DAVID MARR Killing for country: A family story. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck
David Marr’s account of his ancestors’ involvement with the Native Police and the murder of Aboriginal people is distressing and important.
Several years ago, one of David Marr’s older relatives informed him that his great-great-grandfather Reginald Charles Uhr (1844–1888) had served as an officer with the Native Police Force, an institution whose task was to hunt down and kill Aboriginal people in nineteenth-century Australia and into the early twentieth. His younger brother, Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr (1845–1907) had also been an officer with the Native Police. This came as a complete shock to Marr:
It embarrasses me now to have 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. My blindness was so Australian.
On seeing a photo of Sub-Inspector Uhr ‘in his pompous uniform’ (which is reproduced on the inside cover of Killing for Country), Marr was overcome with feelings of shame. This motivated him and other family members to investigate the ‘work’ of his forebears with the Native Police.
What began as an account of the bloody exploits of the brothers turned into a history of an invasion in which they were foot soldiers.
Marr’s account begins with the arrival of Richard Jones (1786–1852) in Sydney in 1809 as a clerk in a merchant house. He became a successful merchant and entrepreneur, grazier – or, in the parlance of the time, a ‘squatter’ – and a leading figure in the political affairs of the colony. Jones encouraged his wife’s relatives – Petersons and Uhrs – to come to Sydney to help him with his burgeoning business ventures. Edmund Blucher Uhr (1815–1874) took up the offer and migrated to Sydney in the later part of the 1830s. Reg and D’Arcy were two of his sons.
In unpacking the affairs of these four men – Richard Jones, Edmund Uhr and Reg and D’Arcy Uhr – Marr provides an in-depth examination of the transformation of Australia during the nineteenth century. The lives of his forebears provide the scaffolding for a broader narrative examining the expansion of white settlement from Sydney to country New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and finally Western Australia. His focus is the transformation of Australia from a land occupied by Aboriginal people, to one colonised by the British throughout the nineteenth century and up to Federation.
What distinguishes Marr’s account of this period is how limited a role state institutions played in the affairs of the colonies, especially out in the bush. It is an era of unregulated capitalism, when urgers and scroungers begged for favours from respective governors and colonial officials. These urgers were chasing licences – and ultimately ownership – of land to run sheep (and later cattle) as well as requesting official appointments for themselves and their friends and families, especially out in the bush, to make sure that they could ‘manage affairs’ if a ‘problem’ emerged. The sort of problem that might involve an inquiry into their activities. They also sought assistance from the governor to deal with the Aboriginal people living on the lands they now controlled.
When things did not go their way, leading figures in the colonies used business, family, ‘aristocratic’ and political connections in London to get the outcomes they desired from colonial officials. Marr notes how different governors where happy to scamper back home when their terms of office ended and escape the carping and incessant demands of the squatters. It might be useful to characterise this as a period of ‘entitlement capitalism’: an attitude of ‘we are gentlemen and you should give us what we want and not erect barriers that prevent us from making the fortunes to which we know we are entitled’.
Early in the history of the colony it was realised good money was to be made from sheep. Sheep need land to graze on. Here was land in abundance for the taking. The problem was that the land was populated by Aboriginal people. All the governors who arrived in Australia were given instructions to protect the native people. Squatters were given leases that included clauses to enable Aboriginal people to hunt, fish and maintain their traditional ways on their lands. These clauses weren’t worth the paper they were written on. As far as the squatters were concerned, Aboriginal people were in the way. They competed with sheep for land and water.
Regular disputes occurred between Aboriginal people and squatters and those who worked for them. Some were minor, involving stolen sheep, food and implements. Others were major attacks, involving rape, wounding and murder. Actions by Aboriginal people were countered by troops and/or acts of vigilantism by squatters, including patrols that would kill any Aboriginal people they came upon. Poisoning was also used to kill off the First Australians. Marr observes that in the nineteenth century, ‘Australia was fought for in an endless war of little, cruel battles’.
Occasionally, settlers who observed an unprovoked attack and murder of Aboriginal people would complain to the press or the governor, demanding an inquiry. With one or two exceptions, those sitting in judgement would find the killings were justified and, in some cases, that the perpetrators should receive an award for bravery in protecting whites from the alleged savagery of the Aboriginal people.
Squatters continually made representations to governors for the establishment of a force to protect them and their sheep from attack by Aboriginal people. Marr observes that ‘Pitting native against native is a strategy as old as empire.’ In the case of Australia, it involved the use of Aboriginal people from one area to ‘police’ the affairs of Aboriginal people in other areas. A Native Police Corps was established in 1837 in the Port Phillip District (now Victoria). In 1848 New South Wales established a Native Police Force, and similar bodies were formed in other colonies. Both Reg and D’Arcy Uhr served as officers with the New South Wales Native Police in the 1860s.
The role of the Native Police was to roam the bush, looking for Aboriginal people to kill. Even when they rode up to a settlement where Aboriginal people had long-term employment and cordial relationships with squatters, they would be killed. While there are no reliable figures available, Marr claims that what research there is indicates that Native Police slaughtered at least 40,000 Aboriginal people. In addition, Native Police raped and kept Aboriginal women and girls, and kidnapped young children, boys and girls and Aboriginal women, and sold them into slavery where they were used for labour and sex. Marr also alludes to pedophilia of both sexes. In addition, the Native Police and their officers, especially the two Uhr brothers, often ran amok when they arrived in settlements, going on benders, molesting local women and girls, getting into fights, destroying property and generally disturbing the peace.
When Native Police and their officers were subjected to inquiries or brought before the courts, local magistrates invariably found in their favour. Disruption of the peace and injuries to locals was the price they were prepared to pay in the never-ending quest to kill Aboriginal people. Marr says such official inquiries made things worse. Having survived an investigation, the Native Police were reaffirmed in the knowledge that they had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted.
Marr provides accounts of over 70 killings and massacres in Killing for Country. Most readers will find that they will need to take a break from reading the chapters reporting these relentless killings. In approximately 85 per cent of the cases he examines, Marr provides information on the number of Aboriginal people killed. Added together, 2141 were murdered.
David Marr’s Killing for Country: A family history provides a chilling history of nineteenth-century Australia. In examining his family history, he documents how the squatters’ wealth was based on the slaughter of Aboriginal people across the length and breadth of Australia. In a period when governments played a minor role in the affairs of the nation, especially in the bush, the squatters enacted a form of entitlement capitalism to enhance their wealth and power.
This is a book that should be read by all Australians. David Marr has provided compelling insights and a superb analysis of the transformation of Australia during the nineteenth century. It documents in frightening detail the barbarity of white settlers towards the First Australians.
On 29 August 1868, under the headline ‘Colonial Humanity and Civilisation’, the Dublin newspaper The Nation wrote:
When a man because his skin happens to be black can with impunity be shot dead with a rifle for an offence punished with a few weeks’ imprisonment when committed by a European, civilization has evidently sunk to a very low degree in the individual guilty of such a deed. But when armed men in the Government employ, surround and shoot down scores of unarmed and defenceless wretches for the pettiest of larcenies, the crime becomes national and affects the character of the entire population.
What does it mean for the character of a nation when people who have not committed even the pettiest of larcenies are killed by government forces?
David Marr Killing for Country: A family history Black Inc. 2023 432pp $39.99
Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.
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