Will a “shocking hurdle” defeat the Yes vote?

Oct 11, 2023
The Australian Aboriginal flag flies at Bondi Beach, Sydney at sunset in winter on 16 June 2023. In the background is the Pacific Ocean.

In a lead article published on the front page of The Saturday Paper on the 30th of September Rick Morton discussed the people who were planning to vote against the Voice. He remarked that focus groups conducted late last year revealed what he called ‘a shocking hurdle’ blocking the path of the yes vote. Almost a third ‘of all participants believed First Nations people had been treated fairly. Not just now, but since invasion.’

Two days later Black Inc. published David Marr’s major work Killing for Country: a family story which, in 450 pages, investigates the roles played by his ancestors in the conquest of north Australia in the second half of the C19th. Marr explains the provenance of the book in a brief introductory note. In 2019 an ‘ancient uncle ’asked him to find out what he could about his great grand- mother Maud. It wasn’t long before he was looking at a photograph of her father in the uniform of the Queensland Native Police. He was both appalled and curious. That afternoon he discovered Sub-Inspector Reginald Uhr, ‘a professional killer of Aborigines’ and his brother D’arcy who was also ‘in the massacre business.’ The family truth telling which followed reminds us once again of the terrible cost of the colonisation of Australia at a moment when so many of our country men and women continue to believe that our First Nations were treated fairly as they were being dispossessed of their traditional homelands.

To understand the careers of his two times great grandfather and uncle he had to reach deeply into the history of the Native Police which Queensland had inherited from New South Wales when it set up as a separate self-governing colony late in 1859. It continued to patrol the expanding frontiers of settlement until the early years of the C20th. But his investigation could not end there. Troubling questions emerged about the whole colonial project and ultimately about the essential nature of national history. ‘It embarrasses me now,’ he confessed,’ to having been reporting race and politics in this country for so long without it ever crossing my mind that my family might have played a part in the frontier wars.’ The paragraph ends with a challenge which is both his and ours: ‘My blindness was so Australian.’

But once he had opened his ’account of the bloody exploits of the brothers’ there was no turning back. His investigations always led him again to the killings and the ‘uncountable victims’ of the Uhr boys from Maryborough to the Cape, across the Gulf, into the Territory and down to the West Australian goldfields. But what began as a distinctive and disturbing family history ‘turned into a history of an invasion in which they were foot soldiers.’

Unrelenting, ubiquitous violence was inescapable. The latest research by Queensland’s own historians and archaeologists suggests that the Native Police were likely responsible for 40,000 deaths. Settler vigilantes accounted for as many as 20,000 more. In response Marr comments in an inimitable short and searing sentence: ‘Australia was fought for in an endless war of little cruel battles.’ Indeed the conquest of Australia was;

“the most brutal colonial invasion in the nineteenth-century Empire. So many were

slaughtered. Kidnapping never ceased. Every acre was taken. None of the huge wealth

earned on their country flowed back to its original owners. Law counted for nothing.

No treaties were made .And when the fighting was over, we set about forgetting how

Australia was won.”

The fact that law counted for nothing resonated deeply for Marr who had trained as a lawyer and had no doubt been nurtured on the narrative of how Britain bequeathed to us both the common law, which was ‘colour blind’, and the rule of law itself. But the Native Police operated outside the law. None of the procedures of the criminal law were employed—no warrants, no arrests, no trials, no prosecutions, no sentences. Dispersals as they were called were utterly indiscriminate group punishments. Kidnapping of surviving women and children was never punished. Not once. And yet all the time the Aborigines were said to be British subjects living within the Queen’s peace. And then there was the fact that the whole process of land settlement was facilitated by the pastoral leases designed by the Colonial Office in 1848 and imposed on the whole of Australia. A condition of the lease was that traditional owners had the legal right to remain on their land and to use it for traditional purposes. It was illegal to drive them off their land. It was never enforced and was only rediscovered in the High Court’s Wik judgement in 1996.

Which brings us to the case of Samuel Walker Griffith, one of Australia’s most celebrated jurists—Chief Justice of Queensland, founding Chief Justice of the High Court in office from 1903 to 1919 and drafter of both the Australian Constitution and of the Queensland criminal code. But what of his long political career between 1874 and 1893 during which he spent twelve years as Attorney General and Premier? And they were years when conflict in north Queensland was at its height. Griffith sat around the Cabinet table for 144 months while the Native Police ravaged and murdered without any executive intervention. It is a legacy which Australian jurists have yet to grapple with as Marr keenly appreciates.

The other inescapable message of Killing for Country is that the conquest of Queensland and of the Territory is our business. Unlike the settlement of southern Australia for which the Imperial government was responsible – all major decisions were made in London and administered by officials carrying out the dictates of the Colonial Office. The horrors of Queensland’s frontier wars were the responsibility of the colonists and their Australian born children. Their democratically elected parliament could have changed course but didn’t until the last years of the C19th. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the frontier wars themselves were deftly forgotten while we celebrated our wars overseas and the heroism of the ANZACS.

At the very end of the book Marr turns his attention to the War Memorial. There is space in those sad halls, he declares, ‘to stand two Australian figures in bronze, a white officer and a black trooper, and engrave on the plinth beneath:





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