Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

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Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby Liz » 20 Mar 2009 02:27

According to the Australian War Memorial (the AWM) website http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/aborigines/index.asp,
Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have contributed to Australia’s military forces for many years. Exact numbers are not known, however Aboriginal trackers served in the Boer War and approximately 400 to 500 served in the First World War.


Talking about World War I and later conflicts, the AWM goes onto say here http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/aborigines/indigenous.asp that:

Generally, Aborigines have served in ordinary units with the same conditions of service as other members. Many experienced equal treatment for the first time in their lives in the army or other services. However, upon return to civilian life, many also found they were treated with the same prejudice and discrimination as before...

When war broke out in 1914, many Aborigines who tried to enlist were rejected on the grounds of race; others slipped through the net. By October 1917, when recruits were harder to find and one conscription referendum had already been lost, restrictions were cautiously eased. A new Military Order stated: "Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.

Loyalty and patriotism may have encouraged Aborigines to enlist. Some saw it as a chance to prove themselves the equal of Europeans or to push for better treatment after the war. For many Australians in 1914 the offer of 6 shillings a day for a trip overseas was simply too good to miss.

Aborigines in the First World War served on equal terms but after the war, in areas such as education, employment, and civil liberties, Aboriginal ex-servicemen and women found that discrimination remained or, indeed, had worsened during the war period.

Going back to the Boer War, does anybody have any information on:
:?: How many Aboriginal trackers served?
:?: What specific regions or peoples were they recruited from? How?
:?: What role did they play while in south Africa?
:?: What were their conditions of service?
:?: What if any first hand accounts or records survive relevant to their service?
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby sidney7 » 05 May 2009 13:34

G'Day Liz :)

There seems to be very little information in regards to these men.

There was however a publication written by Canberra historian David Huggonson called 'The Black Trackers of Bloemfontein', published in 'Land Rights News', Darwin, Feb. 1990. The only given excerpt from his book reads,. . . "Aboriginal trackers were sent to Bloemfontein in the Boer War".

You might have more luck than what I'm having 'tracking' it down . . . it might be of some help. David's last known phone no. was [REMOVED BY FORUM STAFF FOR PRIVACY REASONS]. I'm waiting for a reply from Aboriginal Lands Council Office.

He's written quite a few journals on Aboriginal Military service covering all wars.

Cheers :D

Newsflash...just found this reference by Dr. Peter Limb of Uni. of Western Australia.

The use of de facto "concentration camps" indeed has earlier precedents, as well as sequels. A little-researched aspect of relations between Aboriginal Australians and South Africa is the request sent by Lord Kitchener in 1902 for Aboriginal police trackers for use in the South African War.

D. Huggonson notes that black police trackers were used a few years earlier to help smash the armed resistance of the Kalkadoon people of Queensland who were subsequently driven into "defacto concentration camps called Aboriginal reserves. It was ironic that in the Anglo-Boer war Aborigines would be pressed into the service of the British whose tactics involved herding white Boers into similar concentration camps."
Last edited by Liz on 19 May 2009 01:27, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: Phone number removed as indicated for privacy reasons
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby sidney7 » 03 Jun 2009 12:15

Hi,
I'm having difficulty posting the URL link, so I shall quote selections from Huggonson's and Kerwin's articles re Boer War trackers.

Among the Australian troops that served in this war were four Aboriginal men from Queensland, who served as trackers and scouts.
It would be highly likely that the four trackers saw service in the mopping up campaign after the siege and capture of the city of Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State.
Trackers could well be stationed at POW camps to facilitate the re-arrest of any escapees. Finally, native guides could render invaluable services to any reconnoitring parties in the forward positions’. (Strehlow 1943:6)

The history of the Anglo-Boer war has been told from the dominant Anglo-Australian point of view. We read of the heroism, the tragedy of the loss of life and the pain and suffering of those involved. We know that after the war, the Australian soldiers were repatriated back to Australia by government sponsorship.

But what happened to the four Aboriginal men?
There is not much in the historical record to say they came home. There is some evidence that the four trackers were left in South Africa. On December 1901, after Federation, the Immigration Restriction Act, Cth 1901 was introduced into Australian law. This piece of legislation basically prevented the legal return of the four trackers back into Australia. The decision to allow people into the country was at the discretion of the minister: this piece of legislation also cemented the notion of the ‘White Australia Policy’ (Reynolds 1996:112).
David Huggonson wrote to me:

‘the saddest pieces of evidence I uncovered in my research was contained in Commonwealth Archives of Western Australia whereby George Valder, Commercial Agent for NSW in South Africa is seeking the repatriation of Aboriginal Black Trackers to Australia. The Prime minister’s reply stated that ‘all coloured persons born in Australia must obtain a special permit from the Commonwealth, before they are permitted to land’ under the Immigration Restriction Act. They were required to pay their own fare back to Australia’. (Huggonson personal letter 13 April, 2007)


Cheers
Sid. :D
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby SWB » 03 Jun 2009 13:30

Hello Sid,

That's poweful stuff regarding the barring of the Aborigines to return home. Contrasts very badly with the fuss Australians kicked up over the case of Breaker Morant, Handcock and Witton. Not the first whiff of colonial hypocrisy though.

Back to trackers. As the medal rolls for the Australian units are pretty well covered I am sure these guys names would have surfaced somewhere. Of course they wouldn't be the first non-whites to be omitted from medal rolls. Although, many Africans and Indians are on the rolls.

I hope you turn up more, do let us know.

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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby keldan » 03 Nov 2009 01:04

Hello,

I just found this website. This is interesting stuff, so thank you for it. I'm a history student studying concentration camps in the British empire and am interested in native and aboriginal reserves as possible precedents for the encampment of civilians (both African and Boer) during the Boer War. I'm not sure there is any direct link, but I wonder if a somewhat similar mindset informed both operations. I know my fair share about the Boer War and the camps developed in South Africa but I'm afraid I'm rather ignorant when it comes to the history of Australian aboriginals. Could anyone point me toward some good scholarship on aboriginal settlement and reserve policy in 19th and early 20th century Australia, particularly if it might be helpful in exploring my larger question of whether native reserves might be considered "proto-concentration camps" in some fashion.

Thanks so much, I'm much obliged.
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby SWB » 03 Nov 2009 08:24

Hello,

I know nothing about policy towards Aborigines, but my initial reaction to your search for "proto-concentration" is that the Anglo-Boer War concentration camps are not related.

The ABW concentration camps were a military solution to a military problem; to prevent the sympathetic population (black and white) assisting the enemy. There was never any notion that the concentration camps would remain after the war, they were not designed to alter the demographics of a post-war South Africa. Indeed part of the Treaty of Vereeniging was the British government's commitment to re-settle those in concentration camps and provide financial assistance to re-build and re-stock their farms that the British had destroyed as part of the military campaign. This was done at great cost.

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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby keldan » 06 Nov 2009 23:36

Dear Meurig,

Thanks very much for your response. I think I agree with you that at first the Anglo-Boer War camps were developed as a military response to a military situation. However, as those camps developed over time, largely in response to the humanitarian backlash, I believe (at least from the evidence I have seen) that they became much more than a simple military solution but a way to teach the Boers the English language and English values. It might be a stretch, but I do wonder if any of these changes were modelled on early types of camps--refugee camps, relief camps, native settlements, etc.

Anyway, all the best and thanks for your insight.
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby jersey » 10 Nov 2009 05:49

Hi,
In reading several books of the Boer war I have not been able to see any reference to aboriginal trackers. I mean, to start why would you need them, remembering that columns
of troops with their associated carts and waggons were at times 15 to 20 miles long. Even blind freddy could track that lot. I am not even sure if opposing forces were
interested in stragglers, the main object being to bring to battle a commando or larger. Furthermore I can't remember in any war where they may have been used. The general use
of a tracker was to trail a single absconder and hopefully bring him to justice.
David
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby SWB » 10 Nov 2009 09:27

but a way to teach the Boers the English language and English values


I do think this was a very minor consideration and came about because certain sections of Victorian society couldn't help themselves when the opportunity for missionary and 'civilising foreigners' work presented itself. Again, going back to the Treaty of Vereeniging, under the treaty the status of Dutch and Afrikaans as official languages was assured.

The camps themselves were not established for long; they were costly, caused too much controversy and under the Treaty the British promised to re-settle the Boers on their farms.

For Britain the post-war settlement was all about ending the enormous expense asscoiated with the war, securing stable government for what was to become a united South Africa and ensuring greater wealth and opportunity for the British Empire. The British gave away so much to the 'enemy' in the peace settlement I don't think they can accused of cultural imperialism. In effect the British fought the war only to give political control of the British colonies (the Cape and Natal) to Afrikaners when a united South Africa was created in 1910 under the leadership of the former Boer general Louis Botha.

David - in the guerilla phase of the war the Boers generally didn't have the great columns you write of. Yes, there were some, but most Boers abandoned their wagons to increase their speed over the veldt. This is how they escaped from some pretty tight corners and why it became so important for the British to remove the Boer population from their farms which were small re-supply bases. I haven't come across references to aboriginal trackers but I can see why they might be needed.

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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby jersey » 11 Nov 2009 10:01

Argument absorbed. But did the British units chase individual Boers. Returning to the problem of black trackers, I have no evidence that they may have been attached to the Australian units that went to SA. I certainly don't think that they would have travelled there via passenger ship away from the main force of troops that went.

Added to this was the treatment handed out to the indigenous people in those which was probably worse than disgraceful. It took a lot of breaking down racial barriers even before they were allowed to enlist in Australias armed forced. If I remember correctly the first instance of an aboriginal becoming an officer did not occur until WW2. Incidentally, what a good officer he was too.

Finally, I have just finished reading "The Australians at the Boer War" by R L Wallace. This book was published in 1976 by the AWM and there is no mention of trackers at all. Is a good read too, had to get it thru a second hand bookshop as the tome is by now out of print.

Cheers David
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby SWB » 11 Nov 2009 13:15

Hello David,

You are right, this question of aboriginal trackers is simply supposition without any proof. I am sure Wallace would have mentioned them.

I have just dipped into the excellent collection of articles about NZ and the war One Flag One Queen One Tongue (Crawford & McGibbon, Auckland UP 2003). In a piece on the Maori and the war it is clear that the Imperial authorities very firmly refused any offers of Maoris serving en bloc.

Surmising on, why should the Imperial authorities treat Aborigines any differently? But one thing I've learnt about the Anglo-Boer War in 25 years of study is that it continually throws up surprises and there is much research to be done (and even more to be read).

Regards
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby jersey » 11 Nov 2009 23:52

Meurig,
Another book that I am currently is "The Boer War Generals" by Peter Trew, very interesting too, it gives pen pics of the main players of the war. One thing that has surprised me is in his introduction that one of the strengths of the British army was its versatility and its weakness was the lack of staff work. He cites the comparison of Germany which employed 300 officers on the General Staff whilst Britain had only 17 officers employed in the same capacity. I don't know why thisoccurred - was it as a result of the far flung operations to all corners of the earth of the Imperial army or had they just not caught up with modern techniques of staff work. No doubt the answer will arise somewhere.
Cheers David
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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby SWB » 12 Nov 2009 22:23

Hello David,

The problem with British staff work was that it was organised by the commander of whichever campaign/expedition was beign fought. The two strongest personalities Lord Roberts and Viscount Wolsley each had their coterie or 'Ring' of faithful subordinates who tended to be selected for commands and staff work. This worked fine for the typical small Victorian colonial campaign, but the Boer War was far too big for this very British system. Fortunately they learnt the lessons by 1914.

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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby sidney7 » 31 May 2010 03:50

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Re: Role of Australian Aboriginal trackers

Postby SWB » 31 May 2010 08:31

Hi,

Thanks for the link. Unfortunately Kerwin seems to be repeating what was already known (see earlier posts). Perhaps he has just managed to get the media interested.

I have yet to see a reference to or copy of KItchener's request for "trackers". I know Kerwin wasn't going to give that in a short TV interview. On reading a transcript http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2010/s2913714.htm?site=melbourne it seems there is still some debate on the role of these Aborginals -
bullock drovers and trackers as such
. While these guys may have been trackers in Oz were they used as such in the war?

When selecting ancillaries for a campign like the Anglo-Boer War you would choose a guy used to living rough in the bush over a 'townie' and perhaps the word 'tracker' is way of describing these guys from their role in Australia.

Been trying to find a copy of Huggonson's The Black Trackers of Bloemfontein with no luck but did find more about its contents: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/tracking-the-trackers-hunt-begins-for-abandoned-bushmen-20090907-fd26.html

Good to see research in progress.

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