Information requested from volunteers for the AIF did not include details of race although this may be mentioned incidentally in service records. In other instances secondary sources can assist in establishing the fact that an individual is Aboriginal and may also provide more about him and about Aboriginal service in general.
William King service number 3422, is one of three men in the AIF named King who are known to be Aboriginal. William Alfred King, service number 3650 and Richard King, service number 579, can be identified as Aboriginal from information in their records linking them to missions in New South Wales and Victoria. William King 3422 was born in Maitland NSW and belonged to both the 56th and 36th Battalion. His service record contains nothing which points to Aboriginality. However Henry Raine, a private in the 56th Battalion, makes this clear in a letter to the RSSILA journal Reveille, 29 July 1931, written in connection with Aboriginal service. In this the he states
I think Mick King, who enlisted with the ninth, reinforcements of the 56th battalion was also a full-blood.
Raine refers to King as Mick King but explains that this is a nickname derived from the fact that King was an amateur boxer and there was at the time another well known white boxer of that name. Although Raine either did not know or did not bother to give King’s real given name, his battalion and reinforcement details plus place and death details, show that Mick King was in fact William King 3422.
Raine’s letter does more than simply identify King as Aboriginal. It focuses on his qualities as an individual and in doing so gives an insight into the position of Aboriginal members of the AIF.
He writes that King was one of the ‘quietest and gamest members of the Battalion’ going on to tell how as an Aboriginal man he was (ironically) racially taunted by a group of West Indian soldiers.
[They] must have thought they had scored a bloodless victory, but they were sadly mistaken, for Mick slowly put out his pipe and then walked over and knocked out four of his tormentors with four punches – each as clean as a whistle.
Raine finishes with the words ‘although he was black he was a White man and a dinkum Aussie.’ In saying this Raine, whose respect for King was undoubted, sees attributing white characteristics to an Aboriginal man as praise of the highest order. This in essence was a deeply racist concept. His letter is a significant one because of the manner of his tribute to King and the fact that his comments are not an isolated example of such thinking. His comments make plain the qualified nature of the acceptance of Aboriginal AIF men by their comrades and show that whatever the achievements of Aboriginal men they were still judged by the fact that they were not white. It is comments like this by an unquestionably sympathetic party which call into question the idea now prevalent that Aboriginal men achieved equality in the AIF. This is too simplistic and is something which needs to be examined more carefully – not brushed aside by warm generalisations about mateship.
King had been transferred to the 36th Battalion before he was killed in Belgium in October 1917. Raine says he was ‘blown to bits’ shortly after the incident he described. His premature death meant that his service medals could be claimed by his family. However examination of his service record shows that the army was unable to trace his next of kin, (named as his wife Katie* c/o Post Office Guyra NSW). In 1927 his Memorial Plaque and Memorial Scroll and possibly the two medals he was entitled to, were – and still may be – unclaimed.
Further information about the family of William ‘Mick’ King – and the other Indigenous Kings in the AIF could assist with another problem of identification. King is also the surname of an Aboriginal servicemen from an earlier conflict. F. King was a tracker and member of the New South Wales A Company of the 1902 Federal Contingent to the Boer war. This William King 3422 and/or the other Indigenous Kings in the AIF may be connected to F. King affording an opportunity for additional research.
* The name of William King’s next of kin was later changed on one copy of his attestation to Janie. This appears to be a consequence of a temporary but rectified confusion apparent in the record of this William King with William Alfred King.
Note. Peter Stanley explores relationships of non-white peoples and Australians in World War One including reference to Mick King in ‘ “He was black. He was a White man and a dinkum Aussie” Race and Empire in revisiting the Anzac legend.’ in Santanu Das, Race Empire and First World War Writing, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 225 -226.
Philippa Scarlett 5 June 2013