In Killing for Country, veteran gay journalist David Marr has produced a must read work for anyone interested in truth and reconciliation between white and black Australia.
CONTENT WARNING: Genocide, Racism, Dispossession, Colonial-Settler Violence
In 2019 David Marr was asked by his uncle Jim to help find out more about his grandmother – Marr’s great-grandmother, a woman Marr had known as a young child.
That bit of family research led Marr to her father, Sub-Inspector Reg Uhr of the colonial Native Police, and the direct role that one group of his ancestors had in one of the bloodiest periods in Australia’s history.
For a progressive thinker like Marr, who has spent much of his career reporting on race and politics in this country, it was a shock to find out that members of his family were directly involved in killings in the Frontier Wars.
“My blindness was so Australian,” he recalls in the book. But once he was forced to look he could not avert his gaze. The product of that inquiry is his latest book Killing for Country.
So who were the Native Police and from where did they come? Marr’s book is not just the history of his ancestors but of the events and conditions that shaped Australia through the course of the 19th Century.
Every colonial governor since Arthur Philip in 1788 had been given the same directive as to how they were to respond to crimes against the Indigenous peoples of Australia:
“If any [British] subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary interruption … such offenders [are] to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence.”
This was rarely honoured. Indigenous Australians were not even allowed to testify under oath in New South Wales until 1876.
In practice, Indigenous people were often killed for offences that would have been considered minor misdemeanours if committed by a white person, while the few whites who were brought to trial for crimes against the native population would almost always be cleared by juries of their peers.
Nepotism and Corruption
In 1826 the seventh Governor of NSW, Ralph Darling, defined the limits of white settlement for the colony to Nineteen Counties from Taree in the North, Wellington in Central NSW to the West and the Moruya River on the South Coast.
Land beyond these boundaries could not be legally claimed by whites.
However squatters simply ignored these rules and led vast herds of sheep onto runs they established beyond the pale set by government, placing shepherds there to watch over their flocks.
Reg Urh’s father and David Marr’s great-great-great-grandfather, Edmund Blucher Uhr, was one of these early squatters.
These land grabs inevitably lead to conflict with the Indigenous peoples who lived there and attacks on trespassing whites would often be answered by indiscriminate massacres and reprisals by the squatters and their workers.
Supplying meat and wool made many squatters fabulously wealthy and in a colonial society that was characterised by nepotism and corruption they began using their wealth and influence to secure their claims on the lands they had seized.
In 1836 the government agreed that squatters could hold leases on their runs provided they paid rent on them.
In the leases it was stipulated that local aboriginals would have the right to dwell in and hunt and gather what they needed from these lands.
This was never honoured and the bloody conflicts between white squatters and local Indigenous people being driven off their lands simply continued.
Opening the wound
To bring order to the bush in 1837 the first Native Police unit was established in the Port Phillip District which became the colony of Victoria in 1851.
A second Native Police force was established in NSW in 1848 which became the Queensland Native Police force after Queensland became its own colony in 1859.
These Native Police units were made up of black troopers, under the command of white officers who were often related to prominent families in the colonies, and were modelled on the Sepoy armies used by the British to control the native populations of India.
Troopers were recruited from far away from the districts that they would patrol so that they would hold no sense of belonging with the Indigenous peoples they would be policing.
But while government provided funding for the Native Police they never defined their role.
In that sense they were an officially sanctioned vigilante force operating outside the law and they did so for decades.
Native Police did not serve warrants or carry out investigations or bring Aboriginal offenders to trial.
They simply fired upon groups of black people they encountered in order to “disperse” them and burned their belongings whenever they found them, making their lives impossible.
And when local Indigenous groups dared to retaliate by killing white people the response was so-often indiscriminate massacre with little regard as to whether those killed by the Native Police had anything to do with the crime.
The Native Police were involved in this extrajudicial slaughter of indigenous people in Australia right up to the very cusp of the 20th Century so this is not ancient history.
Marr and others estimate that they may have killed 40,000 people in the period between their establishment and decommissioning.
Virtually nobody was ever held accountable for their actions.
Time for reflection
Reading Killing for Country will come as a shock for most Australians. Even those who thought they knew a good amount about the dispossession and crimes against Indigenous people that modern Australia has been built on.
Australians accept that there was a genocide of Aboriginal people in Tasmania but it’s hard not to apply the same word in describing these masses of killings across Eastern Australia after reading Killing for Country.
There may not have been an official written down policy to wipe out Indigenous Australians as a race throughout the continent. But several Indigenous peoples in Queensland were all but destroyed by the Native Police under the direction of white officers in the service of the British colonial project.
And many of the contemporary voices that Marr quotes in the book were extremely cognisant of what was going on around them.
When those dismissed as “croakers” by the squatters talk about aboriginal boys and women being kidnapped by Native Police and being given to serve whites they use the word “slavery” and they ask how it can be happening when slavery is supposed to be illegal in the British Empire.
We may not have another chance to put an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Constitution but if there is going to be truth telling and reconciliation then reading Killing for Country can be a powerful step in that process for many Australians.
-Killing for Country is published by Black Inc.
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