Book Review: Killing For Country by David Marr

This is a remarkable piece of writing and history. It helps fill the gap in knowledge of the frontier wars, especially in Queensland in the 19th century. Starting from curiosity about his own forebears, the author researches in great detail the background to encounters between colonists and first nations people, in which human and race relations were set.  In three substantial chapters headlined by names of his relatives, David Marr recounts the inexorable way in which those arriving in a “new” country used relentless means to occupy the land and remove impediments to that goal. Using the available records in newspapers, court proceedings, and government reports, he traces the lives of British settlers from upper class backgrounds who became dominant in the seats of power – as squatters, as magistrates, as public servants, and as police. In many cases, the same people served in each of these capacities in different stages of their lives, thereby ensuring a culture of control over others less fortunate or well-off. Convicts, ex-convicts, and free settlers were encompassed by this environment, and Aborigines were the primary victims of it.  The Native Police became a symbol of this situation in Queensland – recruited and led by whites and comprising many Indigenous members (coming from the southern colonies) paid to track and eliminate people from other tribes unknown to them.

The book outlines the way in which, from the earliest days, conflicts arose about the newcomers invading the lands of Indigenous people. The result was often killing on both sides. For example, sheep and cattle brought in by the settlers would roam widely (no fences in those days), and an Aboriginal group would kill a shepherd in retaliation. The next step would be a collective punishment by squatters and/or police, killing multiple people found in tribal groups near the area where the shepherd was killed. The Native Police were ostensibly tasked with keeping the peace between settlers and Aborigines, but inevitably took the squatters’ side. Rules established by the British authorities to protect the rights of the local people were openly ignored, and rarely was a proper investigation done into the killings.

There were some journalists, lawyers, governors and public officials who tried to promote a more humane approach, and this did lead in some areas to relative peace, usually because a squatter/farmer was prepared to negotiate with the First Nations people a mutual agreement to share the use of the land (as was intended by the formal rules of settlement). The Myall Creek case was, however, the only one in which whites were actually charged and convicted of massacring Aborigines. The fierce objection to their sentencing and execution meant that no further such trials occurred. The general view was that the invaders represented a much higher level of humanity than the Aborigines, and that therefore the occupation of land must proceed in order to bring “civilisation” to the colonies. In exploring how his own forebears contributed to these thoughts and acted in defence of the dominance of whites, David Marr found a disturbing continuation of this sentiment even today among descendants of the settlers of that era.

It is hard to imagine a more poignant time to read such a book, when the Referendum on the Voice has failed and there is division in our country. I find that David Marr concludes with observations that identify with my own response to the ongoing issue of recognition of first peoples. He clearly rejects the idea that we must not apply today’s standards to the people of earlier generations, and must move on. He says that many Australians have changed so little, have failed to listen to Indigenous voices, and have denied the truth about how the country arrived where it is today. Nevertheless he holds out the hope that the spirit of the Statement from the Heart will eventually have its fulfilment. I too pray for more reflection among us all about what we value and how we can share what Indigenous Australia has to offer.

Published by Black Inc, 2023

David Purnell, Canberra and Region Meeting

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