‘Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853’ by Marie Hansen Fels

1988, 227 p. plus appendices and notes

In her book, Marie Fels warns of a number of ethnocentric blindnesses and misconceptions, and I’m afraid that I’m guilty of at least three of them.  The first, she says, is to simply not see the presence of the Native Police and I’m certainly guilty of this.  I’ve been aware of them in my reading on Port Phillip, but hadn’t particularly considered what they might be doing there.  Then I noted that Jan Critchett attributed the turning point in aboriginal/settler “collisions” to their skill in pursuit and this notion fed, I suppose into my second misconception- that the Port Phillip Native Police Corps, like the Queensland Native Police Corps which was later modelled on it, was responsible for atrocities against aboriginal people.  And this, in turn, reflects my third ethnocentricity: the assumption that the act of joining the Native Police Corps was a form of treachery, undertaken only by marginal men who would be ostracized by their tribesmen because of their involvement .

Instead, Fels argues, the men who joined the Native Police Corps were leaders of clans or their heirs.  They willingly joined with Europeans in policing work: policing in its pre-Peelite manifestation as ‘keeping the peace’ rather than ‘upholding the law’, and certainly more than just tracking.

Joining the Native Police Corps is best seen as a strategy in the direction of sharing power and authority in the Port Phillip District, in the changed environment of the powerful and permanent European presence.  Besides the material things that police could see they would get, an opportunity was put before them of becoming men of standing within their transformed world.  They took it, and furthermore, they used it.  They bent it back, exploiting their acquired prestige and influence to operate within traditional group politics, to such effect that while the Corps was in existence, these men were the powerbrokers… Being a native policeman was a state of dual consciousness and divided loyalty; it appears not to have been a matter of rejecting Aboriginality, but rather of learning to live in two different worlds (p. 87)

The men of the Native Police Corps were proud of their uniforms and they kept them in immaculate condition; they craved guns but rarely used them “on the side”;  they were able to read the nuances in status between white settlers, and they operated in a number of roles including escorting,  taking messages, guarding, search and rescue and a highly visible ceremonial role within white society.

Although men of  the Warwoorong and Bunerong tribes (her spelling) from around Melbourne initially formed the heart of the unit, they were not just 20 troopers drawn solely from those tribes, as it has been described in the past.  Instead she has identified over 140 individuals drawn from various tribes across Victoria- even, though to a lesser extent, from the Gippsland tribes who were the traditional enemies of the Warwoorong/Bunerong federation.  One of her appendices gives the biographical details of five such men, and she refers to the full 114 page version of the appendix that she attached to her thesis,  available at the University of Melbourne, which covers the other men.

Good men and true?  Dana, their commandant certainly thought so, and was staunch in his defence of his men.  For there were, and are, rumours that the Native Police Corps itself was involved in the slaughter of aboriginal people- indeed the Native Police themselves bragged of it.  Here Fels, likewise, springs to their defence, drawing on statistics about ammunition and weaponry to undercut the claims of multiple shootings; querying the motives of men who made the reports to La Trobe,  issuing cautions about the reliability of any Aboriginal evidence, and challenging the ready acceptance of Aboriginal reports of ‘many’ being killed.  While this may be true, it is an argument that must be balm to Windschuttle et. al who query the statistics over white atrocities as well.  Is there an ethical responsibility in using a line of argument that could be picked up and used to make a contrary, and possibly abhorrent point?  Or is there an intellectual responsibility NOT to resile from an argument out of fear that this might occur?   The line between challenging misconceptions and inaccuracies on the one hand, and defensiveness on the other  is a narrow one, and at times I felt that she over-reached a little.  But even she admitted her uneasiness about reports of the Native Police Corps in Gippsland, the territory of their enemies far from the reach of authority, and her credibility was strengthened by her caution here.

Top of the list of her acknowledgments is Greg Dening, and the book is dedicated to him.  I can see his influence here, in the way that she walks around an episode, reading against the record, stepping away and  reminding us:

Always the first question to be asked when examining the action of the Corps is ‘What was the nature of the traditional relationship?’ (p. 157)

I feel that the typesetting of her book did her a disservice, though.  The book is a densely woven argument and more white space would have given her reader a little more oxygen.  At times she launched into examination of an episode without warning and I’d screech to a halt wondering “Hold on- do I know about this? Has she talked about this earlier?” only to read on for a couple of paragraphs to realize that I’d been dropped into an episode for some close-up scrutiny.

In her introduction she stakes her claim:

Part of the task of the historian is to recognize that the issues which kindle interest and shape enquiry do emerge from the cultural present, but the written end-product succeeds or fails according to how well the historian has understood and explained the past on its own terms. (p. 5)

This book challenges our conceptions of the role of the Native Police Corps and its meaning for its participants and those who encountered it at the time.  I’ll leave the last word with her in her own closing paragraph, because it’s a strong argument:

To recognize that they were the victims of the European takeover of their land is one thing; to write a history of the origins and growth of the contemporary sense of oppression is another; but to impose the attitudes of the present on the evidence of the past is ahistorical, producing the effect of leaving out of our histories the evidence of creative and adaptive Aboriginal strategies such as this one- becoming a native policeman. (p. 227)

3 responses to “‘Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853’ by Marie Hansen Fels

  1. A thought-provoking post. Re your question, ‘Is there an ethical responsibility in using a line of argument that could be picked up and used to make a contrary, and possibly abhorrent point?’: I argue that historians should never avoid mentioning relevant facts/arguments for fear of them being used in a politically damaging manner. If they did it would give ammunition to those who accuse historians of distorting and censoring history for political reasons. I agree that it is uncomfortable when such things emerge and they should be handled by the historian with care which from your review it appears that Fels does. But responsibility also rests with the readers to debate these issues with the same sensitivity and care.

  2. Yes… a thoughtful post which both recognises something of the motives, if not the agency, of the men who joined the police-force – and of the responsibility of the historian more than a century and a half later who is both a commentator and interpreter of documentary material. Historians do have an ethical responsibility not to distort or censor… but should this occur it behoves one to wonder why. Particularly when that material is directly formative of present-day culture.

  3. Pingback: ‘I Succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula 1839-40′ by Marie Hansen Fels | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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