Killing for Country: Another plank in truth-telling

Oct 4, 2023
Queensland Native Police 1864. Rockhampton.

At the heart of David Marr’s new book, Killing for Country, is a crucial question. How should we deal with old, ugly secrets within our own families? Should we ignore them as excesses of the past, when and where things were done differently, or should we examine them closely for clues and lessons that might shape our behaviour now?

Fortunately, and unsurprisingly given his track record, Marr takes the latter course. The result is a book that shines more valuable light on the murderous behaviour of early European colonists in Australia and the predations of the Native Police, whose members included several of Marr’s distant forebears.

Frederick Walker. Image: Wikimedia Commons / WH Traill’s ‘Historical Sketch of Queensland’, Sydney. 1886 Public Domain

Marr describes Frederick Walker, first commander of the Native Police on its foundation in 1848, as one of the cruellest men ever to serve in the force. Walker’s ground rule, that “No blacks ought to be made use of in their own country” was a strategy “as old as empire”. While denying Aboriginal attachment to land, colonial authorities also relied on it—and the divisions it created—to raise a force that would “strip blacks of their country”.

Marr discovered his family’s involvement with the Native Police only in 2019 when an “ancient uncle” asked about Marr’s great grandmother, Maud. Soon, he was looking at a photograph of Maud’s father, Sub-Inspector Reginald (Reg) Uhr, in the uniform of the Native Police. Marr’s research led him to describe Reg as a “a professional killer of Aborigines”. He discovered too that Reg’s brother, D’Arcy, was also “in the massacre business”.

The geographic spread of the book, across eastern and northern Australia, traces European colonial expansion under the false banner of terra nullius. A range of characters move through the story and a summary of who’s who would help readers keep track.

Crossing the Liverpool Plains in the early decades of the nineteenth century, Edmund Blucher Uhr (Reg and D’Arcy’s father) claimed 150,000 acres of the finest land in NSW for the merchant Richard Jones. It was Kamilaroi country but neither Jones nor Uhr snr. had any doubts that the land was theirs for the taking. Jones’ only obligation was to stock the land, NSW thus perfecting a unique form of colonial expansion. “Invasion by sheep” became the bizarre casus belli between colonists and Aboriginal people. To the raw squatter mind, Marr writes, the land belonged to no-one. “Settlers saw themselves as defending their land against bands of vengeful savages … Australia was fought for in an endless war of little, cruel battles.”

After the 1838 massacre of unarmed Aboriginal men, women and children at Myall Creek Station in Northern NSW which led, unusually, to the trial and hanging of most of the perpetrators, squatters took to poison to rid “their runs of blacks”. Edmund Uhr arrived in Brisbane on the same vessel as a Colin MacKenzie, “one of the lairds of the Upper Brisbane valley”. The death of two shepherds and the spearing of a bullock prompted a worker to ask MacKenzie, “Don’t you think it would be a good thing to give these fellows a dose?”. Within two weeks, at least fifty Aboriginal people on MacKenzie’s run were poisoned using arsenic and strychnine.

Marr argues that a law passed in London guarding the rights of Aborigines to live, hunt and fish on their lands, if enforced, would have transformed the history of Australia. The NSW Governor, Charles Augustus FitzRoy, asked that the rights of Aborigines be set out “in the clearest and most explicit manner”. The Colonial Office advised against and these rights survived only as “a ghost in the fine print of pastoral leases”. Neither colonial governments nor squatters paid them any heed, as the latter “went on clearing the land of blacks for over sixty years”.

Maurice O’Connell, squatter and President of the Queensland Legislative Council, declared that “if you want to destroy the blacks by wholesale slaughter”, you could not find people more suited to the purpose than the Native Police. “Dispersed in the usual and approved manner” became the phrase du jour for outright killing. With squatters demanding an empty landscape for their sheep, Reg Uhr was busy during the 1860s clearing the Biri, Yangga, Miyan and Yilba people from the hinterland of Bowen in central Queensland. The local newspaper, The Port Denison Times, observed that the town’s foundations were “cemented in blood”.

Meanwhile, the Brisbane Courier urged those “who love the poor blacks to acknowledge the colonial reality: There is no need to argue in favour of our right to occupy this country—we take it for granted. Nor need we say a word of our duty to protect ourselves against every possible danger that we may encounter in taking possession of such a magnificent inheritance”.

In an almost elysian vein, George Bowen, the first Governor of Queensland wrote to the Duke of Newcastle in 1859: “As in all other instances of colonisation among savage races, occasional loss of life is inevitable … this very fact lends to the efforts of our pastoral adventurers a tinge of danger … there is something sublime in the steady, silent, flow of pastoral settlement over North Eastern Australia … at the close of every year we find that the margin of Christianity and of Civilisation has been pushed forward”.

Taught the ways of the Native Police by Frederick Wheeler, D’Arcy Uhr became a prolific killer of Aboriginal people. He told a public inquiry in 1861 that a squatter’s complaint was reason enough to shoot a black man. Later he declared: “The poor unfortunate blacks! God gave them, I may say, all Australia. What for? God only knows as they are a useless race of savages.”

Marr notes that D’arcy’s massacres in the Gulf in the late 1860s have been cited ever since as evidence of the bloody cruelty of the Native Police. The Brisbane Courier said of a killing spree at Urilla in North Queensland: “Mr Uhr was accompanied by Mr Hetzer, who has been very kind and indulgent to the myalls [blacks] for a long time, but who now sees his folly. Everybody in the district is delighted with the wholesale slaughter dealt out by the native police and thank Mr Uhr for his energy in ridding the district of fifty-nine (59) myalls.”

The British press commented on this massacre, with headlines such as “Exterminating the Natives in Australia” (London’s Weekly Review), “Australian Vengeance” (Bradford’s Daily Telegraph) and “Colonial Humanity and Civilisation” (The Nation, Dublin). The Illustrated London News, however, cautioned that though “everybody in the colony is delighted” … we at home should be rather glad to be sure (which the story does not quite make us) that the vengeance fell not only heavily but in the right place”.

With the core records now gone we cannot be sure how many died at the hands of the Native Police. Marr writes that cautious interpretation of the remaining documentary fragments has seen estimates rise from 10,000 to 20,000 to more than 40,000, a figure which is “neither precise nor final”.

And what of guilt or shame that this was partly the work of Marr’s distant relatives? “I feel no guilt for what Reg did,” Marr writes, adding, however, “I can’t argue away the shame that overcame me when I first saw that photograph of Sub-Inspector Uhr in his pompous uniform. I was also intrigued by the shadowy forms of today’s politics emerging from the frontier wars—particularly the still potent belief in many quarters that the Aboriginal people deserve nothing for the continent they lost. Despising those we have wronged is another way we humans have of dealing with our shame … when the fighting was over, we forget about how Australia was won.”

That forgetting is only too evident in the current debate about the referendum for constitutional change. Marr would be well advised to arrange express delivery of his book to Peter Dutton and Jacinta Price. They—and many others—would learn a lot, if they could be bothered.

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