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The Native Police Corps

One of the most significant and best-documented impacts Aboriginal people had on the gold fields was through the role of the Native Police. Members of the Native Police Corps were the first police on the gold fields.

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John Chandler recorded his reaction when he first saw the Native Police Corps in Melbourne.

"They looked enough to frighten any one; their black faces, big white eyes, long moustache, long swords, carbines, and a pair of pistols in their holsters, was a caution to timid people".

A reporter for the Argus called them a "Satanic Battalion of Black Guards".

The Native Police Corps was renowned for its ability to restore order using what some claim were heavy-handed tactics. On the 21st September 1851, Commissioner Doveton explained to the miners the government’s decision to introduce licensing fees, which attracted an angry response. A public meeting was held immediately, and when the first men came forward to pay the fee, they were struck and pelted by an angry mob. Had it not been for the presence of the Native Police those miners would have been seriously injured. Some historians believe the overbearing methods of the Native Police "so antagonised the diggers that a flame of rebellion was lit, culminating in the Eureka Stockade three years later".

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Artist and miner, William Strutt took a keen interest in the Native Police. At the Commissioner’s Tent, at Golden Point, Ballarat, the police were headquartered, and the "fine and interesting corps of Aboriginal black troopers did their share of duty here before they were unwisely disbanded. I was getting interested in these fine soldierly fellows, and my drawings from them are the only existing pictorial records of their ever having existed at all". Strutt’s numerous portraits of the Native Police Corps at Ballarat and in Melbourne are testimony to the high regard he had for these Aboriginal men.

"The useful black troopers were for a time made to escort prisoners to town (as also drawn by me) these fine fellows were at first the only mounted police, and indeed performed all the police duty at the Ballarat Diggings. It was an absurd mistake, however, employing them to collect or examine the diggers’ licences. Of course their ignorance was then taken advantage of, as might have been anticipated. How could men unable to read, discriminate between one piece of printed paper and another? And so the men were disbanded, and eventually all murdered by their fellow blacks. Such was the end of as useful a set of men as could be found for special service; particularly trecking in the wild bush carrying despatches, and they seemed to lend themselves wonderfully to military discipline, and as to their riding and capital seat, you could literally say that man and horse were one. I had much pleasure in making several studies and sketches of this, long since defunct, Black Police Force at their snug little barracks in the Richmond Paddock, near to Mr Latrobe’s, the Governor’s, called ‘Jolimont’. One young man who could read and write well, and whose name was ‘Charlie Never’ was the tailor to the force, but he in turn got murdered; he became much attached to me, and I wish I could have kept him as a servant."
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Historian Marie Hansen Fels disagrees with Strutt’s claim that the demise of the Aboriginal troopers was because they couldn’t read.

"[Strutt] displays a surprising lack of imagination and knowledge, especially from an artist with a trained eye. It is a fundamental mistake of the literate to assume that pieces of paper look the same to the non-literate, and an absurd error on his part to conclude that these men, skilled as they were in reading signs, could not notice a difference in the inscription of a bank note and a licence, even if they could not interpret the meaning of the difference."

Credits

Text adapted from Dr Ian D. Clark and Fred Cahir, A critique of ‘forgetfulness’ and exclusivity: the neglect of Aboriginal themes in goldfields tourism in Victoria, University of Ballarat, 2001



 
 

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