Rare photo of Indigenous involvement in the Boer War

A war raged across South Africa between Britain and the two Dutch-Afrikaner, or Boer, Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free States from 10 October 1899 to the end of May 1902.

Despite fighting between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and British colonialists occurring within Australia as recently as 1899, there was still an Indigenous presence in this first full Australian commitment to a foreign military campaign.

When the war broke out, Australia was made up of six colonies. On the verge of federation, the war was seen as an opportunity for Australia to define its identity and show its commitment to the British Empire.

Indigenous Liaison Officer and Curator at the Australian War Memorial Gary Oakley said when war broke out the colonies offered to send troops to South Africa to fight the Boers.

“Not only did the states send troops but men in Australia volunteered as well and paid their own way over there. So there were state developed units, up until the point where we then federated, then started sending soldiers over under the name Australia. But there were also local units formed in South Africa.”

Over 16,000 troops were engaged in the Australian contingents and another 7,000 Australians fought in other colonial and irregular units.

“There were Indigenous Australians in Light Horse Units,” Gary said. “They either came from rural areas to join up as regular soldiers, or some units actually took over a tracker and the records say they took a tracker over with them, and then they came back with the unit.

“Very little is known about these men. Personally I have about nine names. The author of the official history of the Boer War written for the Australian War Memorial believes there are about a dozen known in total. What are even harder to find than their names is photos of these men!”

In 2013, AIATSIS Collections Manager Barry Cundy came across a very rare original photo of the Men of the 4th Contingent, Queensland Imperial Bushmen, on their return from the Boer War in August 1901.

The vintage silver gelatin photograph on the original flush-cut mount was in excellent condition. But even more astounding was the Aboriginal serviceman clearly visible in the right side of the photo. Barry said the photograph is reproduced in the pictorial supplement of The Queenslander, August 17, 1901.

“The photo is captioned 'Men of the Fourth Queensland Contingent who returned to Brisbane last week' and is credited to a man named W.T Farrell of Tosca Portrait Studios,” said Barry.

“We’ve discovered this was the first regiment of Imperial Bushmen raised in Queensland and that candidates were required to be good shots, good riders, and practical bushmen of experience.

“Our initial research suggests the serviceman’s name may be Martin Grogan, but community help is needed to make a positive identification.”

Last reviewed: 11 Sep 2015