoot blacks’ (Brisbane Courier, 27/12/1884:3). Other writers expressed a different attitude. ‘We arm aboriginals, put them in uniform, teach them drill, make them an erring marksman, and then detail them out to deliberately massacre other aboriginals not of their own tribe. We actually seek the extermination of the blacks by murders ordered by the state’ (Queensland Figaro, 14/2/1885:199).

Governor Musgrave wrote to the Secretary of State for Colonies in 1886. He described Queensland as ‘a comparatively uneducated community which has shown itself notably regardless of the commonest rights of humanity in respect of the black native tribes within its own territory’ (QSA ID ITM3690504). He added that successive Governors had been unable to shift colonial political views. In 1890, Meston expressed a radical change in his attitude towards Aboriginal policy. ‘The sooner all concerned are aware of the actual work done in the past and still being done by the native police in North Queensland, the sooner that body of licensed professional slaughterers will be abolished’ (Brisbane Courier, 30/9/1890:2).

Native Police and armed volunteers crossed Torres Strait on several occasions in the 1880s, intending to “punish” New Guinea villagers who had attacked islands in the Strait (QSA ID ITM3690442; ITM3690443 and ITM3690444). The southern part of New Guinea was proclaimed a British Possession in 1888, and in 1890, Queensland authorities oversaw the creation of the British New Guinea Armed Constabulary composed of Melanesian troopers led by European officers, some of whom had previously served in the Native Police. Queensland supplied firearms to the new force.

One final case from the early 1890s serves as a potent symbol of racial violence. Grazier Henry Jones, who had constantly threatened to shoot an Aboriginal youth named Joker, was found dead at his cattle station near Laura in 1890. Joker was arrested by the Native Police and admitted killing Jones in self-defence. He was tried at Cooktown, but the lack of European witnesses meant that he was discharged at Court. However, the Police Magistrate at Cooktown recommended that he be sent to New Guinea because ‘local feelings’ against him were ‘so strong’ that he would be killed if he stayed (QSA ID ITM3690445). Joker served for several years in the Armed Constabulary before returning to Queensland.

Aboriginal Protection legislation 1897

There had been a persistent reluctance by Queensland Parliamentarians to deal with frontier massacres and the well-being of Queensland’s First Nations peoples. Urban liberals, led by Samuel Griffith, gained control of the parliament during the 1880s and 1890s. They slowly began to respond to calls and lobbying from missionaries and church leaders, especially Presbyterians in Victoria, who decried the extermination of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander peoples. Meston, who had once described Indigenous people as ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’ but now called himself their ‘friend’, stated that they needed to be “separated and segregated” for ‘their protection’.

In September 1895, Meston demanded the Colonial Secretary ‘address the plight of the Queensland Aborigines’, and urged him not to postpone the Aboriginal question. He sent a copy of his pamphlet ‘Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation’. Meston added: ‘If you decide to do nothing, it will come before the colony in a shape that will not be pleasant for Queenslanders to contemplate’.

The government employed Meston as a Special Commissioner in 1896 to report on the distribution of rations to ‘the Aboriginals’. The Commissioner of Police was also instructed at the same time to investigate possible changes in the Native Police. The Queensland government ignored Meston’s recommendation for a ‘total abolition’ of the force, and small Native Police units continued in the Gulf and Cape York districts until the early decades of the twentieth century.

The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, passed in late 1897, gave police, politicians and public servants the power to control every aspect of the lives of First Australians, including employment, residency and marriage. Clauses in the Act also permitted the forced removal of people to missions and reserves far from their homelands. The brutality and violence of the colonial period morphed into a draconian “Protection” regime that has lasted up to the present-day.


This essay has discussed some of the conflict and violence revealed in records held at Queensland State Archives. Much of the brutality and killing went unrecorded, and the perpetrators were never brought to justice. We can gain a good understanding of the number of European deaths on the Queensland frontier, but we will never learn the total number of First Nations’ fatalities.

Records only tell us a partial story. We will never know exactly how many Indigenous people died on the frontier from starvation, disease and other causes, where they died and who killed them. As previously noted, non-government agents perpetrated much of the frontier violence. The number of people that they killed will probably always remain unknown.

Western belief in racial and cultural superiority was – and remains – paramount. The colonial and post-colonial periods in Queensland – when skin colour determined status – was a time when religious and political beliefs became excuses for violence and killing. European settler-colonists often created simplistic arguments which they thought justified their actions.

“Terra nullius” (Indigenous people never owned land), “primitive savages” (First Nations people failed to industrialise) and “exterminate the blacks” (in other words, ethnic cleansing), were their reasons. This is a shameful part of our history that many Australians still either ignore or deny. Many contemporary politicians share that view, denying that genocide ever occurred, steadfastly rejecting calls for historical injustices and widespread dispossession to be investigated.

The investigation of the experiences of Indigenous people after European colonisation began is never, it seems, seen as an important or urgent task for the nation. This means that individuals, without proper funding or support, have conducted most of the research to date. Impediments to this research continue, despite repeated calls from many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for mainstream attention to the importance of history in explaining the current situation of First Nations people in Australia.

The basic truths of our history are evident. Indigenous peoples were dispossessed by Westerners throughout the world in the name of empire-building, resource-raiding and ideology. Everywhere, the colonial project depended on the exploitation of resources. First Nations peoples became “obstacles” to “progress”, and this ideology was used to  legitimise their removal by any means necessary. We know that the violence and terror of the colonial period continues to wreck Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, families and individuals through intergenerational trauma, but we still refuse – as a nation – to investigate the full truth and circumstances of this great wrong. We cannot begin to make any kind of “conciliation” for the future until we learn about our past.   

About Dr Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards is a professional historian who lives in Brisbane, researching Queensland history through letters and documents held at the Queensland State Archives. He has devoted many years to intensive historical research for Native Title claimants, community organisations and government bodies, and published numerous articles on colonial law and policing. He holds degrees in Australian Studies and History, and was awarded a doctorate in 2005 for his dissertation on Queensland’s Native Police.