Aborigines/VR' police uniform button
In the nineteenth century Aboriginal men served as troopers in various 'native police' forces. These forces, which consisted of uniformed, armed and mounted Aboriginal troopers under the command of white officers, were created to keep the peace between Aborigines and white settlers in the frontier districts. In reality, they helped to quell the resistance of the traditional owners and open the land to European settlement.
Aborigines were chosen as troopers because of their superior knowledge of the bush and their ability to track. (Aboriginal troopers were distinct from the black trackers employed by the colonial police forces.)
An Aboriginal force operated in the Port Phillip district (now Victoria) for 11 years from 1842 under the command of Captain Henry Dana. Influential Aboriginal men were recruited as troopers, possibly motivated by the prestige of a uniform, firearms and the chance to ride horses, but little is known of their experiences.
In view of the perceived effectiveness of Dana's force, the governor of New South Wales Charles Fitzroy established a native police force in 1848. Records kept by the NSW authorities show that in the ten years that followed, 175 Aboriginal men were recruited. Operating in small mounted detachments that patrolled the troubled northern frontier districts, they almost immediately saw action in what is now south-east Queensland. In 1849 a bloody four hour battle against the defiant Bigambul people ended ten years of Aboriginal resistance to European occupation of the Macintyre River region.
At first the NSW native police force was under the control of officials in Sydney who were answerable to the Colonial Office. From 1856 to 1859 the force was controlled by the new government of NSW. When Queensland became a separate colony in 1859, control of this force was passed to the government in Brisbane. The Queensland native mounted police continued to patrol the fringes of European settlement until it was disbanded in 1900.
Queensland Aborigines strongly resisted losing their land and livelihood. Many frightened pastoralists urged the authorities to unleash the native police on troublesome blacks. The force became known for its brutality toward local Aborigines and was implicated in several massacres. The activities of the native police in Queensland were often kept secret and their reports seldom made public. Most of the government records relating to this force after 1859 appear to have been destroyed. Henry Reynolds has written that 'The Queensland native police played a decisive role in crushing Aboriginal resistance' ('With the White People', Penguin, 1990, p71). The consequences for Aboriginal communities were disastrous.
Very few artefacts associated with the activities of the native police have survived, making this brass button a rare item indeed. The button was once in the collection of Sir John Ferguson, a judge and President of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Although it is thought to be from the uniform of an Aboriginal trooper with the NSW native police, its inscription does not confirm its exact origin and date. It is inscribed 'Aborigines VR' and, on the reverse, 'New Holland'. 'VR' refers to Queen Victoria. The name 'New Holland', which was not widely used to describe eastern Australia after 1840, suggests that the button dates from the early years of the native police. If so, the button would come from either the native police force that operated in Port Phillip until 1852, or more likely the force that operated in the northern frontier of NSW from 1848.