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Overland Telegraphic

These paragraphs are from "A force Apart" - a thesis by Dr Bill Wilson

The third industry with a bearing on the development of the police was communications, including the Overland Telegraph Line, shipping, railways, motor vehicles and eventually, aircraft. The development of the Overland Telegraph Line led to the establishment of telegraph repeater stations which became outposts of European settlement in the interior of the Northern Territory. These small European communities became convenient places for police stations to be established. Police were required at the railheads and other convenient sites along the North Australia Railway. The railway from Adelaide to Alice Springs had the same result, however, this was not completed until 1929. Again, an industry led directly to the establishment of police stations. The police stations built because of communications appear at figure 7. A most unusual event occurred during the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line. When construction of the northern section of the line fell behind schedule, the original contract was cancelled and Robert Charles Patterson was appointed to complete the work. Patterson was a railway engineer, tasked to rapidly complete the Overland Telegraph Line so that the South Australian Government did not incur penalties for failing to meet its contractual obligations. It became clear to Patterson, after he had commenced work, that unless he received additional labourers quickly, he would have to withdraw to the Roper River depot for the duration of the approaching wet season.148 The Government placed a high priority on completion of the Overland Telegraph Line and cast about for the additional human resources to help Patterson. Among the reinforcements were the men of the police force. In October 1871, ‘the whole force with horses [was] transferred to Mr. Patterson, Commander of the N.T. Overland Telegraph Expedition’.149 The police remained under Patterson’s command, acting as guards, bullock drivers, couriers, police and storekeepers, until February 1872 when they returned to normal duties to deal with an influx of prospectors.150 In a most unusual arrangement, the entire police establishment was seconded to work under civilian direction for another branch of government. In many instances, the work the police officers undertook was not that of police but storekeepers and drovers.151 There is no similar instance of a police force being transferred to command of another organisation. Race relations were also a major issue for police along the Overland Telegraph Line. Following the Barrow Creek massacre, police sided with Europeans against Aboriginal people.152 There are many instances of Europeans employed on the Telegraph Line coming into conflict with Aboriginal people and police taking the part of the Europeans. One example is the murder of telegraph stationmaster Johnstone and the wounding of two other Europeans, Daer and Richards, at Leichhardt’s Bar (now Roper Bar) in July 1875. Corporal George Montagu,153 with a party of 14 including one other police officer and Overland Telegraph staff, was despatched from Daly Waters to apprehend the suspects.154 Foelsche instructed Montagu to capture the offenders dead or alive and deal firmly with any resistance. Foelsche concluded, ‘I cannot give you orders to shoot all the natives you come across but circumstances may occur for which I cannot provide definite instructions’.155 This was Foelsche being duplicitous. Unwilling to commit his real instructions to writing he was suggesting to Montagu that he kill any Aboriginal people he found. Montagu located one camp in which there were ‘one very old man and some Lubras and Piccannies’ [sic].156 The party destroyed weapons and then smashed the camp.157 Montagu’s expedition led to ill feeling developing between police officers and J.A.G. Little, a telegraph officer, who led a party in support of Montagu and who killed two unidentified Aboriginal people.158 Montagu was incensed by these killings, which appears strange in light of his later actions.159 Sir Charles Todd, the Postmaster General, and Telegraph staff supported Little’s actions, noting that a very strong feeling existed in the telegraph service after events at the Barrow Creek and Roper Bar and this may have prompted Little’s party to act in a manner which the police could not sanction or authorise.160 Punitive raids such as this emphasise the questionable morality of having unsworn civilians accompanying police on these expeditions. Foucault’s interpretation would have been that the punishment was illegitimate because the punishing power had soiled its hands with a crime greater than the one it wished to punish.161 Allegations reached Foelsche that Aborigines were stealing iron from the footplates of the poles, between which the wire was strung, in order to make fishhooks and tomahawks.162 On this occasion, Foelsche sided with the Aborigines rather than Todd, suggesting that teamsters caused more damage than ‘natives’.163 Todd disagreed, but the matter went no further.164 Again, it can be seen that on the violence continuum with respect to the telegraph line police acted against Aboriginal people in a harsh, repressive manner, only occasionally regressing towards a more balanced approach. 147 John Lewis. Fought and Won. (Adelaide: W.K. Thomas & Co, 1922), pp. 102-103. 148 Centenary of the Adelaide – Darwin Overland Telegraph Line. Papers Presented to a Symposium, The Institution of Engineers Australia and the Australian Post Office, August 1972. 149 Correspondence, PCO 1/817/73, SAPHS. 150 Correspondence, PCO 59/72, SAPHS. 151 Foelsche to the Commissioner, date not legible, PCO 817/73. 152 More detail of the Massacre is given in Chapter 8. More complete details of the events surrounding the killings at Daly River are given in Reid. A Picnic with the Natives, pp. 82, 99-112. 153 See also Montagu’s actions at Daly River recounted in Chapter page XXX 154 Montagu to Foelsche, 6 October 1875, SRSA, GRG 1/439/1875. 155 Foelsche to Montagu, 19 July 1875, SRSA, GRG 1/439/1875. 156 Montagu to Foelsche, 6 October 1875, SRSA, GRG 1/439/1875. 157 Montagu to Foelsche, 6 October 1875, SRSA, GRG 1/439/1875. 158 Todd to the Attorney General, 6 January 1876, SRSA, GRG 1/439/1875. 159 See page 285. 160 Todd to the Attorney General, 6 January 1876, SRSA, GRG 1/439/1875. 161 Foucault. Discipline and Punish, p. 56.

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