‘“We have seized their country by the right of might”: David Marr’s Killing for Country’, Honest History, 8 October 2023
Peter Stanley reviews Killing for Country: A Family Story, by David Marr
Brothers Reginald and D’arcy Uhr, the raffish sons of colonial chancer Edmund Blucher Uhr, became officers in the Native Mounted Police, the principal agency for the extirpation of mainland Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Their bloody careers form the core of this disturbing but significant book, written by their distant relative. Reg Uhr was David Marr’s great-great-grandfather.
Marr is one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals. As an investigative journalist, he exposed Robert Askin’s corruption in New South Wales and the Alan Jones and John Laws ‘cash for comment’ rort. He has published six Quarterly Essays and critical biographies of conservative jurist Garfield Barwick and Nobel Prize-winning writer Patrick White. Like many notionally retired people, he has taken up family history, but the resultant book is no mere chronicle of who begat whom. This is a book of greater relevance to our understanding of our country’s history than is the average family saga.
Killing for Country reveals the mechanics of frontier conflict, a key dynamic in the British occupation of this continent. In essence, Marr shows how British and colonial governments took Aboriginal lives in forcible exchange for their land. Enterprising and rapacious squatters seized or were granted vast tracts of country, and were then allowed or helped to confirm what became their property, and to do that by violence. This violence was applied across New South Wales, Queensland and much of northern Australia by the Native Mounted Police, of which Reginald and D’arcy were two of some 300 white officers.
Regarded as marginal gentlemen by colonists, the Native Mounted Police’s officers were often men of dubious character in search of a paying ‘situation’; they were commissioned as officers as a last resort. If they were not drinkers before leading their troopers on murderous forays, they were likely to end up alcoholics, perhaps to drown out memories of the atrocities they had ordered. Like their troopers, many took and used Aboriginal women and children, survivors of their massacres. This is not a proud family story, but it is an honest one.
A paradox runs through the whole sorry saga, that the colonial governors appointed by the British government all arrived with instructions to treat the continent’s original inhabitants with ‘amity and kindness’, and that those who attempted to ‘wantonly destroy them’ were to be ‘brought to punishment’. In fact, the term of every governor saw Australia’s Aboriginal peoples subjected to what the instructions described as ‘unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations’, by both official bodies – the army and the police – and by British subjects: squatters, their shepherds, and stockmen.
The single greatest agency of violence was the Native Mounted Police. In another tragic paradox, most black lives were taken by bullets fired by black men. From 1788 to about 1850 official force came from either red-coated British soldiers or blue-coated British troopers of the military Mounted Police, assisted by green-coated men of the Border Police, many of them former soldiers transported as convicts. (The Mounted Police had been raised in Sydney in 1825. As a ‘military force of the Crown raised in Australia’ they should have had a place in the Australian War Memorial’s depiction of frontier conflict for forty years since the passage of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980. That the Memorial obstinately refused to accept this fact says a great deal about the widespread Australian reluctance to accept the historical reality of frontier conflict. Books like this demonstrate the need for the Memorial to act in accord with its own legislation.)
Map of Queensland 1859, showing sparse settlement and limited extension into Indigenous Country (Wikimedia Commons; unknown author). See also: Queensland Historical Atlas maps on the pastoral expansion of Queensland.
From about 1850, though, as the pastoral frontier extended inland, British regiments withdrew from active operations and the Mounted Police became colonial police forces, settlement was enforced by the creation of the Native Mounted Police. A uniformed force of Aboriginal troopers had been formed in the Port Phillip District (Victoria) as early as 1837. In 1848, New South Wales followed suit, recruiting men from (say) the Murrumbidgee to serve on the Darling Downs, operating against people with whom they felt no affinity. In what became Queensland (after its separation from New South Wales in 1859) the Native Mounted Police operated for the next fifty years, and Reg and D’arcy served in support of squatters on the Queensland frontier.
Marr traces the work of the Uhr brothers as they cleared district after district of First Nations people who objected to the seizure of their lands. First Nations people often resisted actively, but just as often squatters asked police to remove people who represented an obstacle to settlement. What happened in the Bowen hinterland in the mid-1860s (what Marr calls ‘the bloodiest corner of Queensland’) could stand for the force’s role across the colony:
Reg spent three of the next four years [1863-67] clearing the Biri, Yangga, Miyan and Yilba people … The squatters wanted an empty landscape for sheep to graze. It was an article of faith with them … that peace was only possible if the blacks were gone.
In another irony, Marr notes that squatters’ leases supposedly guaranteed the Indigenous rights to hunt and fish, a condition that was not enforced by any colonial government.
The historians of frontier conflict and the Native Mounted Police, whose help Marr generously acknowledges, have often lamented that the force’s records have been ‘lost’, and indeed, the colonial archive is thin, when set against the Victorian era’s usual bureaucratic impulse; a sign of an uneasy official conscience. But Marr makes excellent use of the abundant informal and personal records, especially in local histories and in newspapers. For all of the obfuscation and euphemism employed (notably, ‘dispersed’ was understood to mean ‘exterminated’) contemporaries referred fully, freely and often to lethal violence on the frontier, and these references came not least from people outraged at how many lives Native Mounted Police troopers took at the orders of their officers. Marr quotes contemporaries describing the 1890s ‘settlement’ as a time of ‘terrible slaughter, scores upon scores of the aborigines falling victim … incidents which if repeated here would scarcely be regarded as pleasant reading’. At the time, though, newspaper writers and correspondents confidently asserted the squatters’ right to dispossession: ‘we have seized their country by the right of might’.
The ‘might’ which enforced dispossession mainly comprised a ‘native’ force (though often joined by white police and by stockmen) but should not be mistaken for a ‘civil’ agency. Ratcliffe Pring, Queensland’s first Attorney-General, admitted in 1861 that ‘it was useless to call the native police troopers a civil force’. They did not use truncheons like town constables, but ‘carbines and balls … to disperse the blacks’. He acknowledged that ‘he should call the native police force a semi-military force’. It was a force which did not enforce the law, but which exterminated without examination.
Marr often allows participants’ words to make the case. In his memoir of his years as a squatter on the Suttor River, Cuthbert Featherstonhaugh described how he summoned Reg Uhr’s troopers after a shepherd had been speared. Uhr’s men and a posse of vigilantes pursued a party (who probably had nothing to do with the murder). Featherstonhaugh called it ‘a picnic’. They tracked the blacks for a hundred miles, finally chasing them in a patch of scrub:
The gins lay down [and] one was shot by mistake … In a few minutes all the blacks, twelve of them, were shot … [with] the gins scowling at us … we ate and enjoyed our pot of tea and our dinner …
Marr made the brave but correct decision to not censor the language of the time. He decided that we need to see the past in its own terms, rather than cloaking its racism by omission: hence ‘gins’.
A particularly useful feature of the book are the maps, drawn by Tom Moore and researched by Sebastian Tesoriero, and accompanying many chapters. They show both the names of the First Nations peoples who belonged to the country discussed, the settlements established by the invaders and the locations of some known massacres. The dozen maps running from the Burdekin north through the Herbert to the Gulf Country and on to Darwin trace the depredations of Reg and D’arcy’s troopers from the 1860s to the 1880s. Many residents or visitors to regions now popular among ‘grey nomads’ may be shocked to learn that their caravan parks and camping sites were once the locations of massacres. The exact number killed can never be established, but research on the Native Mounted Police suggests that it was certainly more than 20 000 in Queensland alone, and most likely 60 000: about as many Australians as died in the Great War.
Map of Queensland 1890, with the carve-up into counties indicating the extension of settlement into Indigenous Country (Wikimedia Commons; Queensland Government). See also: Queensland Historical Atlas maps on the pastoral expansion of Queensland.
That is a good point to refer again to the Australian War Memorial, as Marr does on the last page of the book:
There is space in those sad halls [of the Memorial] to stand two Australian figures in bronze, a white officer and a black trooper, and engrave on the plinth beneath:
IN THE CONQUEST OF THIS COUNTRY
WE REMEMBER THEM.
This is an important book (though unduly long as the first hundred pages would have been better condensed to a scene-setting chapter) in which one of Australia’s most respected authors has explored his own connection to the tragic occupation of this continent. Marr rightly feels no personal guilt for the misdeeds of his forebears, but he does accept a responsibility, the responsibility to honestly acknowledge their actions, and their part in creating our nation, in which we live with the consequences of the dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal Australia.
*Honorary Professor Peter Stanley recently retired from UNSW Canberra, where he had been Research Professor 2013-23. He was previously Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial, where he worked from 1980 to 2007. He was a founder member of Honest History and is now a member of Defending Country Memorial Project Inc., which has been formed to encourage the Australian War Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars. Professor Stanley has just signed a contract to write for Routledge (UK) a synoptic account of frontier conflict Makarrata: The Australia Wars, 1788-1928. For his other posts on Honest History, use our Search engine.
 See the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 section 3: ‘Defence Force includes any naval or military force of the Crown raised in Australia before the establishment of the Commonwealth’.
 Recent research:
(1) Heather Burke, Flinders University: ‘We will probably never, ever know what that final number was but if you use the number of Native Police camps and their duration, and then some estimates for how many patrols might have radiated from each camp, how many people might have been “dispersed” on each patrol, with 150 camps, you’re looking at something like 72 000 people’ (Rachel Perkins, Dir., The Australian Wars, ep. 3, SBS, 2022).
(2) Raymond Evans, Griffith University and University of Queensland, and Robert Ørsted-Jensen, University of Queensland: ‘Together, then, our two totals of Native Police and settler inflictions amount to 61 680 in 6 000 attacks. Adding in an estimated figure of 3500 deaths associated with Native Police activity in the 1850s as well as the 1500 enumerated “invader” deaths, we arrive at an aggregate of 66 680 killed [between the 1820s and early 1900s]’. (‘“I cannot say the numbers that were killed”: assessing violent mortality on the Queensland Frontier’ (2014).