The Australian War Memorial has recognised Noongar man Private Walter Joseph Parker as the earliest identified Aboriginal soldier to die while in service with Australian armed forces.
Private Parker is the most recent addition to the Memorial’s Indigenous Boer War list.
Memorial director Matt Anderson said the inclusion of Private Parker’s name and his sacrifice “re-set our understanding and knowledge” of Indigenous service in the Boer War.
“This discovery was made through ongoing research to commemorate the stories of First Nations service,” he said.
Research found Private Parker served as part of the West Australian contribution to the war in South Africa.
AWM Indigenous liaison officer Michael Bell said Aboriginal enlistment and service in the Boer War has been the source of much speculation, arising from the time of transition from colonies to Federation.
“The Memorial has now identified 10 Aboriginal men who served, nine of whom returned,” he said.
“As with all other service and conflicts, the potential for these numbers to increase is evident, suggesting that the current total of 10 does not represent all who served.”
Private Parker was a distant uncle of Matthew Grice, who worked with historian and researcher Sue Mills to uncover his background and service record.
“My nan’s nan grew up in an orphanage here in WA and we didn’t know who her parents were,” Mr Grice said.
“There was a family story that her dad was an Afghan camel driver – I did a DNA test and it turned out we have Indigenous DNA.
“Through research and with the help of Sue Mills, who had already done a mountain of research on this family, that helped me draw the connection.”
Mr Grice said they searched for records of his great-great-grandmother’s siblings and found that her half-brother, Walter, was born in Gingin in 1874.
They also found Walter’s mother’s obituary – a woman by the name Mary Benyup who died in 1927 and was said to have two sons who died in war.
One of her sons, James Dickerson, was the only known Indigenous solider from WA who died at Gallipoli, but no mention could be found of another.
“Sue said ‘there is a Walter Parker who died in the Boer War’,” Mr Grice said.
“We went off to find any reference to Walter Parker in the Boer War, it was like detective work, we went through old newspapers, messaged heaps of historical societies, and we built this case and sent it to the Australian War Memorial.
“One month later they came back to us and said ‘yes, it all adds up’.”
Private Parker was born on July 6, 1874 in Gingin.
Like many other Aboriginal volunteers, Private Parker made at least two attempts to enlist in the First Western Australian Contingent but was unsuccessful.
He persisted and was accepted into the Fifth Contingent of the Western Australian Mounted Infantry, which shipped out from Fremantle on March 7, 1901.
On arrival in Durban on March 28, 1901, the fifth and sixth contingents were combined.
Private Parker did not return alongside his comrades; he died of typhoid at Standerton, in the Mpumalanga region on January 22, 1902.
Ms Mills also had a family connection to Private Parker.
“Walter, the illegitimate son of my children’s ancestor Mary, had remained a mystery for several years so it was a delight when in late 2020, I stumbled on his service in the Boer War, not realising at the time the significance of my find,” she said.
“With this new knowledge, Walter’s service can now be recognised and commemorated along with his half-brother James Dickerson, who was the only known man of Aboriginal descent to die at Gallipoli.
“How heartbreaking for their mother, Mary, to lose two sons in a far away county but how proud she must have been to know they were courageous in their willingness to serve their country.”
Before the discovery of Private Parker’s service in South Africa, the Australian War Memorial had reported there were nine known Aboriginal soldiers who had fought in the Boer War and they had all returned to Australia.
Private Parker has become not just the only known Aboriginal soldier to die in the Boer War but the first known man of Aboriginal descent to have died in overseas military service.
Private Parker’s story will be told and commemorated on July 7 at the Australian War Memorial’s Last Post Ceremony, the day after the 148th anniversary of his birth.
Members of his family will be in attendance to lay a wreath beside the Pool of Reflection.
“Everyone loves a mystery,” Mr Grice said.
“I remember feeling goosebumps… So many hours, so much time and to find something that means something, that is a notable thing.
“I felt really proud to be related to Walter. It was a really good feeling.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a long tradition of fighting for Country, and have served in every conflict and commitment involving Australian defence contingents since before Federation.
The Australian War Memorial believes the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are an important part of the Memorial’s storytelling, and encourages anyone with information about Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen to contact them.