On January 15, 1859, the Queensland Commissioner for Police commented on the difficult situation facing those who wanted to enforce more effectively law and order in the colony. Of particular concern was mail robbery in the vastness of the Queensland bush where police were at a distinct disadvantage in protecting the communities thatw ere develping around pastoral holdings and goldfields from almost any who chose to accost them. Throughout the 1860s, Queensland remained a rapidly expanding colony rich in opportunity for those prepared to face the many risks. In the early years of the colony’s existence, European expansion and settlement on the Queensland frontier expanded far more quickly than the ability of the colonial government to provide adequate services. A core service lacking was an effective police force. The force that existed was scattered in small posts across a vast pastoral frontier territory. The small groups of officers were hopelessly under-resourced, faced community antipathy, and were often demoralised. In this context what is surprising is just how little bushranging occurred in Queensland during the late 1800s.
Given the vast territory and the rapid growth in pastoral industries, what is not surprising is that the incidence of stock stealing – in particular, cattle duffing – was especially widespread in Queensland. in 1866, Commissioner of Police David Thompson Seymour “named horse and cattle stealing as the prevalent crimes” on the frontier (Johnston, 1992, p55).
One criminal activity which received disproportionate attention on the part of the police was stock stealing – disproportionate, that is, in respect of the number of arrests or convictions… it should be noted that there was considerably more stealing that the number of arrests indicated. Accordingly these offences were regarded with great alarm in Queensland (Johnston, 1992, p55) .
Stock stealing was regarded by the police as very difficult to “detect and suppress” (Johnston, 1992, p55). Interestingly, it’s worth noting that many poorer members of rural communities were arrested for exactly this difficult offence – perhaps this is suggestive of the influence that wealthy pastoralists held over the limited number of police officers that were stationed on the frontier.
The key difficulty for colonial Queensland police in attempting to “suppress” cattle-duffing and horse stealing was logistical. The capture of offenders was at times a seemingly impossible task while getting a jury to convict a defendant was more difficult again. Police often found “it was hard to provide convincing evidence” for some rural juries who had more empathy for the defendant than the prosecution (or the well-healed pastoralist “victim”) might have hoped (Johnston, 1992, p56). Despite the large number of arrests, stock stealing was “one of the great unrecorded offences” in colonial Queensland. Its more notorious proponents in Queensland acquired the folklore status that was reserved for bushrangers in other colonial jurisdictions of Australia. It is worth noting at this point that the similarities between Henry (Harry) Readford, a Queensland stock-thief, and the fictitious bushranger Captain Starlight of the novel Robbery Under Arms are striking.