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Service rewards

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Rewards for government service

McCarthy observed that 'kings' and 'queens' were not the only people presented with gorgets: 'native constables were also ... rewarded, as were native guides by explorers and leaders of expeditions'. [1] From the earliest days of settlement colonists followed Aboriginal tracks in their explorations of the country. Where possible, they also obtained the services of an Aboriginal guide. The business of guiding colonists developed into an industry for Aboriginal people and particular guides became famous and were sought out by people planning expeditions. Aboriginal people also enjoyed tracking and apprehending escaped convicts and their services were often sought by government officials. Aboriginal trackers became a major deterrent to escapees. In the mid-nineteenth century an Aboriginal police force was raised and used against other Aboriginal people to prevent them from opposing the expansion of the pastoral frontier. Outstanding service to the government by Aboriginal people in the capacity of guides, trackers and police was often rewarded with the presentation of a commemorative gorget.

Photograph of an Aboriginal policeman on horseback in the late nineteenth century
GW Wilson 'Aboriginal tracker', an Aboriginal policeman of the late nineteenth century. National Library of Australia.

Newcastle was established as a penal settlement in 1804 and 'there began an official system by which the authorities used Aborigines as guards and trackers to prevent the escape of prisoners'. [2] In 1821 the Port Macquarie settlement was established and what was by then known as the 'Newcastle system' was again employed. Aboriginal leaders were identified by commandants and given gorgets as rewards for their services and as proof of their status. For example, Morningal and Yarrowbee were trackers 'decorated by the commandant with a brass crescent-shaped plate that was supposed to confer the rank of chief on its recipient'. [3] The work was dangerous and at least one Aboriginal 'king' was killed apprehending convicts. For example, 'King Burrigan' was fatally knifed by John Kirby, one of two convicts who escaped from Newcastle on 26 October 1820. The men were captured almost immediately by Burrigan and his people. Unfortunately, Burrigan was knifed by Kirby the following morning when the men panicked at the sight of arriving soldiers. [4]

In the late 1820s Peter Cunningham observed that a number of north coast Aboriginal men had become famous for their assistance to the colony and particularly as trackers of runaway convicts:

The Newcastle natives, and all the coast tribes northerly, are docile, obliging, and very willing to do occasional work, if it be not hard; but Johnny M'Gill, and Jemmy Jackass, from the Newcastle settlement, are certainly a remarkable exception to the general body, as these individuals cleared ten acres of heavy-wooded land for the missionary at Reid's Mistake as well and as quickly as could be done by white people. These two natives, and another named Bob Barret, accompanied Captain Allman, the former humane commandant of Port Macquarie, to that settlement, where he had been despatched to establish a penal station; and they proved of eminent service to him as bush-constables in tracing and apprehending runaways. Certainly three more powerful intelligent men he could not have selected, and such good marksmen were they, that every living thing would drop before the muzzles of their pieces, nothing chagrining them more than missing their aim. Bob Barret pathetically laments to this day the snapping of his fusee at a desperate bush-ranger, at Port Macquarie, long a pest to the settlement, who through that mishap escaped for a time. Their names having been given to these three men by the whites, they, like all our blacks, are proud to be known thereby, - the first request they make of a white, being, to name them. A brass or tin plate with an inscription, is also a great desideratum in their eyes, to hang round their necks, giving them much additional consequence in the estimation of their tribes; but, as I have already said, no one possesses authority farther than what his own arm or greater intelligence can command. [5]

There are many gorgets with the title 'constable' and one example is held by the National Museum of Australia. It was presented to Tommy who is likely to have been a constable at Wellington, New South Wales (collection number 1985.59.369).

Gorget given to Tommy. Constable, Wellington
Tommy. Constable, Wellington

Tommy may have been a police tracker or a member of the Aboriginal police force, known at the time as 'the Native Police'. He may have been one of the boys trained on the Wellington Mission Station. Among the boys who frequented the Church Missionary Society Mission at Wellington in the period 1830 to 1850 was one called Tommy. On the station the boys learnt to speak English and were therefore valued as employees by colonists. [6] Tommy's skill in speaking English would have made him a desirable choice for the police force.


  1. FD McCarthy, 'Breast-plates: the Blackfellows' Reward', The Australian Museum Magazine, 1952, vol. 10, p. 327.
  2. AT Yarwood and MJ Knowling, Race Relations in Australia: a History, Methuen, Melbourne, 1982, p. 62.
  3. Yarwood and Knowling 1982, p. 62.
  4. Yarwood and Knowling 1982, p. 63.
  5. PM Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales: a Series of Letters, Comprising Sketches of the Actual State of Society in that Colony; of its Peculiar Advantages to Emigrants; of its Topography, Natural History, ec., etc., Henry Colburn, London, 1827, vol. 2, pp 26-27.
  6. P Read, A Hundred Years War: the Wiradjuri People and the State, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1988, p. 23.
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