The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Private John Searle

Private John Searle, one of the few Australian Aboriginal soldiers recorded as serving in the Boer War.

Peter Bakker has spent the past five years researching and documenting the contribution of indigenous Australians in past conflicts.

During that time, the number of aboriginal soldiers recognised by the Australian War Memorial as having served the nation has surged.

"Up until ten years ago the usual quotation even from the Australian War Memorial was that there were about 300 aborigines who served in the First World War - we know now though, it's around 1000," the south-west Victorian school teacher and historian said.

Peter Bakker says he now has evidence that indigenous Australia's links to international conflicts go as far back as the Boer War.

Mr Bakker has made contact with relatives of John Robert Searle, a Western Australian man who enlisted and served with the Australian army in the Boer War and will hand his findings to the Australian War Memorial this week.

"He (John Robert Searle) was with the fourth contingent from Western Australia, known as the fourth Western Australian Mounted Infantry," Mr Bakker said.

(Recorded in Murray page 417 as No 9, Robert Charles Searle, 4th Western Australian Mounted Infantry. The 4 WAMI left Freemantle on 8 May 1900 on the Manhattan, serving June 1900 - June 1901 as part of 4th Imperial Bushmen Regt in Cape Colony including skirmish at Stinkhoutboom (24 July 1900) and in northern Transvaal including battle of Rhenoster Kop (29 November 1900), great De Wet hunt, and advance on Pietersburg and into east Transvaal. They returned to Australia 20 July 1901 on the Britannic.  John Searle would have been entitled to the Queen's South Africa Medal with Cape Colony, Transvaal and SA 1901 clasps.)

And there is a Victorian link - John Robert Searle's grandmother was from the Mornington Peninsula-Westernport Bay area.

John Robert Searle survived the Boer War, but like the indigenous Australians who served in World War I, he didn't receive a warm welcome when he returned home.

"He was obviously affected by his time in the Boer War and a bit disillusioned when he came back and he apparently tried to commit suicide," Mr Bakker said.

"The aborigines were all considered second class citizens."

Queensland-based historian Dr Dale Kerwin has also been searching for evidence that aborigines served the Boer War.

He says it's difficult to find hard evidence as aborigines weren't allowed to enlist.

"Historically we weren't allowed to serve, we weren't allowed to enlist unless we denied our aboriginal heritage," Dr Kerwin said.

Those who weren't able to hide their aboriginality signed on as bushmen or trackers, but their story is even more tragic.

Dr Kerwin believes up to 50 indigenous Australians went to the Boer War as bushmen and trackers.

Because of Australia's immigration policies, they were refused re-entry into the country.

Reference: taken 4 January 2013. This article was then adjusted on the advice of Peter Bakker 5 January 2013. Information on his Boer War service added by the NBWMA.

An indigenous Boer War veteran grave plaque dedication service was held in Perth at Karrakatta cemetery on 20 April 2013, for No. 9 PTE Searle 4WAMI. The service was organised by Honouring Indigenous War Graves.

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RUSI of NSW Boer War Battlefields