Soldier, photographer, lawyer, dentist, amateur anthropologist and naturalist, and head of police in Darwin’s early days – Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche did it all.
He is an important – and controversial figure – in Territory history and, luckily, shot a photographic portrait of his times.
Foelsche is still commemorated each year by NT police but is reviled by many Territorians because of his treatment of Indigenous people.
The long-serving cop was born near Hamburg in Germany to a middle-class family in 1831. He served in the Hussar regiment for five years from the age of 18 and then migrated to Australia in 1854.
Foelsche served in the South Australian mounted police for 13 years.
He rose rapidly through the ranks and was then surprisingly promoted from corporal to subinspector in command of police in the Territory.
Foelsche seemed unqualified for his new position with many higher-ranking officers being being passed over for the job.
Some historians, such as Jack Haydon, have suggested his promotion was the work of his fellow Freemasons working to spread their influence.
“I see the hand of his superior officers and other leaders of the community, by whom he was held in very high regard, in this sequence of events.”
The Darwin Freemasons lodge is still known as Lodge Foelsche. Foelsche was undoubtedly a capable police officer, taking a hands-on approach in many investigations.
After arriving in Palmerston, he found there was no police station and so built a station with the help of his six troopers.
Foelsche moved in to a two-roomed tin hut, eventually marrying local Darwin woman Charlotte Georgina Smith and having two daughters.
He served in the NT police for more than 30 years, laying the foundation for what is today universally recognised as a highly professional force.
While not on duty, he cultivated an interest in photography, capturing images of early Territory life, from traditional Aborigines to early police work. His photographs have been displayed in exhibitions internationally.
Foelsche had a fascination with Indigenous people and tried to learn Larrakia. He also studied Indigenous culture and even wrote a paper on the subject in 1881.
Despite this fascination, Foelsche appeared to have little compassion for Aboriginal people and shot many during his work.
Author of the award-winning book, Frontier Justice, Tony Roberts, describes him as “the man who masterminded more massacres in the Territory than anyone else … he was cunning, devious and merciless with Aboriginals”.
In one instance, a telegraph worker from Daly Waters was found dead in 1875, likely killed by local Mangarrayi men.
In response, Foelsche told his officers: “I cannot give you orders to shoot all natives you come across, but circumstances may occur for which I cannot provide definite instructions.” Over the next four weeks, a large party of officers slaughtered an unknown number of Aborigines along the Daly River.
Foelsche retired in 1904 after becoming something of a laughing stock because of his blinkered view of life, particularly prostitution among the Indigenous community.
He continued living in Darwin until his death on January 31, 1914.
A street in the city centre is named after him and his life has been commemorated by NT police each year since 1962.
Image above: MS in brown ink on mount Natives waiting to be photographed / Port Essington 1877. Depicts a group of about 50 Aboriginal men, women and children. There are two European men, one at left and one at right. There is a substantial construction with post walls and bark roof and in the foreground is a group of tents which appears to be the photographic studio.