Section of the Australia National Boer War Memorial, Anzac Parade Canberra dedicated in 2017 Photo Ben Wrigley. https://www.bwm.org.au/
The upsurge in family history research in recent years has greatly assisted in the identification of the service of Aboriginal men in Australia’s conflicts. This has most recently been the case with an Aboriginal man from Western Australia who served in the Boer war.
The World War One service of the Aboriginal Dickersons was identified initially by Jan ‘Kabarli’ James (Forever Warriors 2010 pp.86, 87) and later augmented and clarified by family researcher Maureen Roberts. Now another Dickerson related serviceman has been brought to light by family member Sue Mills, aided by Matthew Grice. But unlike the Dickersons, his service was a part of the West Australian colonial contribution to the war in South Africa. Walter Joseph Parker, born 6 July 1874 in Gingin, was a half-brother of James and Harry Dickerson, members of the first AIF. The three men were the sons of Mary Benyup whose mother was Noongar woman, Caroline Benyup. Walter’s father Joseph Mortimer was a white man. Sue Mills’ research shows that while his birth in 1874 was registered under the name of Walter Joseph Mortimer, he was baptised as Walter Joseph Mortimer Benyup. He subsequently became known as Parker following his mother’s marriage to John Selby Parker. Parker died in 1880 and Mary’s marriage three years later to George Dickerson to some extent later obscured her relationship to her children before this marriage.
Walter Parker initially sought to join the First West Australian Contingent but his attempt to enlist from Greenough was unsuccessful. (Geraldton Advertiser, 14 Feb. 1902, p.3) However a second attempt at Coolgardie resulted in acceptance into the Fifth West Australian Mounted Infantry. On 7 March 1901, following their departure from Fremantle the previous day, the West Australian published the names of the officers and men of the Fifth Contingent (p.3). In this Walter is described as ‘Walter Parker, 26 years, Gingin (W.A.), labourer; Coolgardie. No previous service’ and is ascribed the number 30. Numbers in this list were not given to officers (who conventionally did not receive them), seemingly, indicating that this was a service number. A roll of Western Australian contingents in a History of Western Australian contingents serving in South Africa published 1910 lists Walter as a member of the Fifth contingent but contains no service number. However P. L. Murray compiler of the official record of the war published 1911 states his service number as 140 in a nominal roll of the Fifth Contingent (p.424).
The Fifth Contingent takes the road . Unknown location Western Mail, 16 March 1901,p.36.
The Fifth Contingent arrived in Durban on 28 March and after the arrival of the Sixth Contingent on 29 April, the two were combined. Murray records their service with Major General F. W. Kitchener’s column in the Eastern Transvaal, Natal, and Orange Free State and with Colonel Campbell’s, Colonel Benson’s and Colonel Wing’s columns in Eastern Transvaal (p.418, 419). Casualty records show that their twelve months service was not without penalty. Total Fifth Contingent casualties were ‘ One officer and six non-commissioned officers and men killed or died from wounds, four non-commissioned officers and men died of fever or other disease and nine of all ranks wounded. ’ (History of Western Australian contingents, p.60.) Both contingents returned to Australia in 1902 on the transport Columbian, arriving at Fremantle on 29 April. Walter was not among them. He had died of typhoid at Standerton, Mpumalanga on 22 January 1902. His death was reported in a local paper The Geraldton Advertiser:
Mr Walter Parker, who was well known here, has died in South Africa from fever. Poor Walter was anxiously waiting for his turn to go to South Africa. He wanted to go badly with the 1st W.A. Contingent but did not seem to be able to get on, and till recently. Walter was strongly advised to stay on the Greenough. Like a good many more young fellows, however, he was anxious to see the Boers. (14 Feb.1902, p. 3.)
The Boer war has been described as an economic war with little impact on Australia but one in which Australia as a member of the Empire chose to be embroiled and it is obvious Walter, like others, saw the war in simple patriotic terms. In something of an irony, in 1900 before he achieved enlistment, Walter donated five shillings to the Patriotic Fund, a fund set up for the relief of the relatives of soldiers killed on active service (Daily News, 6 March 1900 p.4). His donation reveals that he was aware of the consequences of enlisting .
In the years which followed, Walter’s death became linked to the First World War rather than the earlier conflict. The confusion had set in by at least 1927, when on the death of his mother, her slightly inaccurate obituary (Northern Advertiser, 16 February 1927 p.2) stated that ‘three of her sons went to war and two, Walter and John were killed’ leading to the assumption that both deaths were in the relatively recent First World War. In fact, while James Dickerson died from wounds received at Gallipoli, Walter’s death was in the South African war. In 2021 this mistake has been corrected by Sue Mills’ research. Walter Parker’s service entitled him to the Queens South Africa Medal with clasps for Orange Free State, Transvaal, South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902. To date the whereabouts of this medal is unknown.
Aboriginal service in the Boer War was not officially barred and it was only in 1909 that an amendment to the Defence Act prevented men not substantially of European origin from serving their country. It is hard to know to what extent Aboriginal men were excluded from enlisting for South Africa. Sue Mills has speculated this issue may have relevance to Walter’s first unsuccessful bid to enlist. If so, as was the case with recruiting for the AIF, it seems that success was linked to the decisions and prejudices of individual recruiters. Although Aboriginal man Fred Mead writing in the West Australian in 1901 said that he had been rejected (28 Nov 1901 p.5) the case of Jack Alick from Braidwood, New South Wales, a member of both the Colonial and Commonwealth forces, whose Aboriginality is clear in a contemporary photo in the Town and Country Journal, demonstrates that Aboriginality was not necessarily an unofficial bar to service.
I first became aware of Aboriginal Boer war service in 1994 when investigating the New South Wales Darug Lock family and stumbled across the service of William Stubbings (Jim Kohen The Darug and their Neighbours, 1993 p.143). Since then eight more Aboriginal servicemen have been located, spear headed by the research of historian and Boer war specialist Peter Bakker. The discovery of Walter Parker brings the number to ten and also has significance as the first known death of an Aboriginal man during military service. The ten men have their origins across the Australian continent – in Western Australia, Souh Australia, New South Wales and Victoria and served in both the Colonial forces and after Federation in those of the Commonwealth. At least two photographs of Boer War units containing yet to be identified Aboriginal men,indicate the potential for numbers to increase and that current total of ten does not represent all who served.
Maureen Roberts who alerted me to the service of Walter Parker and Sue Mills who made this exciting discovery and who generously shared her detailed research, are to be applauded for bringing to light the hitherto largely forgotten service of Walter Parker and enabling him to take his place with those Aboriginal Boer war soldiers whose service is already recognised. Walter Parker is represented on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. Now thanks to Sue Mills he can also be acknowledged as a Boer War Aboriginal serviceman.
Roll of Honour Card for Walter Parker https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/R1712520
Also descendants of Mary Benyup and serving in World War One were three of Walter Parker and James and Harry Dickersons’ nephews – Aubrey Malcom Lawrence, and Herbert Hugo Lawrence (enlisted as Hubert Lawrence) and Frank Lawrence. All five World War One men are listed in Philippa Scarlett Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers for the AIF : the Indigenous response to World War One latest edition 2018. National Archives of Australia records show that descendants of Mary Benyup continued to serve their country in Australia’s post World War One conflicts.
13 February 2021
I would like to acknowledge research by Sue Mills and her papers Mary’s Children and Walter Joseph Mortimer [AKA Walter Parker] Feb.2021 and research by Maureen Roberts including her paper Extract from my work in progress on the Dickersons.
Details of the Fifth Contingent mentioned here unless otherwise stated are to be found in Official records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa. compiled and edited for the Department of Defence by Lieut.-Colonel P. L. Murray, R.A.A. (ret).Melbourne 1911 and the History of Western Australian contingents serving in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1902) 1910.