The British Army was Australia’s army for the better part of one hundred years. Australia, as a British colony, was governed and garrisoned just as any other part of the empire.
There are a number of sites that deal with the minutia of the British Army regiments, two very good ones being the History of British Redcoats and British Army in Australia. Both these sites provide general service history but without military detail.
They do give a very good idea though of what troops were up to when not engaged on military operations as well as organisational detail – definitely both worth a close look to get a good feel for who was in Australia, doing what and where.
Information for this post is largely drawn from the excellent ‘current’ and defunct diggerhistory webblog. I have reproduced relevant sections here to make it much easier to access content with a wargamer’s focus and streamline it into relevant sections . I’ve also interlaced here and there research commentary related to Frontier conflict relevant to our area of interest.
Thus, this provides us with an overview of the British Army activities in Australia and I’ve opted to include the many details about all aspects of the army’s activities at the time to enable a ‘wider view’ of the army’s role ie overseeing labour chain gangs, police enforcement, hunting bushrangers and Frontier Warfare. You should have a good feel for the thrust of the British army’s operations in Australia from the three posts in this series.
Tracking down information on the British Army and its activities is not as easy as one would hope, so in this case I have made use of information relevant to further knowledge in our area of interest as well as including interesting anecdotes to get a sense of service in Australia. It is more wide ranging than just army vs aboriginal confrontation as this provides a better perspective of the army’s overall role in the colony.
The usually accessible Osprey title series are very limited in information and are not overly useful as some information is dated as contemporary research is now showing. Few books deal with British Army service in the colony during this period so these few posts will nicely summate the British army’s activities for our purposes, though they cannot hope to cover it all – it is a starting point.
Therefore the purpose of this post is to provide an overview and specific focus on mainly military aspects of the Army’s service, primarily with a focus on their Frontier Wars service, but also including background information deemed appropriate. It therefore provides a nice ‘snapshot’ of the various stages of the British army’s service history in Australia.
The British military presence was first established in Australia by the three companies of marines commanded by Maj. Robert Ross in January 1788. The Marines, soon to be the Royal Marines, provided the initial military presence until a more permanent solution could be made in the new colony of Australia. This was achieved when the New South Wales Corps was established.
This force, which was to serve for 20 years, provided the military muscle in the initial stages of early settlement. They were engaged in actions against rebellious convicts as well as operations against local natives and numerous civil tasks as was the usual case for British military forces of the day.
With the arrival of Lachlan Macquarie as governor in 1809, the British Army was to have a constant presence in Australia for the next 60 years. Macquarie’s 73rd regiment was the first of many units to serve in a rotational system as was common throughout the British empire at that time.
This system involved dispatching units from Britain to Australia to serve for a period of approximately 6 years, possibly in New Zealand as well, then return via India and then once more back to Britain. Only infantry units were ever sent to Australia despite some calls by the governors for a cavalry force to deal with the expanding frontier warfare requirements.
In the end a local solution was found by the establishment of the NSW mounted police in 1825. Governor Macquarie also advocated for the creation of local militia forces but this was rejected by British budgetary officials and several other attempts, even as late as the 1840s, were all rejected in favour of the judicious use of army units.
Initially only one regiment was sent to Australia at any one time up until the early 1820s, whereby three were subsequently posted to the expanding colonies from 1824. This process involved a further expansion such that four to six regular infantry regiments were present in Australia by the mid 1820s up until the late 1840s, reaching a highpoint of 5,369 officers and men were serving in 1847.
This increasing military presence was due to the expanding requirements of garrisoning a larger number of new settlements around the country, combined with the need to still function in a civil police role and provide security for the expanding frontier against bushranging and aboriginal resistance within Australia at that time.
With the expansion of the mounted police in its various forms, employing both ex military men and later on native soldiers, the burden passed from the British Army to local forces. Though bushrangers were to intermittently cause problems now and again the established mounted police force was sufficient to deal with those duties. The Mounted police throughout the country also took on the main role of fighting on the frontier.
Further budgetary cuts with the incoming government in Britain caused the reduction of forces down to 3,035 officers and men in 1851. Further reductions in the needs for a military presence along with the inherent increased costs resulted in only two units been dispatched to Australia up to 1857, after which only one unit was present until the last British unit, the 18th Royal Irish, left in 1870 – many taking discharge to pursue new opportunities in a prosperous country.
On 13 May 1787 a convoy of six convict transports, three store-ships and His Majesty’s Ships Sirius and Supply, the ‘First Fleet’ 9 sailed from Spithead to found a penal colony at Botany Bay in New South Wales. Among the 1487 persons aboard were 213 Marines commanded by Major Robert Ross.
After a relatively healthy voyage of nearly eight months the fleet arrived in Port Jackson, a large harbour north of Botany Bay after the original site had been found to be unsuitable for settlement. The fleet’s 736 convicts were rowed ashore to establish the first permanent settlement in Australia, which was proclaimed on 26 January 1788. Two days later the Marines with their wives and children disembarked to begin an unhappy three-and-a-half years in New South Wales. The Marines helped literally to build the new colony.
Captain Arthur Phillip, the naval Governor of the colony, found carpenters and sawyers among the Marines and set them to work alongside the convicts – they were not happy. The officer in charge Major Ross, was found to be troublesome by Arthur, who eventually dispatched Ross in March 1790 to Norfolk island, 1600 kilometres west of Sydney. In Sydney, the Marines endured privations and most hoped to return home as soon as their three-year tour expired.
Late in 1790 the Marines were at last called upon to perform the military duties for which the officers had reserved themselves. The Aborigines around Sydney had quickly realised the purpose and power of the Europeans’ weapons. Even before the settlement was proclaimed Surgeon George Worgan saw an Aborigine of the Eora people boldly go up to a Marine and inspect his musket. The man ‘felt the point of the bayonet, looked very serious and gave a significant “Hum!”‘
Surgeon John White observed that the Aborigines ‘know and dread the superiority of our arms … from the first they carefully avoided a soldier’. Although Phillip’s policy towards the Blacks had been compassionate and conciliatory, the death of his gamekeeper at their hands prompted him to order a punitive expedition, the first of many mounted over the next century.
Under the command of Captain Tench a party of Marines was sent on 14 December to capture or kill six ‘Indians’, as the Aborigines were at first called. Tench’s men carried hatchets and baskets in which to carry the heads of the Blacks they expected to kill. The expedition, consisting of Tench, three officers of the newly-arrived New South Wales Corps, two surgeons and 46 Marines including Private Easty, set off toward Botany Bay, twelve kilometres south of Sydney Cove.
On the 15th the party saw some Aborigines, but they outdistanced the heavily laden Marines and on the following day Tench and his men returned to Sydney, at one point wading through water breast high. Easty described the expedition as a ‘Troublesome, Tedious March’.
A week later Tench led a second expedition of two officers of the corps and 32 Marines towards Botany Bay. Marching at night in what was probably a vain attempt to deceive the Aborigines, the party once more became stranded in one of the boggy creeks on the northern shore of the bay. This time the detachment was caught in waist-deep mud, especially a burly grenadier sergeant who had to be extricated with the rope brought to secure captive Blacks.
Later Tench divided his force into three parts and carefully enveloped an Aboriginal camp but was surprised to find that they had escaped days before. After marching fruitlessly about the beach for several miles the detachment hurried back to avoid being caught by the tide and returned wearily to Sydney on Christmas Eve. Easty described it as ‘a most teadious march as ever men went in the time’.
The Marines, members of the Royal Navy, remained in New South Wales only as long as they had to, and from 1790 Australia was to be garrisoned by the army. Most of the Marines, prey to starvation, lethargy and despair, departed without regret in December 1791, though some fifty men chose to remain as settlers near Sydney or on Norfolk Island. Most, however, echoed Tench, who hailed his departure with “rapture and exultation”.
New South Wales Corps (1790-1810)
The dissatisfactions among Major Ross’ Marines prompted the British government to replace them with the New South Wales Corps, the so called ‘Rum Corps” a colonial regiment raised specifically for service in Australia. Major Francis Grose, a veteran of the American war, was empowered to raise the new corps.
Grose enlisted three hundred men from London, Chatham and Portsmouth and sailed for New South Wales late in 1789. After brief service as marines aboard the ships of the Channel fleet the remainder of the corps arrived in Sydney in 1792 and, rarely more than 500 strong, formed the garrison of the penal colony for the next twenty years. This force had over 1600 men serve in its ranks, virtually 15 percent of the male population of New South Wales.
The corps’ reputation has suffered from its officers’ attempts to influence, overrule and eventually overthrow the authority of the colony’s naval governors. Its rank and file are still slandered as delinquents and drunkards. This portrayal began quite early in its history when Governor John Hunter described its members as ‘soldiers from the Savoy’, a military prison in London, and as ‘characters who have been considered disgraceful to every other regiment’ .
The New South Wales Corps certainly contained men who had been convicted criminals, and eventually accepted emancipated convicts, free men, seamen and unsuccessful Marine settlers into its ranks. But it was no more a repository for criminals than any other British line regiment recruited during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
Life in New South Wales did not encourage the corps’ men to be anything but turbulent. The rank and file lived in huts around Sydney Cove, mixing with convicts and emancipists, while their officers were often more attentive to their commercial than their military concerns. Despite these difficulties the corps was employed as a regular military force around Sydney, at the new settlement at Coal River, on Norfolk Island and in Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known until the 1850s.
There were plans to use the corps in expeditions against Panama, Peru and the Philippines, but nothing eventuated and the corps’ first experience of war came in January 1795 on the Hawkesbury River north-west of Sydney.
The Daruk people of the Hawkesbury opposed the first white settlement of the rich agricultural district in the early 1790s. The settlers retaliated with great cruelty and parties of the corps were despatched to the river to intervene and to suppress Aboriginal resistance. By May 1795 the soldiers were involved in what was described as ‘open war’ along the Hawkesbury, the beginning of a savage guerrilla struggle which ended twenty years later with the extinction of the Daruk.
The men of the corps were inexperienced in such warfare. A party sent out by Captain William Paterson to ‘destroy as many as they could meet with of the wood tribe’ expected to strike terror into the Daruk by erecting gibbets in the bush: the Daruk were only later to realise what they signified. By mid-1795 up to a quarter of the corps was operating along the river.
Aborigines were not, however, the most formidable of the corps’ opponents. New South Wales’ rulers feared convict insurrection far more. From 1800, with the arrival of large numbers of Irish convicts transported after the 1798 rebellion, rumours arose that a rising was planned. Searches were made for concealed pikes, men were flogged to reveal often imaginary plans and the corps was alerted to deal with insurrection.
The ‘daring behaviour’ of the convicts on the government farm at Castle Hill early in 1804 had prompted Governor Phillip King to increase its military guard and send his small mounted bodyguard to Parramatta to join the sixty men of the corps stationed there. A fire broke out on the farm on the evening of Saturday, 4 March 1804. In the confusion the convicts put into operation their plans for rebellion. The leader, Phillip Cunningham, an ex-soldier, led 200 convicts to seize arms and flog the government scourger.
They moved off to rouse convict labourers on neighbouring farms. The rebels, most of whom were Irish, apparently intended to take Parramatta, the second town of the colony, and march to Sydney to capture ships to take them to freedom. After dithering before Parramatta they moved off to the north-west. By next morning some 300 men were moving north-west towards the Hawkesbury River to enlist more insurgents.
Word reached the garrison at Parramatta later on Saturday evening. Governor King in Sydney was informed around midnight. By 1.30 on Sunday morning Major George Johnston had set out for Parramatta with 54 men of the corps. King himself rode to Parramatta immediately, arriving at 3 a.m. At the time some 300 men of the corps and four 6-pounder guns were in Sydney, but the governor feared an outbreak of the more numerous Irish convicts in the town and Johnston marched west with barely a company.
Based on a portrait of Major George Johnston, this illustration depicts an officer of the corps at the height of its influence in the colony. Johnston arrived in New South Wales as an officer of Marines in 1788.
He commanded a company of the New South Wales Corps in 1792, led the suppression of the Castle Hill rising in 1804 and, as the pawn of Captain John Macarthur, deposed Governor Bligh in 1808. Johnston was cashiered in 1811 as a result of the coup but returned to Australia to settle, where he died in 1823.
Johnston’s men, having marched through the night, arrived in Parramatta at dawn and stopped for twenty minutes for breakfast. King and Johnston planned their next move: the party was divided into two, and Lieutenant Davies was sent north to Castle Hill.
Johnston himself took a dozen civilians and 28 men under Quartermaster Thomas Laycock north-west towards Toongabbie. There he was informed that the rebels were a short distance ahead and his small force deployed to meet them. It transpired that the rebels were further along the road and Johnston set off to catch them.
Sixteen kilometres beyond Toongabbie Johnston and Thomas Andlesack, a member of the governor’s bodyguard, outdistanced Laycock’s platoon and found some three hundred rebels ahead. After Johnston called for their surrender they formed a ragged line across the road on a slight rise.
Johnston and Andlesack trotted to within fifty yards of the rebel position and called for a parley. A Catholic priest attempted to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms but they refused. The insurgents in turn asked Johnston to come among them to treat with their leaders, an offer which the Major, suspecting a plot to kill him, prudently declined.
Johnston then asked the rebel leaders to meet him in the open. After some deliberation, for neither side trusted the other, the rebel leaders Cunningham and William Johnston walked out from the rebel ranks, swords in hand. At that point Laycock and his perspiring infantry marched into view. The major seized his opportunity and, as he related:
“clapped my pistol to Johnston’s head, while the trooper did the same to Cunningham, and drove them with their swords in their hands to the Quartermaster”.
This dishonourable but effective ploy put the initiative in the hands of Johnston’s outnumbered detachment. Laycock’s platoon deployed into line, fired a volley-which was met by a few weak shots-and charged the rebel line. The leaderless insurgents broke and fled towards the Hawkesbury, pursued along the road and through the bush by the soldiers and their civilian auxilliaries.
The site of the battle became known as Vinegar Hill after a similar defeat near Wexford in June 1798 during the Irish rebellion. Cunningham himself was hanged at Green Hills (later called Windsor) on the steps of the public store which he had boasted that he would plunder.
The rebellion was quickly suppressed. Most of the insurgents gave themselves up during the 24 hours of grace which the governor proclaimed after hearing of the defeat of the rebels’ main body. Parties of armed settlers scoured the area between Parramatta and the Hawkesbury for several days capturing the remnants of the rebel force. Fifty-one were punished officially -the number killed in battle, summarily executed or who died of their wounds is unknown-eight men were selected as being the principal ringleaders and hanged, nine were severely flogged and thirty-four sentenced to be transported to the penal settlement at the Coal River, later known as Newcastle.
In June 1801 loyal associations of reliable free settlers, officials and emancipists were formed in Sydney and Parramatta in expectation of convict rebellion. The associations drilled under sergeants of the New South Wales Corps and were equipped as soldiers.
Members became reasonably efficient; the Sydney unit once mustered in twenty minutes when a whaling ship suspected of being a French warship appeared off Sydney Heads. In 1804 the Parramatta association took part in the suppression of the Castle Hill rebellion. After the battle at Vinegar Hill Lieutenant Daviess’ platoon of the New South Wales Corps and 38 men of the association marched to Castle Hill to disperse the rebels who had remained where the rebellion had broken out.
The battle of Vinegar Hill ended New South Wales’ most serious convict uprising. Its suppression demonstrated that even after fourteen years of service in a penal colony the New South Wales Corps was able to perform as an effective fighting force, unrestrained though it was in pursuing the defeated rebels. Its opponents were hardly those whom British troops faced in Europe at that time, but they were regarded as a serious threat by the colony’s rulers. Not the least of the corps’ achievements was the march of some fifty kilometres which Johnston’s men made in less than twenty-four hours.
After the suppression of the rebellion the corps enjoyed the gratitude of the governor, but relations soon deteriorated between its officers and Governors King and William Bligh, the former captain of the Bounty, who assumed office in 1806. The officers differed with the new governor over their involvement in the colony’s trade and administration. Several officers, notably Captain John Macarthur, who had prospered through trade in wool and spirits, quarreled with Bligh over personal matters.
Bligh, believing that the corps had become corrupt through service in a convict colony, wished to transfer it. Bligh was probably correct, for however well it performed at Vinegar Hill its officers were unwholesomely powerful, but his manner irritated both officers and men; even the privates complained of Bligh abusing them as ‘wretches’ and ‘tremendous buggers’. On 26 January 1808, the twentieth anniversary of the proclamation of the settlement, the New South Wales Corps marched, at Macarthur’s instigation, to depose Governor Bligh.
The corps’ officers ineffectively (and illegally) ruled the colony for the next two years until the home government restored legitimate authority and court-martialed those responsible for the coup. The ‘Rum Rebellion’, as it became known, resulted in the relief of the corps. It returned to Britain seeing later saw active service in America during the war of 1812 as the 102nd Regiment and was disbanded in 1818.
Despite its dubious reputation much good came from the NSW Corps’ service. Over 400 men and 35 officers settled in Australia after their service and the experience of farming and trading they brought both during and after their service was of great benefit to the emerging colony.
After the problems of the NSW Corps British Army regular units were to provide the mainstay of a military presence in Australia. The 73rd Regiment of Foot was raised in 1780 as the second battalion of the 42nd, the Black Watch. After twenty-six years’ service in India it returned to recruit in Britain in 1806, and in 1809 was ordered to New South Wales. Lachlan Macquarie, the 73rd’s colonel, was appointed governor of the colony, charged with restoring it to order after the officers of the New South Wales Corps had sapped its morale and economy.
Over the next twelve years Macquarie was to reverse New South Wales’ fortunes and restore prosperity in the colony. On New Year’s Day 1810 the regiment was ferried ashore up Sergeant Majors Row towards the old barracks in George Street, the main street of Sydney. There the outgoing New South Wales Corps waited in hollow square, saluting as the 73rd marched in.
After standing for half an hour in the midsummer sun the two regiments were inspected by Macquarie, the officers of the New South Wales Corps and the ‘principal gentlemen of the colony’. Governor Macquarie read his commission, the troops gave a general salute, and the 73rd wheeled into line and marched two miles to its camp at Grose Farm (location of the present day University of Sydney).
That evening Ensign Alexander Huey noted in his diary that the regiments had had “nothing to eat this day but potatoes”. So began sixty years of garrison life for the line regiments of the British army in Australia. Despite its impressive arrival, though, things soon began to go wrong for the 73rd.
Although Macquarie had written to a friend before his departure that ‘we shall go out a very respectable Battalion’ ‘ service in a convict colony soon affected the regiment’s morale and conduct. The effects of the fiery East Indian rum, the cause of so much disorder among the New South Wales Corps, became apparent, while the officers were bored and dissatisfied and complained of the expense of colonial life.
Macquarie requested that the regiment be transferred when he found the soldiers forming “matrimonial or less proper connexions with the Women of the Country” which led them to “lose sight of their military duty and become … identified with the lower class of inhabitants”.
- This private of the 73rd’s light company, wearing full dress and equipment, January 1810. As a light company man he wears tufted wings and a green shako plume. The regiment was known as the 73rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot until shortly before leaving Britain in 1809, when it lost its highland dress. Despite its appearance as a line regiment the 73rd retained a Scottish flavour in its cross-belt plates and buttons, which featured thistles.
Colonel George Molle of the 46th relieved the 73rd in 1814. Macquarie’s regiments were now called upon to act as soldiers during their tours in Australia. Van Diemen’s Land was the jail of convicts transported from New South Wales, itself, a place of banishment. Many desperate convicts sought freedom as robbers in the bush preying upon travellers and the isolated farms of the island. The 46th and 48th were occupied in suppressing a serious outbreak of bushranging from 1814 to 1820.
Late in 1814 Thomas Davey, the island’s morally dissolute but militarily efficient lieutenant-governor, was confronted with the increasingly severe depredations of ‘lawless Banditti … commonly called Bush Rangers’. The magistrates of Hobart Town, the island’s chief settlement, warned of the danger of the island’s convicts joining the bushrangers unless the military dealt with them. The garrison of Van Diemen’s Land met with little success at first, for the bushrangers, employing the tactics of guerrilla warfare amid the island’s dense bush, were elusive and unpredictable.
Macquarie, Davey’s superior, suggested that the 46th should ‘go out after these marauders, to pursue the Banditti in their lurking places. . .’and remain out in search of them for about a month.This system was in essence that which British and Australian troops adopted during the Malayan emergency, 140 years later. Davey sent out more patrols of the 46th, accompanied by convict constables familiar with the bush and soon saw results. The 46th’s campaign against the bushrangers continued with persistence and cunning.
The search entailed long marches through unfamiliar country in constant expectation of ambush. When action came it was often quick and savage. Ensign Mahon, leading a party in the north of Van Diemen’s Land in February 1817, discovered three bushrangers lying in ambush. He surprised them, pursued and killed all three, and, ‘thinking it necessary to produce their heads … ordered them cut off’.
Detachments of the 46th (South Devonshire) Regiment saw hard service in Van Diemen’s Land against bushrangers. This plate depicts a corporal of the regiment as he would have appeared after several months campaigning in the bush. His pack has been replaced by a blanket roll and haversack, while civilian trousers have been substituted for the blue-green) overalls issued to him by the Quartermaster. The leather straps, usually pipe-clayed, have reverted to dull leather. This soldier wears a feather from a native bird in what remains of his felt ‘Belgic’ shako.
By May 1817 Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell, Davey’s successor, had several patrols of soldiers active, some in disguise. Though it was thought that the number of bushrangers was reduced to less than a dozen they remained a formidable enemy. Sorell explained that “their perfect knowledge of the Country and habits of fatigue, temperance and caution render them a difficult adversary”.
In June a group of bushrangers led by Michael Howe descended on George Town, on the estuary of the River Tamar. They surprised its small military guard in their sleep and enjoyed the town’s limited hospitality before escaping. Sorell lamented that ‘Our Young Soldiers are not Knowing enough’. The next month, however, a Corporal Justin McCarthy and seven privates of the 46th demonstrated that they were learning.
They caught up with Peter Geary, one of the most notorious remaining bushrangers. Geary, a deserter from the 73rd, and ten others were well armed with muskets and pistols. A fight of one-and a-half hours ensued, by the end of which Geary was mortally wounded and two of his men killed. Two were captured and the remainder escaped, led by a former Rifleman named Septon. All were captured or killed in August 1817.
After Geary’s death Sorell confidently informed Macquarie that ‘the bushranging system is now nearly annihilated’, but it was not until a year later that Michael Howe, the most skilful of the bushrangers, was killed. Howe, a Yorkshireman who had deserted both the army and the navy, had been transported for highway robbery in 1811. He had given himself up three times but had escaped each time to return to bushranging, arrogantly styling himself the ‘Lieutenant-Governor of the Woods’. In October 1818 Private William Pugh of the 48th and a convict named Thomas Worrall set out to find and take him.
A bushranger in Van Diemen’s Land, 1818 (left). Some Sixty bushrangers, mostly escaped convicts, were active in the island by 1807, only four years after the colony’s establishment. This drawing depicts Michael Howe, who was described as wearing ‘pistols in his belt, . . . a fustian jacket, a kangaroo-skin cap and waistcoat, with leather gaiters, and dirty velveteen breeches’. The latter were probably taken from a wealthy settler, though bushrangers were impartial in their choice of victim.
Early bushrangers went on foot but by the 1820s those in New South Wales (right) were mounted, necessitating the formation in 1825 of the Mounted Police. Even when he was mobile, however, a bushranger’s brief career was, as ‘Buchan Charley’ explained in the 1840s, ‘Wretched beyond conception’. The outlaws were ‘hunted day and night by the mounted police; prevented from sleeping or even taking a meal in peace… by the knowledge that they were always on his track’.
On the information of a kangaroo hunter named Warburton, Pugh and Worrall located Howe’s hut near the Shannon River in the centre of the island. They waited at the hut for Howe to appear, arriving before dawn and eating a hearty breakfast. An hour later Howe arrived with the kangaroo hunter but, suspecting an ambush did not approach for another hour. He slowly entered the hut, his musket cocked. Seeing the soldier and the convict he cried ‘Is that your game?’ and fired. Pugh knocked Howe’s gun aside and he ran off, but fell down a bank and was cornered by Worrall’s pistol. Howe also drew his pistol and fired, but missed. Worrall’s shot hit Howe, and he and Pugh ‘struck Howe to the ground with the Butts of their Guns and he spoke no more’.
Macquarie, though pleased to see the last bushranger dead, was nevertheless sorry that he had not been able to hang him, but wished to reward Private Pugh with a discharge. This Colonel Molle refused, claiming that Pugh’s ‘bad, dissipated conduct’ prevented such a favour, and he received only :C50 and the governor’s thanks.
The expansion of New South Wales under Macquarie brought more and varied duties to the regiments of the garrison. In 1815 the Blue Mountains, impenetrable since 1788, were crossed by a rough road and military detachments were stationed at lonely mountain barracks to police it.
Bathurst, the major inland town, became a military post while the settlement of the Hunter Valley by wealthy immigrants and their convict labourers resulted in the strengthening of the force at Newcastle. Despite this expansion of responsibility the garrison declined in numbers, mostly as a result of the home government’s concern to economise. In 1819 the 48th consisted of only 650 rank and file, and, though Macquarie had formed an Invalid Company from men of the New South Wales Corps who wished to remain, his force was insufficient for its duties. Fearing convict unrest and Aboriginal resistance to the spread of settlement, Macquarie requested that two more regiments be sent to Australia.
For its first twenty years settlement in New South Wales was confined largely to the Cumberland Plain about Sydney. After the defeat of the Daruk, open conflict with the Aborigines broke out once again as explorers and colonists moved north, south and west of the settled area. Macquarie regarded one of his troops’ duties as the protection of those who settled new country and from 1813 there were frequent clashes on the frontier.
The Europeans explained such resistance by referring to the Aborigines’ ‘Spirit of Animosity and Hostility’, as if the invasion of their land would call for any other response but armed resistance. Parties of troops were sent to farms west of the Nepean River to the south-west of Sydney in order to guard the isolated settlements, but Macquarie decided that nothing but ‘signal and severe examples’ would deter the Blacks from armed resistance.
Governor Macquarie formed an ‘Invalid or Veteran Company’ of 100 rank and file of the 102nd, formerly the New South Wales Corps, in March 1810. Although increasing the number of troops which Macquarie could call upon the veterans did not increase the effectiveness of his force. In 1822 Governor Brisbane complained that ‘there is not one of them that I consider fit for service’.
The company last paraded in September 1823, when it was commanded by Captain Brabyn, a former Marine officer. Between 1825 and 1833 the expedient was repeated when three companies of New South Wales Veterans’ Companies were raised in Britain for service as mounted police in New South Wales and Tasmania.
The men, mostly former cavalrymen, were described as ‘the most drunken, disorderly. worthless set of fellows that ever existed’. They were notoriously inefficient; four men were sent in 1827 to join the Mounted Police from Sydney, but ‘before they had reached the end of the first day’s march they had lost their carbine’s, pistols and sabres’.
In April 1816, therefore, he ordered the 46th to mount the largest expedition undertaken while he was governor. Three detachments of the regiment, the light company under Captain Schaw, the grenadiers under Captain Wallis and a battalion company under Lieutenant Davie were sent toward the Airds district. This ‘necessary but painful Duty’, as Macquarie described it, took the three detachments twenty-three days to complete. The heavily encumbered troops moved much more slowly-and noisily- than the Blacks, who shadowed the columns and retreated further into the bush at their approach. Wallis’ grenadiers secured five prisoners, but many Aborigines threw themselves in terror off a cliff rather than be taken.
Macquarie was consoled to learn that among the dead were ‘two of the most ferocious and Sanguinary of the natives’ including Camanbigal, the apparent leader of the band. Reducing the Aborigines to obedience was no easy task, as the army was to learn on many occasions in the future.