Powerful ammo in the ongoing ‘culture war’ about racism

June 12, 2024
book cover, background drawing of massacre by Native Police
Background image: Drawing by Aboriginal boy Oscar of Native Police operation circa 1897 near Camooweal. National Library of Australia. Public Domain

Killing for Country: A Family History
By David Marr
Black Inc Books, 2023
432 pp
Paperback: $39.99

This book was not a quick read. David Marr chronicles in brutal detail a story of his forebears, Reginald Uhr and his brother Darcy who served as white officers in the Native Police, a paramilitary force that was deployed from 1849 to the 1920s to carry out systematic massacres of First Nations peoples in the frontier wars in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

This is veteran journalist Marr’s personal contribution to the truth-telling that is still mostly ahead in the European colonial settler state that calls itself Australia.

The book came out in October 2023 and Marr regrets that it did not come out early enough to play a role in the debates that led to the failed 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum.

I read this book against the backdrop of the ongoing genocide in Gaza by Israel, another racist European colonial settler state. The public was being bombarded with arguments about racism and antisemitism in yet another “culture war” launched by the right and propagated by the media establishment in a naked attempt to justify this colonial genocide.

The true victims of colonial genocide were branded the aggressors and the perpetrators were dubbed the “victims”.

A powerful speech by United Nations Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories Francesca Albanese (the “good Albanese” as she has been popularly hailed) pointed out the bleeding obvious — that racism is the “unavoidable organic consequence” of colonial settlement.

Marr has laid out detailed proof that this was the same in Australia.

Killing For Country is powerful ammo in the culture war about Australian frontier violence for those on the right side of justice. When former Liberal PM John Howard and a bunch of conservative writers tried to dismiss the history of the bloody frontier wars in Australia, chronicled by Henry Reynolds and others, they cast doubt on massacre numbers by demanding more proof.

The right demanded official body counts and forensic evidence for massacres that they knew full well were systematically covered up and minimised in official accounts.

Killing For Country demolishes this white wash with historical detail about the crimes of Marr's forebears “in the massacre business” that cannot be denied.

Marr does not just report the massacres by the Uhr brothers and the people who set them on this bloody path, he also follows the money and hence traces the economic drivers of their violence.

So the story does not begin in the Queensland frontier but in early Sydney, where the land-hungry merchant Richard Jones arrived in 1809. Jones and others like him considered themselves good Christians but they became rich and powerful through dispossession and systematic extermination of First Nations peoples all the way up the east coast.

“What began as an account of the bloody exploits of the [Uhr] brothers turned into a history of an invasion in which they were foot soldiers. I was drawn into the worlds of sheep, money, merchants, the press, the church, the law and London’s imperial cowardice. I was intrigued by the shadowy forms of today’s politics emerging from the frontier wars — particularly the still potent belief in many quarters that the Aboriginal people deserve nothing for the continent that they lost. Polls show hostility is strongest where most blood was shed despising those we have wronged is another way we humans have of dealing with our shame.”

Because this is a family story as well as a dive into this continent’s hidden history, Marr has answered Howard’s claim that painful truth telling like this is a “black armband view of history”.

“We can be proud of our families for things done generations ago. We can also be ashamed. I feel no guilt for what Reg did. But I can’t argue away the shame that overcame me when I first saw that photograph of Sub-Inspector Uhr in his pompous uniform,” he wrote.

After he did his research on the Uhr brothers, Marr felt embarrassed that he had been “reporting on race and politics in this country for so long without it ever crossing my mind that my family might have played a part in the frontier wars. My blindness was so Australian.”

Marr describes Killing For Country as “an act of atonement, of penance by storytelling”.

“But I wasn’t wallowing in my own shame. None of us are free of this past,” he wrote.

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