Jonathan Richards reviews David Marr’s Killing for Country: A Family History (Melbourne: Black Inc Books, 2023).
Racial violence is a touchy subject in settler-colonies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) because some non-Indigenous people seem more concerned by the accusation than the action. Perhaps this can be explained by lived experience: the descendants of those who inflicted racial violence on Indigenous peoples—nearly always justified in the name of ‘civilisation, empire and the monarch’—have most probably never experienced anything like the disruption and terror that was freely and widely inflicted upon First Nations families and communities. They enjoyed the rewards.
Conversely, I have recently been informed by some colleagues that the violence of the colonial frontier is a ‘safe’ subject, sufficiently far enough in the past not to traumatise readers (usually the same descendants of settler-colonists), unlike the issues that continue to damage and destroy Indigenous people – such as poor health, inadequate housing, substandard education and over-policing. ‘We cannot change the past’, they tell me, but ‘the past lives in us’, as the late Charlie Perkins said. Education is the key.
Some conservative public figures have recently claimed that ‘inter-generational trauma’ does not affect Australia’s First Nations people. Perhaps their opinions might shift if they listened to the families of those who experienced similar trauma, such as returned soldiers and Holocaust survivors. Then, perhaps, they might begin to understand better the tragedies and trials that multiple generations of First Nations peoples everywhere have experienced. Then, they might show some compassion.
I often work with records of frontier policing and racial violence, so I know that Marr experienced vicarious trauma while researching and writing this book. He admitted at the beginning that he was ‘appalled and curious’, and he noted at the end that his sister said she ‘hated the fact’ that their family was involved in the killing. These are all very normal and honest human reactions, yet I do not doubt that some people will criticise the book as ‘black-arm band wokeism’.
As Marr has said, little has changed about race relations in Australia during the past 200-odd years. Indigenous people are still often accused of causing ‘trouble’ and ‘division’. In contrast, many ‘well-intentioned’ non-Indigenous people get on with the business of making Australia a ‘successful nation’ in their European worldview. The acquisition of land, resources and wealth is seemingly all that matters.
Although inspired by a family member’s question, this book was ‘gestated’ in the Covid lockdowns. The closure of archives and libraries forced Marr and his partner, Sebastian Tesoriero, to spend much time in Trove’s virtual corridors and rabbit warrens, one of our greatest national possessions. As a result, this book has been produced mainly with evidence gleaned in long-defunct newspapers, out-of-print books and other wonderful sources that can, courtesy of the National Library of Australia, be easily found, read and downloaded – if you have a good internet connection and basic computer literacy. After the archives and libraries reopened, they supplemented these digital gems with other materials. Marr acknowledged the contribution of all the archival researchers who helped him.
The book has many strengths. This is probably the first extensive account of the Native Police – albeit through the careers of two men – written by a direct descendant. Marr demonstrates an awareness of and compassion for First Nations people and acknowledges the critical contributions that humanitarians and journalists made to the contemporary debates about the force’s actions. His narrative will attract a different audience from those who read scholarly work, and anything that helps promote a greater understanding of Australian history is worthwhile.
There is one big question to consider. Was the Queensland frontier the most violent among the Australian colonies? Recent research by this reviewer and others proves that similar mass killings – sometimes involving the same colonists – occurred in both the Northern Territory and Western Australia, confirming the suspicion that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were in many ways more brutal for First Nations people than earlier periods of colonisation. In northern parts of Australia, perpetrators learned to cover their actions by burning bodies or throwing them into watercourses. They were cruel.
However, the notion that Queensland was exceptionally violent does not fully consider the historical context and precedents. The first Native Police forces in Australia were established in New South Wales, initially at Port Phillip (Melbourne) and later extended to the northern and western districts of the colony. Given previous episodes of ethnic cleansing in Tasmania and other parts of all the European empires, the importation of violent tactics to the Australian mainland to suppress Indigenous resistance and clear the landscape for colonists is unsurprising. We need a proper national assessment of the actual numbers of Indigenous deaths from all causes – including disease, starvation and violence – to realistically answer the question.
My only other criticisms are minor. I suspect Marr meant the Burnett River, not the Burdekin, on page 167. I am also sure he knew the Logan River is a coastal river in southeast Queensland, not part of the inland waterways that drain the Darling Downs (page 289). The issue of Native Police records continues to challenge researchers. As Marr’s investigation uses several essential archival records, that surely means that not all the files have disappeared (page 405). And finally, I am genuinely puzzled by the statement on the same page that scholars have found ‘about 100 reports officers sent to headquarters every month’. I want to see these documents as I have only found a few patrol reports in the Queensland State Archives.
Although this is called a ‘family history’, the book is much more. The narrative provides concise and effective explanations of the background and context of colonisation. The book is eminently readable and hard to put down, although some will need to pause – as I did – between chapters. Some of the story is too harrowing. Marr has made a powerful contribution to our understanding of colonisation and land-hunting in Australia. Racial violence was just one crucial element. Creating wealth was the goal, and clearing the landscape to achieve this – as the Native Police did – was simply another ‘step’ in the journey. Marr’s great-great-grandfather, Reginald Uhr (1844-1888), was ultimately just another foot-soldier in the great colonial adventure that was the British annexation of Australia.
Disclosure: The reviewer provided some archival research assistance to the author and is acknowledged in the book.