Derby Police Journals go to Canberra

Lise Summers Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 12:06

A guest blog from George Main, from the National Museum of Australia.

Notes made by Constable Napier in his police journal, 1907.  (WAS 76,cons 430, 1907/1571)

Brief description from PC Napier about Aboriginal prisoners.

My name is George Main, and I work as a curator at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. In 2011 the Museum opened a new gallery called Landmarks: People and Places around Australia. This gallery explores a broad history of Australia through stories of places and their peoples. In the ‘Grazing the Grasslands’ section, the West Kimberley town of Derby features as one of four places through which stories of Australian pastoralism are told.

The Derby exhibit contains a rich array of objects, from prize cups won by the pioneering Emanuel family for their Shorthorn cattle, to boab ‘nuts’ carved by local Aboriginal man Jack Wherra in the 1960s. Also on display are pages from police journals held by the State Records Office of WA (SROWA), generously on loan to the Museum. These documents offer fascinating insights into the tense and often bloody relationships that existed between Aboriginal groups in the West Kimberley, pastoralists and police.

When pastoralists moved into the west Kimberley region in the 1880s, they occupied the territories of the Nyikina, Warawa, Bunuba, Yungngora and other Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal men and women resisted pastoral settlement by burning pastures and livestock, making deadly spearheads of glass and iron, and fighting police and pastoralists with guns. Settlers and colonial authorities responded with their own weapons. In a major uprising in 1894, police shot 50 Aboriginal people on west Kimberley stations.

During the decades of conflict, police arrested many Aboriginal men for killing cattle and walked them to Derby for trial. In 1909 alone, the town magistrate convicted 113 Aboriginal men for such crimes. Cattlekillers were sentenced to years of hard labour. Some served their sentences in Derby; others were sent to prisons as far away as Rottnest Island. The pages on loan from SROWA record the long journeys made by policemen as they walked Aboriginal prisoners arrested for cattle killing into Derby for trial.

To learn more about the Landmarks gallery and the Derby exhibit, click here:


Gravesite of PC Napier

The grave of policeman William Richardson, a victim of the West Kimberley conflict, Derby. Photography by George Main, National Museum of Australia.