UNIQUELY Australian. That's the way to describe one of the world's most famous fictional detectives from decades past.
His name was Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, or 'Bony' to his friends, an Aboriginal sleuth so skilled in bushcraft that the tales of his tracking down criminals amazed eager international audiences.
Forget Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple, or Philip Marlowe, the popular 'Bony' was a publishing phenomenon, gathering fans world-wide over 29 books from the 1930s to the 1950s, many of which still in print, although now dated.
Bony's adventures were adapted for a British TV series in 1972 and there's now talk of another screen revival. He was also the inspiration for the later American literary exploits of Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police.
'Bony', renowned for reading the ground at crime scenes (long before forensics), fascinated overseas readers particularly. His spectacular success was in observing small and trivial details in the arid Outback, such as a faded footprint, disturbed twig, bent blade of grass or disturbed path through an ants' nest showing the way a murderer had gone.
This pioneering fictional hero was the clever creation of Arthur Upfield, a former English migrant who ended up as a boundary rider and station cook in our far west.
During his travels, Upfield (1890-1964) became enthralled with Aboriginal culture and supposedly met up with the legendary, part-Aboriginal Tracker Leon (Wood) and modelled 'Bony' on him. So, truth is stranger than fiction.
Recently, writer Michael Bennett breathed life into a now almost forgotten era of policing during Lake Macquarie City Council's History Illuminated festival.
Speaking at Warners Bay Performing Arts Centre about his new book, Pathfinders - A history of Aboriginal trackers in NSW, Bennett revealed there were once about 1000 such bush experts (both men and women) employed by NSW police from 1862 to 1973.
They were involved in everything, such as shootouts with bushrangers, bringing murderers to justice, chasing sheep, cattle and horse thieves and finding people lost in the bush. In return, the trackers achieved almost mythical status.
They moved between two very different worlds, despite disrespect, poor pay and frequent prejudice against them. It soon became apparent though country police couldn't operate efficiently without them.
Newcastle university's Professor John Maynard says Bennett's book charts an important, but largely overlooked, area of the nation's history.
But author Bennett says the success of the trackers might have been due as much to psychological insights and knowing landscapes as actually following any faint, barely visible tracks.
"But trackers did get physical clues; like from the depth of a horse print they could deduce whether two people, not one, might be escaping police on horseback," Bennett says.
The book covers subjects like the role of tracker Billy Dargin in the fatal shooting of outlaw Ben Hall, the pursuit of notorious killer Jimmy Governor, to one much later tracker's second career in several films of the 1940s and 1950s, including the iconic Robbery Under Arms.
Bennett says an attempt was once even made to poison tracker Billy Bogan with strychnine shortly before a court appearance and that to some Aboriginal trackers, "footprints were like calling cards".
Bennett worked as a historian in native title claims from 2002 until 2017. It was while conducting research that he first realised how much the NSW country police relied on the expert skills of their trackers.
He also grew up in Dubbo where he learned of the exploits of 'Tracker Riley'.
But, closer to home, there's Mary Ann Bugg from Worimi country north of Newcastle.
While never a tracker, the Gloucester-born Bugg was born into troubled frontier times in 1834, growing up to learn the ways of her people, plus European ways, becoming the life partner of ex-convict Frederick Ward, later better known as the bushranger Thunderbolt.
The outlaw and his accomplices roamed the Hunter and elsewhere for the next seven years committing hundreds of armed robberies until he was eventually killed in a creek near Uralla, in May 1870.
Mary Ann does not appear to have participated in the robberies, but looked after the stolen goods and minded the horses instead.
But Thunderbolt relied on Mary Ann's bush skills to survive. Crucially, she was able to allay her husband's greatest fear by giving him advice on the best way to outwit the trackers sent ahead by mounted police pursuing him.
"He would not have remained at large for as long as he did without her help," Bennett writes.
Drawing on her traditional knowledge, she advised Thunderbolt they should burn the country behind them to erase all signs of their movement.
Another useful tool was to have the outlaw's gang split in two when escaping to divide police resources.
Mary Ann would also have been taught by her elders early on how to recognise the hoofs of police horses by the special way they were shod. That way, natives always knew when any troopers were scouting around.
Aboriginal guides, utilising a similar set of skills to trackers, had also always played an essential role in European exploration of Australia.
One unique example was an all-Aboriginal expedition that helped determine the best route from the Hawkesbury River into the Hunter River valley in 1819.
The best known of the early guides was Bungaree, from the Norah Head district. He even joined Matthew Flinders aboard his vessel 'Investigator' and circumnavigated the continent. His last journey was in 1817.
Even earlier, colonial reports speak of the "native blacks being very active" tracking down escaping convicts between Port Hunter and Port Stephens. The practice of engaging trackers then became commonplace by 1820.
Although they were paid in rations and clothing, with work being dangerous and life threatening, it was in their own interest. The Aboriginals were motivated to protect their countrymen and women from desperate fugitives.
Bungaree's father, for example, was murdered by convicts when he confronted three of them during an attempted escape.
Author Bennett deserves much praise for meticulously fossicking around in old police pay records and other documents to provide a clear, concise and highly revealing account of these largely forgotten trackers, once so crucial to police field work.
With Bennett's help, these men (and women) now finally emerge from the shadows to get some of the recognition they truly deserve.
Perhaps the final story should concern Alec Riley, probably the most outstanding tracker of his era who retired in 1950.
After almost 40 years serving the NSW police service, solving every major case from burglaries to murder mysteries, Tracker Riley (as he was best known) was ruled ineligible in 1950 for a police pension, being told that trackers, unlike regular officers, were not regarded as full-time officers.
The "clearly laughable" injustice of it all would have come as a great surprise to Riley. Even the then NSW premier Mr McGirr refused to budge on the issue.
The police and public, however, were in no doubt of the huge debt they owed Riley.
His funeral in 1970 was attended by more than 200 mourners at the Holy Trinity Church, Dubbo. The police organised an honour guard complete with mounted officers for the funeral procession down the main street.
It was, in Bennett's words, "a rare honour for a Dubbo resident, and certainly a unique one for an Aboriginal man".
Pathfinders. A history of Aboriginal trackers in NSW by Michael Bennett - NewSouth Publishing, $34.99
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