This review was first published in The Weekend Australian


Running to almost half a thousand pages, prodigiously researched and immaculately written, David Marr’s Killing for Country is surely one of the books of the year. Modestly described as a ‘family story’, it is in fact as solid a work of history as one could hope to find on the shelves. Clearly, the book holds enormous significance – enormous personal significance – for its author. But Marr brings the same forensic approach to this narrative of the frontier wars as he did to his celebrated biography of Patrick White, to his monographs of Tony Abbot and George Pell, and to his indispensable account of the Tampa/Children Overboard affair and Pacific Solution, Dark Victory. It is a magnificent achievement, and a necessary intervention, on a subject that still divides Australia: the violent dispossession of its native peoples.

It was the discovery that his great-great-grandfather had served with the Native Police that set Marr off on this bold endeavour. The son of Edmund Blucher Uhr, scion of a poorly connected family with pretentions to Irish nobility, Reginald Uhr and his brother D’arcy were both officers in this notorious outfit, which cleared land of its Aboriginal owners at the behest of the squattocracy, avenging attacks on farmers’ livestock and ‘dispersing’ troublesome gatherings. ‘Dispersing’ was a euphemism, of course, but so too was ‘police’: as even contemporaries understood, the NP was a quasi-military unit, not a tool of law enforcement. It’s estimated that over 60 years it murdered more than 100,000 people.

The NP began its campaign of killing in the Darling Downs in 1848, but its brutality reached its feverish peak as it moved north in the 1860s, in the wake of Queensland’s break from New South Wales. Its campaigns were characterised by a basic asymmetry, as the belligerents in the frontier wars operated according to different principles: the Indigenous peoples saw themselves as redressing grievances through evening up the score, while white retaliation was inordinate. A pattern quickly established itself. Colonial expansion led to Indigenous resistance, which led in turn to further dispersals. Notwithstanding that these acts of violence were often met with disapproval by the colonial authorities, the indulgence shown towards them was baked in, in a way that gives the lie to the idea that the NP was dispensing justice. The reality is that it was clearing the land of black bodies.

This picture is complicated by the fact that the NP comprised units of eight to ten such bodies under the command of a single white one. But in Marr’s telling, this organisational structure was something of a genius-stroke, in that it drew on the multinational nature of the Indigenous population and on the profound connection to place – to country – that characterises Indigenous society in general. As he puts it:

What made them strange and dangerous to each other was being away from their own country, the country that made them who they were. Here was a deadly conundrum. While officially denying their attachment to land, colonial authorities would rely on that profound attachment – and the divisions it provoked – to raise a black force that would strip them of their country.

Such an arrangement also allowed the NP to characterise the murdering as what a US Republican might call ‘black on black’ violence. The recruitment of Aboriginal men gave white officers a handy alibi when questioned by their superiors.

Why would the killers need an alibi? The question may sound ridiculous, but conservative history warriors who criticise histories such as these, will often suggest that their authors are guilty of projecting modern values backwards (this is the so-called ‘black armband’ charge). But what emerges from these grisly pages, and from the accounts of the contemporary outrage directed against the clearances, is a picture of a system of ‘justice’ founded on a gargantuan hypocrisy – hypocrisy being the compliment that vice implicitly pays to virtue. In other words, many of the men in this ‘story’ knew full well that they were involved in an immoral undertaking, and commentary that attempts to downplay this reality is, itself, unhistorical. This is not to say that the picture is simple: history is a tragedy, not a morality play. It is simply to agree with the author that if it is possible to feel pride in one’s country, it should be possible to feel ashamed of it too.

Marr does not make a show of such feelings. In his television appearances, he will often adopt the sort of demeanour that (I imagine) sends conservatives round the bend: the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger eyes; the casual, cruising exasperation at the politics he doesn’t share, and is, therefore, self-evidently preposterous. But here the tone is even and controlled. One notes the slightly ironic adjectives and the occasionally sardonic descriptions. (‘He recruited blacks as guides. He also shot blacks who stood in his way. Somerville was a genial and unscrupulous gentleman of the warrior class.’) But in general he lets the material speak for itself. Goodness knows, there’s plenty of it. As Marr notes – again, a little sardonically – one good thing about the colonists is that they wrote plenty of fine letters home.  

The attitudes evinced in those letters, or the language in which those attitudes are couched, will no doubt distress most contemporary readers, and it would be vacuously polemical to assert that nothing’s changed. It has. Nevertheless, it is the achievement of this book to invite us to reflect on the many connections between contemporary Australia and its bloody past. That past is not a foreign country. It just speaks in thicker accents than we are used to.

David Marr, Killing for Country: A Family Story (Black Inc.; $39.99; 468pp)