Sugar, Slavery and the Birth of Preventive Policing: the case of the Thames Water Police

Amanda Porter1

1Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research, the University of Technology Sydney


Many policing histories take as their point of departure the development of the Anglo-American ‘state’ or ‘public’ police—the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829 or the development of a centralised municipal police forces America from the 1830s onwards. These accounts tend to emphasise certain ideals and features about the police and policing—their communitarian ethos and overarching concern with securing ‘public safety’. Not only do these conventional accounts represent heavily sanitised versions of policing history, they remain deficient in many other significant respects. In particular, they overlook important developments in the ‘global periphery’ but they also tend to overemphasise the role of ‘the State’ in trends and developments in policing history.

This paper examines the history of a neglected but significant forerunner to the modern police: the Thames River Police. The Thames River Police was a private police force established at Wapping several decades before the Metropolitan Police Force and funded almost entirely by the West India Committee, a political lobbying collective representing the interests of plantation owners. Drawing on archival research including recently transcribed correspondence between Patrick Colquhoun and Jeremy Bentham, this paper reconsiders some of the key characters and tropes in conventional accounts of policing history. As this paper argues, the development of the modern ‘preventive’ police in the metropole had less to do with public safety than it did with the protection of private property. This paper demonstrates the ways in which the relationship between the development of ‘security’ and imperialism are intextricably linked.


Amanda Porter is a senior researcher at Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research, the University of Technology Sydney. Most of her research and publications to date have concerned the politics of policing and police reform since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. She is especially interested in non-state and alternative policing initiatives and their relationships with the State. She has conducted empirical, archival and participatory action research on a range of policing topics including: policing history, police anti-bias training and education, Aboriginal night patrols, Aboriginal justice agreements, police/community partnerships and youth diversion practices. She is a descendant of the Brinja clan of the Yuin nation, south coast New South Wales.


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