There is no longer any doubt that Queens­land’s fron­tier wars were bloody, bru­tal and aimed at dev­as­tat­ing Abo­rig­i­nal so­ci­ety, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well. So where to now?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ni­co­las Roth­well is a se­nior jour­nal­ist on The Aus­tralian, based in Dar­win.

IN Oc­to­ber 1890, Archibald Me­ston, a hand­some, slightly scape­grace pil­lar of the Queens­land es­tab­lish­ment, felt the time had come for a brisk as­sess­ment of the state’s dark and con­ve­niently ill­re­mem­bered past. At that point in his hec­tic ca­reer Me­ston was still in his 30s and had al­ready been by turns a word­smith, a par­lia­men­tar­ian, an ex­plorer, a news­pa­per edi­tor and a bank­rupt: now he was on the verge of a new chap­ter in his life, as pro­tec­tor of the Abo­rig­ines. It was a ti­tle re­plete with ironic un­der­tones.

Me­ston set out his por­trait of the decades gone by in blunt terms in The Queens­lan­der, a weekly with wide dis­tri­bu­tion: ‘‘ The records of those un­happy years are un­speak­ably ghastly in their ac­counts of mur­ders of white men and slaugh­ter of the blacks. The whites were killed in dozens, the blacks in hun­dreds.’’ The ar­chives of Queens­land his­tory groan with tell­tale pas­sages of this kind: re­ports and rem­i­nis­cences that make plain the scale of the blood­shed on the north­ern fron­tier dur­ing the pe­riod of colo­nial set­tle­ment and con­quest, when the Aus­tralian hin­ter­land was be­ing dis­creetly, vi­o­lently cleared and claimed.

Con­spir­acy of Si­lence, by Cairns-based his­to­rian Ti­mothy Bot­toms, pro­vides an over­view of our un­der­stand­ing of this bleak phase in the for­ma­tion of north Aus­tralia and builds on much pre­vi­ous work. For most of the cen­tury just past, the act of dis­pos­ses­sion at the heart of the national story was air­brushed out of mem­ory. But in the 19th cen­tury, when the vast ex­panses of Queens­land be­yond the Di­vid­ing Range were be­ing tamed and taken, a dif­fer­ent kind of bid to tilt and ac­cent the record of events had been in place: a dou­ble pat­tern of cen­sor­ship and at­tempts at un­veil­ing. As the killings mul­ti­plied, the per­pe­tra­tors con­cealed the ev­i­dence or min­imised their scale; mean­while wit­nesses and whistle­blow­ers waged a cam­paign of dis­clo­sures. Thus a strug­gle for in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the fron­tier land­scape was al­ready un­der way and its weight­ing was fa­mil­iar: the press and con­science-stricken ag­i­ta­tors fight­ing to ex­pose the ac­tions and the in­ac­tion of the po­lit­i­cal class.

This pat­tern com­pli­cates the task of the con­tem­po­rary his­to­rian. What counts as ev­i­dence? How well does the record of facts set down cap­ture the flow of cause and con­se­quence? Reap­praisal of the colo­nial era has been un­der way for al­most a gen­er­a­tion now, since the first fron­tier works by Henry Reynolds and Ray­mond Evans ap­peared in the 1980s. Evans con­trib­utes a brief fore­word to this study, set­ting the con­text, sketch­ing the lat­est up­dates in the task of re­assess­ment: ‘‘ It has now be­come clear,’’ he says, ‘‘ that the killing in­ci­dents oc­ca­sioned by the state­fi­nanced, equipped and run Na­tive Po­lice squads which op­er­ated in Queens­land for more than half a cen­tury be­tween 1849 and the 1900s would have num­bered in the thou­sands’’ — and th­ese of­fi­cially sanc­tioned killings were sup­ple­mented by free­lance shoot­ings and poi­son­ing episodes.

Bot­toms col­lects a rich sup­ply of tes­ti­mony: from pub­li­ca­tions, new and pe­riod; from his own field in­ter­views and re­search. He con­firms the con­sis­tent pic­ture of an ad­vanc­ing north­ward tide of clash and re­sis­tance. Strik­ingly, he pro­vides il­lus­tra­tion in the form of a set of maps: ‘‘ Some Mas­sacres on the Queens­land Fron­tier’’, he of­fers as his head­ing for them, mod­estly, tellingly; they may be the most com­pre­hen­sive ‘‘ mas­sacre maps’’ yet pub­lished for the era of Aus­tralian set­tle­ment.

They do their work. Not even ex­perts in the records of the ar­chives could be fa­mil­iar with ev­ery episode marked here by a lit­tle map-dot: Birdsville, Bur­ke­town, Coen, Wyan­dotte. It may be that a hand­ful of th­ese cases hover on the edge of the his­tor­i­cal record; the to­tal pic­ture is more dif­fi­cult to brush away.

Bot­toms tells his own tale in brief, to make a sim­ple point. He grew up in provin­cial towns such as Nara­coorte and Al­bury, ‘‘ blithely un­aware of Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia’’. He be­came a teacher, work­ing at Santa Teresa just south of Alice Springs, and then in Kowanyama in

THEIR SKULLS AND BONES COULD BE SEEN SCAT­TERED IN THE SUR­ROUND­ING HILLS FOR YEARS AF­TER­WARDS Con­spir­acy of Si­lence: Queens­land’s Fron­tier Killing Times By Ti­mothy Bot­toms Allen & Un­win, 258pp, $32.99

western Cape York. In th­ese re­mote com­mu­ni­ties he was thrown to­gether with the lo­cals: he be­came aware of their way of see­ing the land­scape, and their tra­di­tions and be­liefs. Next Cairns. There was a large re­gional Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion. Their sto­ries were un­known. He made him­self their scribe and pub­lished a heart­felt por­trait of their past, Djabugay Coun­try. He was com­mis­sioned to write a his­tory of Cairns by the lo­cal coun­cil; he wrote it: the man­u­script was vast and im­pres­sive in its de­tail, and full of Abo­rig­i­nal con­tent. The coun­cil re­fused to pub­lish it on the grounds the cost would be pro­hib­i­tive.

Un­daunted, he pushed on with his projects: ‘‘ My ap­proach has been to ad­dress the think­ing reader who wishes to come to terms with and de­velop an aware­ness of the ele­ments that com­prise Aus­tralian his­tory.’’ This is a jour­ney that in­volves ‘‘ fac­ing the aw­ful truth’’, he says, about times long gone. But it also al­lows the trac­ing of con­ti­nu­ities. For Bot­toms, ‘‘ the po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions of the past and the sub­se­quent con­se­quences have rel­e­vance’’ to­day.

His is a fairly stan­dard story of per­sonal en­light­en­ment through study and ex­pe­ri­ence — and the ver­sion of the fron­tier he of­fers up is pretty much the new stan­dard ver­sion en­dorsed by aca­demic ex­perts: a his­tory once sup­pressed, now ac­cepted, but not ex­actly em­braced and en­shrined at the heart of mod­ern Aus­tralia’s im­age of it­self. How could it be? Chap­ter by chap­ter, re­gion by re­gion, killing by killing, tale by tale, Bot­toms builds his mo­saic: the puni­tive ex­pe­di­tion to Fraser Is­land in 1852, the Ben­de­mere and Goul­bolba Hill mas­sacres of the 1860s, the 1870s slaugh­ter at Koonchera and Thun­da­purty wa­ter­holes — here they all are.

Many of the episodes Bot­toms deals with were small-scale af­fairs: ‘‘ mas­sacre’’ is now de­fined by his­to­ri­ans of the 19th-cen­tury fron­tier as any or­gan­ised killing of five or more vic­tims. Some, though, were any­thing but small. At Goul­bolba, more than 300 peo­ple were shot or drowned and their skulls and bones could be seen scat­tered in the sur­round­ing hills for years af­ter­wards, un­til a suc­ces­sion of sharp bush­fires burned the land­scape clean.

On the Up­per Daw­son River in cen­tral Queens­land, at Hor­net Bank sta­tion, a no­to­ri­ous at­tack by Yi­man tribes­men claimed the lives of 11 whites, in­clud­ing seven mem­bers of one fam­ily. The less well pub­li­cised ret­ri­bu­tion was so sav­age it re­sulted in the killing of as many as 300 Abo­rig­ines and vir­tu­ally de­pop­u­lated the area; in­deed, Steele Rudd’s fa­ther, Thomas Davis, used to ride through that scrub coun­try in the years af­ter­wards and ‘‘ saw the bleach­ing bones of the dead blacks strewn here and there — a grue­some sight — full-ribbed bod­ies, flesh­less arms, dis­jointed leg-bones and ghastly grin­ning skulls peep­ing out of the grass’’.

Frontal as­saults, am­bushes, mounted raids, large-scale cross-coun­try drives and drag­nets — dif­fer­ent means of at­tack were em­ployed in dif­fer­ent re­gions, but of­ten the per­son­nel

in­volved were the same: white men with ex­pe­ri­ence of this low-level form of war would move with the fron­tier, and what they knew of bush con­flict was in­valu­able. The key en­forcers, though, were mer­ce­nar­ies, if of a dis­tinc­tive kind: the Na­tive Po­lice squads — young Abo­rig­i­nal men re­moved from their own coun­try and en­listed as shock troops in re­gional paci­fi­ca­tion cam­paigns; co­erced, rewarded, paid with the priv­i­lege of sur­vival and power: the mili­tia of a shadow world.

Their suc­cess was easy enough to mea­sure, but harder to broad­cast or pro­claim. The Queens­land au­thor­i­ties adopted a tact­ful reg­is­ter of lan­guage, for there was a con­stant need to bal­ance the an­nounce­ment of of­fi­cial reprisals with the more gen­eral doc­trine of con­ceal­ment. Hence the coded vo­cab­u­lary that be­came com­mon in the north, where

‘‘ dis­per­sal’’ was the stan­dard eu­phemism for a suc­cess­ful raid, and ‘‘ no ar­rests made’’ was in­stantly trans­lat­able as ‘‘ all were killed’’.

But a cer­tain child­ish sim­plic­ity can be traced in the sources. The aris­to­crat set­tler Harold Finch-Hat­ton in his 1886 fron­tier mem­oir de­scribes a ‘‘ name­less’’ gen­tle­man who poi­soned a large group of Abo­rig­ines at Long La­goon, which stands on Mt Spencer sta­tion in­land from Mackay, a hold­ing in those days, as it hap­pens, of the Finch-Hat­ton fam­ily: ‘‘ More than a hun­dred blacks were stretched out by this ruse of the owner of the Long La­goon. In a dry sea­son, when the wa­ter sinks low, their skulls can oc­ca­sion­ally be found half-buried in the mud.’’

Strych­nine seems to have been a pop­u­lar weapon in the ar­moury of ‘‘ first wave’’ land­hold­ers, per­haps be­cause of the alarm­ing dis­par­ity in num­bers be­tween Abo­rig­i­nal and in­comer. Of­ten the fur­thest reaches of the fron­tier proved the most blood-spat­tered, and of­ten it was the most dis­tin­guished ex­plor­ers and pi­o­neers who were the chief aggressors: Frank Hann and Frank Jar­dine, for in­stance, Gulf and Cape pi­o­neers re­spec­tively, men whose names a good num­ber of Aus­tralia’s great ranges and river sys­tems still bear to­day.

Their cur­rent renown and past ea­ger jour­nal-keep­ing brings their ac­tions to light. Much, though, of what tran­spired in the far north re­mains in the dark­est ob­scu­rity and clues to many an un­known clash lie half-lost in the fur­thest nooks and cran­nies of pop­ulist prose. Here’s Glenville Pike, for in­stance, the ver­nac­u­lar his­to­rian of Cape York, author of the bizarre Un­sung Heroes of the Queens­land

Wilder­ness, ex­pend­ing his lush style on the Palmer River gold rush coun­try: ‘‘ Black­fel­low Creek was so named be­cause dig­gers rush­ing to the Hodgkin­son field in March 1876 came upon acres of bones where a whole tribe had ob­vi­ously been wiped out — an Aus­tralian ver­sion of the killing fields that has been hid­den or white­washed for nearly 120 years.’’

Burn­ings, mass drown­ings — the list, proof of man’s fear­ful in­ge­nu­ity, runs on. Ray­mond Evans is the chief ex­pert in draw­ing up the bal­ance sheet of deaths. Three years ago he pub­lished a sta­tis­ti­cal cal­cu­la­tion ex­trap­o­lated from a se­ries of monthly re­ports filed from the Na­tive Po­lice camps that op­er­ated in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury: his con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate is that 24,000 Abo­rig­ines were killed in that time by th­ese paras­tatal mili­tias.

Fol­low­ing Evans, Bot­toms puts the com­bined death toll from Na­tive Po­lice and pri­vate killing op­er­a­tions at a fig­ure close to 50,000 for this chap­ter in Queens­land’s past.

A strange point in Aus­tralia’s his­tory has now been reached, in the evo­lu­tion of this so­ci­ety and its pic­ture of it­self. The first gen­er­a­tion’s worth of reap­praisals of the fron­tier record have now been com­piled, the ini­tial con­tro­ver­sies have come and gone.

Con­spir­acy of Si­lence is a re­cap. As Evans says in his fore­word, it func­tions as ‘‘ a roadmap back into what seems, from a mod­ern per­spec­tive, to be a barely con­ceiv­able past’’.

Where to, then, now — with all our new­found knowl­edge? We know the nar­ra­tive and also the in­trigu­ing prob­lems of in­ter­pre­ta­tion. We are some­what un­clear, per­haps, about the fine grain of many lo­cal de­tails, and so we al­ways shall be — but we are broadly sure about the over­all prospect.

Scep­tics still have much ma­te­rial to work with: Bot­toms re­peats here a well-known re­port from Cy­clone Jack, whose grand­fa­ther sur­vived a mas­sacre in the Du­gan­dan scrub. Cy­clone Jack re­ported it to self-taught Abo­rig­i­nal his­to­rian Bill Rosser at far-off Uran­dan­gie on the Queens­land Gulf bor­der 129 years later, a few days be­fore his death at the age of 85. How could a strictly em­piri­cist his­to­rian take such a re­port at face value? How, though, could he not, in some fash­ion, take it in? The old dilemma looms: is ab­sence of ev­i­dence ev­i­dence of ab­sence? What of the tes­ta­ments that old men and women from re­mote in­dige­nous so­ci­eties in far north Queens­land have of­fered up, like that of Alma Luke Wa­son from Kowanyama: ‘‘ To­day,’’ she said, de­scrib­ing the pat­tern of Cape York’s fam­i­lies in 1998, ‘‘ there are big gaps in the ge­nealo­gies of the clans of the Top End groups, as well as vis­it­ing neigh­bour­ing clans, whose ter­ri­to­ries it was that the Jar­dines tres­passed upon.’’

His­tory, in such con­di­tions, on such a fron­tier, is a mat­ter of what re­mains un­writ­ten as much as what sur­vives in textual form: a thing of masked in­ten­tions as much as overt acts. Ex­perts sift the records for traces of of­fi­cial pol­icy and of­fi­cial over­sights. The north­ern colony of 150 years ago was a spe­cial zone, with its par­tic­u­lar­i­ties: in many of its doc­u­ments truth has no sov­er­eign place and the pat­tern of ac­tions and re­ac­tions be­comes an in­de­ci­pher­able blur. And so we stand, gaz­ing back on our past, on the deeds that made the na­tion, un­sure quite what to think, how to feel, what steps to take.

‘ Dis­pers­ing’ in the Rain­for­est, in Black Po­lice: A Story of

Mod­ern Aus­tralia by AJ Vogan (1889), far left; FC Urquhart and na­tive po­lice in Tam­ing the

North by Hud­son Fysh (1950), left

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