They served the Australian army in the Boer War but their country may not have wanted them back.
A Queensland researcher is investigating the fate of up to 50 Aboriginal trackers who assisted Australian troops in South Africa only to disappear from the record books.
It’s possible some died but others may have fallen victim to the new White Australia Policy.
Griffith University’s Dr Dale Kerwin has spent more than 15 years trying to find the lost indigenous men of the Boer War.
Overseas at the time of federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, some of the men were abandoned, unable to return under Australia’s new policy, he said.
The most compelling evidence supporting his theory lies in the National Archives.
Of the coloured men waiting to be returned home “two or three were either Aboriginal, or Aboriginal half-castes”.
Those are the words of George Valder, the man charged with repatriating Australia’s Boer War servicemen.
Five years after the end of the war, Valder discovered two of the coloured men left Australia before federation and wrote to the prime minister for advice.
“I received the reply `that all coloured persons born in Australia must obtain a special permit from the Commonwealth, before they could be permitted to land’,” he wrote.
“As these men have all since obtained employment, they will I believe manage to pay their own fares.”
He wrote the men were attempting to get the documentation from South Africa.
No one knows if these men returned home.
Kerwin believes some might have stayed in the rainbow nation.
He once heard a woman tell an indigenous radio show say she met an Aboriginal descendant in a South African taxi.
“The taxi driver said he was a descendent of one of the trackers,” he told AAP.
“But the lady didn’t get his name.
“I thought, `oh well that’s the way research goes’.”
Any non-European migrating to Australia under the restriction act was forced to complete a 50-word dictation in “any European language” at the border.
Museum Victoria estimates more than 800 people were given the test in 1902 and 1903.
Fewer than 50 passed.
Monash University’s Professor Andrew Markus told AAP the restriction act was not intended to affect Aborigines.
The rhetoric at the time recognised Aborigines as indigenous to Australia, he said.
“That (the restrictions) would not apply to Aborigines, unless some lunatic was imposing the legislation,” he said.
The act does not explicitly exempt Aboriginal people from the restrictions.
“You can’t say for certain that it didn’t occur but you can say … the legislation was not designed to impact on Aboriginal people,” Prof Markus said.
Once widely considered as a war between white men, there’s now little doubt aboriginal trackers were sent to accompany Boer War troops.
Archived news stories show military commander Lord Kitchener asked Prime Minister Edmund Barton for a set of trackers to be deployed to the war effort in 1901.
Subsequent reports show Barton agreed to send 50 onboard the SS Euryalus.
But records show only four men on board that ship.
That’s unlikely to be true considering the ship was carrying 200 horses needing care, Dr Kerwin points out.
Most of Australia’s servicemen made the voyage home shortly after the war ended in 1902.
Now 112 years after the last rifle sounded, Dr Kerwin continues to search for the trackers he thinks may have been left behind.
“It’s about inscribing aboriginal people back onto the body of this country,” he told AAP.
“This is one of those final bricks in the wall of remembering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
Australia’s first indigenous federal parliamentarian Neville Bonner first told Kerwin about four aboriginal trackers from Palm Island in the late 90s.
The fate of these men along with those thought to be sent on the SS Euryalus remains a mystery.
Kerwin has had luck proving some indigenous men denounced their Aboriginality and signed up as recruits.
One Aboriginal soldier, found buried in an unmarked grave in Ingham, Queensland, will be given a military burial in May.
But questions still remain about other Boer War heroes.