Inside Story

Demythologising the frontier

David Marr’s intergenerational account of colonisation challenges us to think differently about truth-telling

Larissa Behrendt 6 December 2023 1486 words

Ambition and entitlement: detail from a photographic portrait of Native Police officer Reg Uhr, c. 1863. State Library of Queensland

True histories are often not for the faint-hearted, and David Marr’s ambitious and sweeping account of his own family story is among those that challenge the reader not to look away. Killing for Country is framed by the exploits of four figures — Richard Jones, his brother-in-law Edmund B. Uhr and Edmund’s sons Reg and D’Arcy Uhr — each of whom embody ambition, entitlement, conquest and brutality. Taken together, their stories reveal the real price of nation-building in a colonial country through the experiences of the kinds of pioneers Australian history has often mythologised.

Marr paints his characters meticulously. Richard Jones, an astute businessman and Christian evangelical, amassed large tracts of land on which to graze his sheep. His accumulation of wealth rested on clearing the land of its original occupants. Aboriginal people were slaughtered with no protection from the colony, a process that Jones was able to keep at arm’s length by giving others the bloody work of “dispersal” or “reprisal.”

Like many other Christians, Jones failed to see the humanity in Aboriginal people and so his charity couldn’t extend to them. At the height of his landholding, he would have more than 600,000 acres. His is the story of the “entrepreneur gentleman,” a type whose wealth was often portrayed as coming from acumen and savvy but who, in truth, took land with brute force (even if not by his own hand) and then used his wealth, power and position (in parliament, commerce and banking) to ensure that laws favoured his interests and didn’t protect those who had been removed.

Marr’s profile of Edmund B. Uhr reveals a man with his own aspirations for large landholdings and status, whose appointment as magistrate gave him the power to condone violence or turn a blind eye to it, often for his own convenience. Marr then tracks the exploits of two of Uhr’s sons, brothers Reg and D’Arcy, as they move through Queensland and into the Gulf country as officers of the Native Police. They helped clear Aboriginal populations from traditional lands, suppressing resistance while avoiding having literal blood on their hands.

This is a two-generational account of the colonisation process. Through the stories of his subjects, Marr shows how land was taken by force and without payment, and how these men used their wealth, status and power to create the rules that validated their theft and turned a blind eye to the violence used to take the land. Marr also illustrates how, on the rare occasions when colonial law sought to temper the excessive violence and murder and hold its perpetrators to account, new strategies emerged to achieve the same end with less accountability. Humanitarian concerns were met with derision by those who charged that sympathetic city-dwellers had no understanding of life on the frontier and in the newly conquered lands.

Marr’s recounting of barbarities against Aboriginal men, women and children is factual and to the point. He understands that this is no place for timidity and euphemisms. But nor is there any need for exaggeration or hyperbole. His account is thorough, searing and unflinching, the stories of these four men compellingly framed by his knowledge of the legal frameworks and politics of the time and his attention to the public debates playing out in the era’s newspapers.

Killing for Country also sets what was occurring in Australia in the context of colonisation processes around the globe, a facet that is too often overlooked. He notes, for instance, that the American war of independence had been sparked by a refusal to grant more land to the colonisers, and the British weren’t keen to make that mistake again. When the line around the Sydney colony’s nineteen counties was breached, there was little appetite to rein anyone in.

Through these prisms, Marr presents a broader narrative of Australian history. In bringing together the personal and the political, he presents a story of power, privilege and the process of aggressive colonisation — of brutal, concerted and bloody dispossession — with not even the facade of a treaty offered to those being conquered.

But Killing for Country is also the story of resistance. Unmasking the violence needed to take country and keep it exposes as a convenient and necessary colonial lie the myth that Aboriginal people simply faded into the background, inevitably ceding ground to a superior force. What emerges clearly from the conflict explored in Marr’s book is that Aboriginal people fought tenaciously for their land, at many moments repelling the onslaught of colonisation ferociously and fearlessly. It was the depth of this refusal to cede that prompted the more shamelessly brutal force in which Marr’s four subjects played their roles.

Marr has been one of the great intellectual contributors to the critique of Australia’s national narrative. Through his body of work, including his books Dark Victory and Panic, and his Quarterly Essays The White Queen and His Master’s Voice, he has been a persuasive critic of the divisive race politics of the Howard era and their legacy, and a compassionate contributor to debates about the type of country we should be. Killing for Country continues his thoughtful interventions in and critiques of the story Australia wants to tell about itself.

With his meticulous, time-consuming research clear in each page, Marr couldn’t have anticipated the exact moment in history when his book would be released. His account of how the country was taken comes just as Australia is processing the fallout of the failed Voice referendum.

The lead-up to the vote saw an increase in the visibility and vitriol of racist tropes — that Aboriginal people are savage and backward, that they were getting ‘something for nothing’ and that recognition of their distinct place would “divide the nation.” Killing for Country reminds us of the seeds of those antiquated and racist ideologies and the purpose they serve.

Marr would also be fully awake to the ripples in the pond that a book like this creates. As a public intellectual who has constantly interrogated what racism and prejudice does to the fabric of Australian society, he is aware of the history of ideological resistance to the forceful telling of frontier history. There is no longer a black armband or white blindfold: they were part of a contest of ideologies over what story Australia wanted to tell itself. Marr slices through this. There is no place for the heroic “white man conquering the land” narrative and there is no excuse for shying away from words like “conquest,” “invasion,” “genocide” and “massacre.” These debates about whether there were massacres or stolen generations were never about a truthful Australian history.

But it is hard to read Marr’s book as an Aboriginal woman and not feel it personally. Massacre sites litter the rivers of my traditional country, and accounts like Killing for Country are a form of validation, however tough the read is at times. The violence perpetrated against our ancestors, often coupled with sexual violence against Aboriginal women, was sparked not just by the taking of land but by Aboriginal communities standing up against settler abuse of women and children. The treatment of Aboriginal women in the process of colonisation still feels under-researched; it is not adequately captured in the archives or written colonial records.

I read Killing for Country as I was travelling on my own traditional country where family members can still point out where massacres took place along our rivers. While the material in Marr’s book felt raw, it is also incredibly important that the gaslighting of history that remains strong in the oral histories of Aboriginal people is replaced with an honest account of what it takes to claim a continent and its human cost.

This is a deeply personal historical account for Marr as well. These are his ancestors. His approach challenges us to think differently about what a truth-telling process might be. It is not just about creating the space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to tell their truths. It also requires the kind of historical accountability that sits on the other side of the ledger.

What is admirable about Marr’s approach in Killing for Country is that there is no handwringing as he lays bare the exploits of his ancestors. Instead, he poses the question that should be asked: if we can accept true accounts of our past, what will it mean for the shape of our future? What happens if the true history is acknowledged and we can admit that this is a country that was acquired by conquest?

The impact of this type of truth-telling should not be a sense of collective guilt but instead the impetus for meaningful and collective action. With that message, Killing for Country could not be more necessary or more timely. •

Killing for Country: A Family Story
By David Marr | Black Inc. | $39.99 | 432 pages