Colonial Australian detectives

What is the difference between police and detectives in colonial Australia? A quick look at Rolf Boldrewood’s bushranger novel Robbery Under Arms (serialized 1882-83) can give us, as it were, a clue. This novel is set in the 1840s and 1850s, just as the colonial detective is emerging as a recognizable local type. As Dick Marston, Captain Starlight and other bushrangers rob and plunder the colonies, newspapers routinely complain about the inability of police to protect colonial wealth and property. One local journalist remarks, ‘We have always regarded the present system – facetiously called police protection – as a farce’; on the other hand, from the bushrangers’ perspective ‘[t]he whole place seemed to be alive with police’ and the country is ‘thick with police stations’. The police are supposed to protect settler colonials from crime, but they fail to do so. On the other hand, the police are everywhere, reflecting the sense that colonial Australia developed first and foremost (and rapidly) as a panopticon.

When Starlight and Marston are arrested early on, the latter observes: ‘Detectives and constables would seem to be pretty thick in the colonies’. The novel’s key policeman is senior constable Goring, an ambitious man (‘he was sure to be promoted’) who arrests Marston at his homestead. But there is also a detective, who follows Starlight to New Zealand, apprehends him and testifies against him in court. ‘My name is Stephen Stillbrook…’, he begins, in the only speech he ever makes in the novel. But although he appears briefly – rather like Mr Bucket in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House – Stillbrook makes an extraordinary impression on Marston, the novel’s narrator: “A quiet, oldish-looking man got up now and came forward to the witness box. I didn’t know who he was; but Starlight nodded to him quite pleasant. He had a short, close trimmed beard and was one of those nothing-particular-looking old chaps. I’m blessed if I could have told what he was. He might have been a merchant, or a squatter, or a head-clerk, or a wine merchant, or a broker, or lived in the town, or lived in the country. Any of half-a-dozen trades would suit him. The only thing that was out of the common was his eyes. They had a sort of curious way of looking at you, as if he wondered whether you was speaking true, and yet seein’ nothing and tellin’ nothing. He regular took in Starlight (he told me afterwards) by always talking about the China Seas; he’d been there, it seems; he’d been everywhere…”.

A policeman is always a policeman; but a detective’s identity is much more fluid and mutable, as if all sorts of different, unrelated colonial character types could be projected onto him. A policeman is also local, whereas Stillbrook has (‘it seems’) been ‘everywhere’: a feature he shares with the ‘great criminal’ Starlight himself, who had ‘been all over the world’. This is where we see the differences between police and detectives in colonial Australia – in the literature of the period – playing out. Police are ubiquitous, but local and alike; they fail not least because they are so easily identified. But the colonial detective could be anyone (‘a merchant or a squatter’, etc.); his distinction lies in the fact that there is nothing distinctive about him at all (‘one of those nothing-particular-looking old chaps’); and he is already part of a transcolonial, even global, network of investigation.

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