Killing for Country: A Family Story
Lord Byron wrote of Edward Gibbon that his writing sapped “a solemn creed with solemn sneer”. Australian journalist and biographer David Marr shares with the English historian a sense of irony sharpened by wide learning and a hatred of cruelty in all its forms.
But even Marr’s ironical eye is tested in Killing for Country. His new work is an epic of brutality, an account of how exterminatory campaigns undertaken by Europeans against Indigenous Australians evolved over time. It is also – necessarily, unashamedly – black armband history, since the only adequate response to its telling is grief.
Marr’s subtitle, A Family Story, suggests this is an intimate account, a family biography, but that’s only partly true. The book’s genesis does lie in the discovery, shocking to the author, that two of his colonial forebears were directly involved in frontier violence, specifically in Queensland. But in order to describe how these men found themselves in this position, Marr is obliged to begin at the beginning of Australian colonial history.
He finds the Christian morality brought by the British to Australian shores, their impeccable Enlightenment-era notions of human dignity and universal rights, broke down at the frontier, in the encounter between Europeans and Indigenous Others who possessed a distinct culture and law: ways of being that were in conflict with the interlopers.
The Rum Rebellion, which dethroned Governor William Bligh, revealed the rising power of the entrepreneurial class in the early colony. Macarthur, Brisbane, Darling, Bourke, Gipps, FitzRoy – a long list of administrators who nominally ruled New South Wales over the coming decades – brought from London strict instructions that Indigenous Australians were to be treated fairly and decently as subjects of the Crown. These instructions were largely ignored.
This was because the squattocracy required ever more of the Crown’s land for merino sheep. Prized for their fine wool, merinos thrived in the vast paddocks created by Indigenous firestick farming. Those who could leveragd their wealth or connections to gain huge tracts of such land, gratis. Their only obligation was to stock it.
NSW was, then, for Marr, “perfecting a unique form of colonial conquest: invasion by sheep”. The original inhabitants were dispossessed by the immense economic engine that wool created. Inevitably, once it became clear these great mobs with their shepherds and overseers were sticking around, resistance from the locals grew, leading to targeted attacks on isolated, outlying Europeans.
What Marr uncovers – with the help of the foundational work of historians such as James Boyce and Henry Reynolds and via grim recent efforts by universities and Indigenous academics to map massacre sites – is the retributory malice of the European response. For every shepherd speared, whole families or tribal groups of Indigenous Australians were tortured and killed, often irrespective of any connection to the initial act of violence.
Marr is interested to show how ineffectual the colony’s governors were in protecting Indigenous Australians. And the legal system, which did not permit Indigenous people to give evidence in court until 1876, was allowed, by its own failures, to grant a sense of impunity to those committing genocidal acts.
Even after public repulsion over the 1838 Myall Creek massacre was backed by the courts, leading to the hanging of seven men involved in the deaths of 28 unarmed men, women and children, the instigator of the crime was never brought to trial.
Afterwards, Marr records, an omerta was placed on discussion of squatters’ activities. The killing went on, just in more indirect and underhand ways: one of which was the lacing with strychnine of foodstuffs or water. The other was the inception of a native police force. These groups, made up of Indigenous Australians who had already been dispossessed from their own nation, or who were simply dragooned, were trained and then travelled a distance from their own lands. They were often led by young men of good families who needed the pay and wanted adventure, including, we learn, Reg Uhr – the author’s great-great grandfather – and his brother D’arcy.
The final chapters of Marr’s book recount the exploits of these two men: both murderers on a mass scale and celebrated for it in the press at home and in London. The emergence of the Native Police is tied to Queensland’s statehood. Indeed, Marr writes: “Nowhere would the occupation of Australia prove bloodier than here, and no instrument of state as culpable as the Native Police. Slaughter was bricked into the foundation of Queensland.”
Though the main records relating to the operations of these groups have been destroyed, other mentions in the archives have permitted a tentative reconstruction of the Native Police’s efforts: somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 Indigenous people killed in Queensland and the Top End. Countless women were raped or sold into slavery, children too.
Killing for Country would be an impossible book to read if the story wasn’t so well told, the author’s inveterate irony providing a buffer against intolerable fact. Marr covers an immense amount of ground here, synthesises tranches of primary documentation, furnishes indelible pictures of scores of politicians, pressmen, squatters and stockmen, and never lets a single soul off the hook.
This is a story about Marr’s family darkness, yes. But it is also a book concerned with our collective shame. No one who reads his important and necessary account with an open mind could consider more decades of voicelessness an acceptable outcome for this nation’s First Peoples.
Black Inc, 432pp, $39.99
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Killing for Country: A Family Story".
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