BOOK REVIEW: Killing for Country by David Marr

Vivienne Wynter

When I was a journalism academic for 20 years, dozens of students pitched me a ‘news story idea’ about the ‘unfairness’ of Aboriginal and Islander students sometimes receiving extra financial support than non-Indigenous students.

‘So your news angle is that it is unfair?’ I answered. ‘Are you aware of the term genocide?’

‘No,’ replied every single one of them.

‘OK would you please do a bit of research on the history of genocide against the Indigenous peoples of Australia? If you still think a small amount of extra financial support for Indigenous students is unfair, come back to me and we’ll discuss it,’ was my standard answer.

Eyes widened. No student ever returned me to pitch that story.

These perceptions were evidence of how effectively Australia wrote out of history this genocide: the deliberate killing of large numbers of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.

Killing for Country, Walkley Award winning journalist David Marr’s confronting history of his family’s direct involvement in the genocide corrects the historical record. It complements the work of historian Henry Reynolds, Marcia Langton and a handful of others who revised the history ‘written by the victors’.

David Marr

Marr’s book is different from the others: rather than being a broad, academic history, Killing for Country is sharply focussed on a personal story of his ancestors’ murderous dispossession of Aboriginal people living on land the European settlers wanted to take from them.

He wrote the book after discovering his great, great grandfather was in the notorious Native Police in the 1860s.

‘I saw a photo of him in the uniform of Queensland Native Police,’ Marr told an Australia Institute forum.

‘That was a hard moment. White officers, black troopers designed to disperse black people. An hour later, with mix of embarrassment shame and curiosity, I decided I had to write about this. It took four and a half years.’

Marr describes his great, great grandfather Reg Urh, as ‘a professional killer’.

The violence in the TV series 2012 Vikings  and the 1977 Roots, both telling stories of cruel, murderous invaders, was full on and the violence in Killing for Country is worse.

Marr pulls no punches.

‘It was open slather for a century on the East Coast of Australia.’

Meticulous research

Killing for Country is the meticulously researched and evidence based story of how, when friendly advances were mostly rejected, Aboriginal people defended themselves against violent invasion.

Over about a century they killed a few thousand Europeans.

In revenge, and to ‘clear’ land they wanted to occupy exclusively, Europeans killed tens of thousands of Aboriginal people.

Marr’s book documents, (mainly from official government and newspaper records), how this killing developed into the frontier wars, led by paid Native Police and also perpetrated by squatters.

A minority of squatters successfully shared the land with the First Nations occupants but this book shows that most did not.

For Queenslanders, the book is of particular interest. Marr’s ancestors, Edmund Urh and his sons Reg and D’arcy, were very active in ‘clearing’ or ‘dispersing’ any Aboriginal people they encountered in various regions of Queensland.

The most brutal years of the Queensland frontier

‘The Urh brothers had hideous careers during the most brutal years of the Queensland frontier,’ said Marr.

Marr’s account of the attempted ‘clearing’ of the Wide Bay region of its Aboriginal inhabitants, is particularly harrowing because it was there that the killing seemed to reach a peak of indiscriminate killing, harassment and cruelty. I won’t go into detail here: suffice to say The Mary River holds chilling secrets now shared in Marr’s book.

The fact that the main record of this murderous chapter of Australian history was kept by newspaper journalists is a timely example of the power of the Fourth Estate in keeping government accountable (though large sections of the press did applaud the killings).

Journalism is called the ‘first draft of history’ and was often the only written record of many massacres of Aboriginal people, although their oral histories survive today.

Marr estimates approximately 40,000 Aboriginal people were killed during the settlement period, before they were intimidated into submission and subordination.

He respectfully refrains from telling the stories of the Aboriginal people or speaking on their behalf. Still the Aboriginal heroes (and their European supporters) shine through this story as glints of gold in an otherwise unrelenting chronicle of violence, craven greed and officially sanctioned theft of land and murder of its owners.

His painstaking research of the crimes of his forebears is significant for all descendants, including myself, of European settlers.

‘I don’t believe my blood is tainted by his,’ writers Marr of his great, great grandfather.

‘I don’t believe I am responsible for his crimes. But we all need to face this country’s past.’

‘Australia was uniquely appalling in the way it was colonised.’

Marr quotes his sister Jane: ‘The shame we carry for this is the shame every white Australian should share.’

Publisher, Black Inc, describes Killing for Country as a richly detailed saga of politics and power in the colonial world – of land seized, fortunes made and lost and the violence let loose as squatters and their allies fought for possession of the country – a war still unresolved in today’s Australia.

Killing for Country is not an easy read but it’s an essential read for anyone curious about the truth of Australian settlement.

It is published by Black Inc Books (39.99). This reviewer’s copy was from Berkelouw Books Eumundi.

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