A question of numbers - colonial forces

Service in the colonial forces, Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion

Not until the British army units garrisoning Australia withdrew in 1870 were the separate colonies (not all of them self-governing) prompted to raise their own military forces for protection and defence, sometimes with small permanent corps but more usually by part-time militias and volunteer units. At the time the process of European colonisation and settlement (increasingly characterised as a white invasion of black Australia) was still incomplete in many parts of the continent, especially across the country’s north, west, and centre.

Given the rawness and still ongoing process of settlement, as well as the small size of local armies and the limited opportunities they represented, it has been generally assumed that no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people would have sought to serve in the military or naval organisations maintained by colonial governments before Federation in 1901. In fact, recent discoveries dispute that assumption.

In Victoria the case has emerged of Thomas Bungalene, a Gippsland Aboriginal who was “bonded to work” from age 15 in the colony’s sole warship – a steam-powered sloop named Victoria – from 1861 to 1864.[1] More importantly, it appears that Bungalene was not an isolated instance, within either the permanent Victorian Navy or the part-time Naval Brigade and Naval Reserve that supported it. Records indicate that as many as 40 non-European men served in that colony’s naval forces from 1860 into the 1890s, and some of these were almost certain to have been Indigenous in origin. A photograph even exists of men of the Naval Brigade at parade on HMVS Cerberus in September 1896 with one seaman present of suspected Indigenous appearance.[2]

A similar situation has been found in colonial New South Wales, where 20-year-old Jerome Locke served as a private in the Windsor Volunteer Infantry Corps during the late 1880s.[3] Despite a surviving photograph showing his obvious Indigenous heritage (courtesy of an Aboriginal grandmother), Locke seems to have enjoyed the experience of his time in the ranks, and during the First World War repeatedly sought to enlist, each time concealing his age, by then advanced.

Boer War and Boxer Rebellion

Hints had emerged as early as 1980 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders may have been dispatched to the second South African war of 1899–1902, more usually referred to as the Boer War.[4] However, it was another 25 years before confirmation was obtained and the extent and nature of this involvement began to be understood. Neither Boers nor Britons had any intention of mobilising the military potential of the vast black African population in the area of operations, except as labourers and domestic staff, keeping the conflict, in effect, between two white armies. But this would not prevent active employment of coloured trackers and scouts during the later guerrilla phase of the conflict, when British forces struggled to pin down highly mobile and elusive Boer parties known as commandos.

The names of two men taken on strength in Sydney as “black trackers” with the first federal contingent (1st Australian Commonwealth Horse) appeared in newspapers in early 1902,[5] and there later emerged suggestions that at least one of them may have already served in South Africa with an earlier contingent from New South Wales.[6] Anecdotal evidence also points to a few unnamed Aboriginal trackers being part of early contingents from other Australian colonies, including four who were reportedly abandoned in South Africa and left to find their own way home.[7] Confirmation of this information has so far proved elusive.

Also impossible to verify are the highly publicised claims that as many as 50 Aboriginal men were sent to South Africa in early 1902 to serve as trackers but were subsequently denied re-entry to Australia at the conclusion of hostilities – supposedly due to the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which instituted a “white Australia” policy.[8] This latter story appears to be based on a misreading of sources: which actually show that Australia was only ever asked to provide a small number of expert “bush trackers” for a second federal contingent, with no requirement of race.[9] There is no evidence that as many as 50 black trackers were ever sent in the first place, let alone that they were prevented from returning.

Apart from what can have been only a handful of trackers, the names of as many as a dozen men claiming Indigenous heritage have been confirmed as serving in the ranks of the mounted infantry and bushmen units sent to South Africa from 1900–02, first with colonial contingents and later in the name of the new Commonwealth. Evidence of Indigenous heritage has been established for some of those named, but not all: in one particular case, Private John Brooks was mis-identified as an Indigenous serviceman. Records show that his father was from Bermuda and his mother was English.[10] Still open to question is how these men might have looked to recruiting authorities and their comrades in the ranks. When one unnamed man who was outwardly clearly “half caste” applied to enlist at Burketown, Queensland, in March 1900, he was rejected despite being assessed as “a good man … [who had] received schooling”.[11] Clearly, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander man’s appearance was a factor in gaining acceptance for, and on, active service.  

The Boer War was not the only military enterprise on which Australia was embarked at the birth of the Commonwealth era. In 1900 several colonial governments had responded to requests for forces to assist in suppressing a Chinese cult of nationalist extremists, nicknamed “Boxers”, who had laid siege to foreign embassies in the imperial capital of Beijing. South Australia sent its gunboat Protector (with crew), while Victoria and New South Wales each contributed 250 volunteers and reservists from their naval brigades who would serve on land. To date no claim has been made that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person served in any of these contingents, which only arrived back in Australia during the course of 1901, but considering the known composition of the Naval Brigade of Victoria in the 1890s it is not implausible that it might have contained one or two.[12]

Previous: Slow process of discovery   Next: First World War


[1] "Thomas Bungalene (aka Bungaleen & Bungeleen), Victorian Naval Forces Muster for the Colony of Victoria", (muster range 1853-1910), Friends of the Cerberus Inc website, accessed 29 April 2015.  [ image at http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/MAIN:SLV_VOYAGER1723359 ]

[2]   John Rogers, "Black men in the Victorial naval forces"  and 'Non-European members of the Victorian Naval Forces", Friends of the Cerberus Inc website, accessed 29 April 2015.

[3]   Phillipa Scarlett, Jerome Locke: "Aboriginal service in the colonian and Australian military forces", Indigenous Histories, 31 May, 2013, accessed 29 April 2015.   

[4]   C.D. Coulthard-Clark, “On track of the trackers”, Sabretache 3, vol.21, July–September 1980, p. 11.

[5]   Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Jan 1902, p. 7, Queenslander, 25 Jan 1902, p. 6.

[6]   http://desert-column.phpbb3now.com/viewtopic.php?f=5&p=12056, accessed 24 Jun 2013 (since deleted).

[7]   http://treatyrepublic.net/content/50-aboriginal-trackers-left-behind-after-boer-war, accessed 1 May 2015.

[8]   http://treatyrepublic.net/content/50-aboriginal-trackers-left-behind-after-boer-war, accessed 1 May 2015.

[9]   Hansard, Tuesday 21 January 1902, vol.7, pp. 8,954–55.

[10]  Victoria Births, Deaths & Marriages, records accessed by family 2015.

[11]  Craig Wilcox, Australia’s Boer War: the war in South Africa 1899–1902, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2002, p. 39.

[12]  Bob Nicholls, Bluejackets and Boxers: Australia’s naval expedition to the Boxer uprising, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1986, contains photographic appendices showing the personnel of HMCS Protector (135) and the New South Wales (138–40) and Victorian (144) contingents, but none of these provide a clear sign of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander men being present in any of these force elements.

About the author:

Military historian Dr Chris Clark wrote this brief history on the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the assistance of a generous grant from the Gandevia Foundation. Dr Clark has been researching and writing Australian military history for more than 40 years, and has authored, co-authored, or edited more than 30 books, including The encyclopedia of Australia’s battles (3rd edition 2010). He was an officer in the Australian Army and later worked in various government departments as a strategic analyst and historian, and at the Australian National University and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. He headed the Office of Air Force History in the Department of Defence for nine years before retiring in 2013. Dr Clark is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy.