Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XX page 1

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)



As I have noted elsewhere, the story of what had been done by trained and disciplined aborigines in Victoria in the early days had been forgotten. The body known as Henry Dana’s native troopers was broken up in 1852, and the police of 1878 had forgotten or probably never heard of the doings of Dana’s men. That two banks should have been robbed in broad daylight, that the bushrangers should be able to put away from their thoughts all resistance on the part of the average citizen, together with the difficulties of pursuit through hundreds of square miles of forest country, compelled the police officers to cast about to see what addition could be made to existing methods. Hare was the first to suggest that we should get the services of a body of Queensland police. He did not believe that they could do any better than our men had done, but he had heard that the new Governor, Lord Normanby, who had come fresh from Queensland , had been known to speak favourably of the native troopers there. Hare’s purpose was to anticipate any suggestion that Lord Normanby might make. The Chief Commissioner, who was with us in Benalla, agreed, and a party of six native troopers, with a white officer, Sub Inspector Stanhope O’Connor, and a sub officer reached Benalla about March, 1879.

The effect on the movements of the Kellys were remarkable; in a sense indeed much beyond what was desired. Hitherto the bushangers made their appearance pretty frequently, fearing only to be seen by the police. Now their fears were lest they should be seen by any private person who might lay the Queensland boys on their tracks. They put away their horses altogether, for they knew that once the police found their horses it was the next step to finding themselves. They went about on foot, moving cautiously through the night only, resting for the day in any patch of scrub where the dawn found them. During the fifteen months that followed the arrival of the black trackers, the Kellys were never seen on horseback, nor did they once willingly show themselves to anyone whatever, except to the two or three persons whose loyalty they could trust. In this they were wise, though it does not greatly add to their reputation as bold and adventurous outlaws.


Before attempting to describe the work native trackers could do for the police, it is necessary to consider for a moment their manner of life before they were drawn into the service of the white men.

One of the very earliest impressions of an aboriginal child living amongst its savage surroundings must be - that enemies threaten on every side who can be guarded against by continual watchfulness only; and the next impression must be - that the life of the tribe depends on the skill exercised in the pursuit and capture of the wild creatures that provide its food. In their wild state each and every individual is continually on the look out for signs for which he or she may draw useful - perhaps vital - information, for the women within certain limits are as keen in these things as the men. A mob of blacks in an enemy’s country will not camp for the night until some of its members have made a circle around their camp with a radius of half a mile or more from the spot where the camp is to be, hunting for opposums or other wild things as they go. No enemy can be within this circle without being discovered. One of the most disturbing thoughts with parties of white police, in search of a strong band of criminals like the Kellys, was the fear lest the enemy might be near at hand, ready to fall on them when busy about the work of the camp and off their guard, as happened more than once to police parties in the neighbouring colonies. Our early search parties, in order to avoid this danger, used to choose the site for their camp after darkness had set in, with the result that when they lay down to sleep, they could not rest with any comfort, with she-oak apples, stones, bits of broken stick, etc, beneath their under blanket. With black trackers the camp was formed in daylight. Men could collect ferns, rushes, or whatever material the place afforded, making for themselves a comfortable resting place.

Then, as regards their horses, there was constantly recurring difficulty to the police working without trackers. If the horses were tied up for the night they could not feed, while if let loose they strayed, and much time was lost next morning in hunting for them. When trackers were used there was no trouble of this kind. While breakfast was being got ready on the camp, a couple of black boys carrying bridles in their hands quickly got on the first horses they found, then rounded up the others; and, if any were missing, the black boys followed up the tracks, and had the missing ones back in the camp without delay. The difference in the condition of men and horses returning from a tour conducted under the differing circumstances described was very manifest. Without the help of the black boys, men and horses came in quite worn out after a comparatively short trip, while those who had the blacks with them, were fit to continue their work for weeks if necessary.

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