A letter held by the Ration Shed Museum clearly demonstrates the commitment the residents of the Barambah Aboriginal Settlement made to Australia’s war effort. Events were held throughout the war, the first of which was a fundraising social and dance in September 1914. The proceeds of £6/14/1 were forwarded to the Queensland Patriotic Fund, and duly acknowledged with the letter now held in the collection.
At the time of the Great War, Indigenous Australians had few rights and many had been forcibly removed from their homes and ‘resettled’ on reserves or settlements such as Barambah under the control of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Indigenous men attempted to enlist, but the majority were rejected. With declining enlistments after the defeat of the first conscription referendum in October 1916, policy changed. Under Military Order 200(2) of 1917, ‘Medical Officers had to be satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin’, which allowed previously rejected mixed blood men to reapply. On 14 May 1917 seventeen Barambah men were accepted.
Ten days later, Recruiting Officer Lieutenant Colonel Garland gave a stirring address at the Empire Day recruiting drive in Brisbane, urging young men to enlist. In a carefully choreographed move, a long line of Light Horsemen rode by, each leading a riderless horse. The seventeen Barambah men leapt into the saddles, demonstrating their patriotism and willingness to serve, but their army service did not last.
Their service files note: ‘Discharged 13/6/17 having been irregularly enlisted. Character good’. The Brisbane Courier received a letter from the rejected men, claiming they were taken home under police escort, ‘like a lot of prisoners’ without their pay and discharge papers. The AIF’s response was that ‘a coloured man must have been associated with white people for some time prior to enlistment’. The men were considered to be too dark to be of mixed race and ‘would not make soldiers’.
Discharged enlistee Private Harry Baker’s Service Record contains a page of portraits; amongst them are perhaps the only images of these men in uniform.
Later, other men from Barambah successfully enlisted and were likely to be treated equitably. One of these, Trooper Frank Fisher, served with the 11th Light Horse until the end of the war.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Soldiers of the First World War