Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


David Marr's penance by storytelling

  • 20 October 2023

David Marr, Killing for Country, Black Inc. 468 pages.

David Marr is the most distinguished biographer we have produced, and his life of Patrick White is equal to its subject, which is saying a lot. In this new book, Killing for Country — published with a timing so close to the referendum on the Voice that the effect is eerie — Marr uncovers ancestors of his own like Reg Uhr, one of his great-great grandparents of whom he says in the afterword, ‘I don't believe he's tainted my blood. I don't believe I’m responsible for his crimes’; Marr adds that he doesn’t know if his great-grandmother, Maud ‘ever told anyone her father rode with the Native Police’. And who were the Native Police? Well, in this case they were the officers of the band of Aboriginal trackers who controlled the groups of Indigenous people who might kill a cow or avenge a killing by a principle of consistent massacre doing the bidding of the black-hating squatters by their embrace of wholesale systematic murder. 

Marr’s sister Jane said to him, ‘The shame we carry for this is the shame every white Australian should share,’ and another sister added, ‘But I still hate the fact that our family is involved’. Marr is not wrong to say she spoke for Australia, and it is meet and just that he should describe this book as ‘an act of atonement, of penance by storytelling’.

Here is a characteristic (and accurate) description from Morris Charles O’Connell, a squatter and president of the Queensland Legislative Council: ‘If you want to destroy the blacks by wholesale slaughter, you could not find people more suited to the purpose than the Native Police.’ That note of humane appall is repeated over and over in Killing for Country, and over and over it is ignored by a squatter class who hate the Aboriginals with a hatred born of an absolute sense of entitlement.

Another central figure in this book is Richard Jones, ‘who would seize from the Aboriginal people by influence, chance, and cunning 600,000 acres of their country.’ Anyone who has been tempted by the formidably articulated denial of any negative legacy of colonisation that has been put forward by Jacinta Nampijinpa Price need only glance at this book to get a scarifying sense of what Henry Reynolds meant by dispossession as well as a sense — not in any way incompatible — that the relationship between black and white was one of