Good men and true: the Aboriginal police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853
AuthorFels, Marie Hansen
AffiliationArts, History Department
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsFels, M. H. (1986). Good men and true: the aboriginal police of the Port Phillip district 1837-1853. PhD thesis, Arts - School of Historical Studies, The University of Melbourne.
Access StatusOpen Access
© 1986 Dr. Marie Hansen Fels
Good men and true is the phrase used by the Commandant of the 1842 Corps of Native Police in summing up for Superintendent LaTrobe the outcome of the first experimental expedition of the Corps to the Western District. It is the age-old Service accolade, bespeaking praise and affection and pride in the troops under the command. This is a history of those men. Since Stanner wrote over twenty years ago that the Aborigines had been left out of Australian history, much has been written about them. Perhaps impelled by emergent black nationalism, maybe running parallel with it, this generation of writing about the Australian past has been useful and necessary in raising Australian consciousness to the extent necessary to take seriously the Aboriginal part of our joint past. To a large extent though, it has been an ethnocentric discussion of white behaviour towards Aborigines producing the Aboriginal people as subjects who seem to stand stock still, as one reviewer has said, and allow things to happen to them. It has produced the cultural perception of past and dead Aboriginal people as mainly victims, or in a few exceptional cases as heroic figures of resistance. Broome's observation about one chapter in one book is capable of general extension - we have replaced an earlier historical falsehood of a non-violent frontier with a new stereotype of a violent one. It could be added - with clearly defined and allocated roles, and moral evaluation thrown in for good measure. There is much truth in these histories, but even taken together, they do not encompass truth: they do not take account of positive Aboriginal choices. Our models of explanation, Stanner wrote, have been based either on the dramatic secondary causes - violence, disease, neglect, prejudice, or on the structure of Aboriginal society or both, but they have not taken into account Aboriginal initiatives towards European society, their curiosity, their zest for living, their choices, their creations. This study concerns itself with one of their choices - it is a history of co-operation, an Aboriginal success story. Why it has not been told before is puzzling: a cursory glance at the secondary section of the Bibliography (which is select, noting only those works which specifically mention the Corps) is sufficient to demonstrate a widespread awareness in the past of the Native Police Corps of the Port Phillip District. Yet out of all those passing mentions, it could scarcely be said that our knowledge has been advanced; five attempts only have been made to constitute the Corps as a subject of knowledge, and none to understand the men. Spender's question must at least be asked here, though it cannot be answered - "Why do we know so little about ... blacks for example, and why is so much of what we do know about them false, negative or derogatory. Who has made this knowledge, on what basis, and for what reasons?” Shades of Foucault. The explanatory processes used by white historians (which black historians reject) still draw their inspiration from Elkin's work. The story of Aboriginal co-operation in policing resembles to some extent the adaptive response which Elkin has described as intelligent parasitism. It was more though than that. Parasitism, however intelligent might well be an accurate description of the actions of men who choose a way of life for what they can get out of it, and abandon it when they get a better offer; or simply abandon it when its attractions dim, but it does not come anywhere near explaining in this particular instance the evident bonds of affection and loyalty which developed between the men who joined and their European officers. In this story, feelings matter. The Government's initial aim in setting up a Native Police Corps in the Port Phillip District was two-fold: it wanted a policing force to deal with bushrangers, and at the same time, it hoped to "civilise" the men of the Corps. In this work, the civilising aim is ignored, except in so far as it was expressed in regulations for living, though it may be noted in passing that the Corps was described as the only success of all the Government's policy initiatives with regard to Aboriginal people. But success in European terms is not the issue. This enquiry is directed at the terms of existence for the men themselves; it seeks to tell the story of their choice, and to understand and explain it. The story and the explanation both turn around the dual consciousness of being Aboriginal and being a policeman.
KeywordsAboriginal Australian police; Aboriginal Australians; Victoria; Melbourne; history; 1834-1851; Port Phillip Bay Region; police
- Click on "Export Reference in RIS Format" and choose "open with... Endnote".
- Click on "Export Reference in RIS Format". Login to Refworks, go to References => Import References