Books

Australia's bloody past of British colonialism

Australia might be known as the lucky country but there's a much darker side to British-Australian historical colonialism

They call Australia ‘the lucky country’, and boy is it: spectacular beaches, incredible landscapes, minerals for mining, good soil for farming, space for grazing, a laidback outdoors lifestyle, and some of the most liveable cities in the world. I write from experience – in 2008 my wife and I emptied our house into a shipping container and put ourselves on a plane to Melbourne, intending to stay perhaps a year but ending up staying six. Even then we were reluctant to leave. We felt like we were the lucky ones for having lived there so long, and may yet move back again in the future some time.

But I very quickly became aware how little I knew of Australia’s history, or of the long legacy that British colonialism had left behind. It wasn’t something we were ever taught in school, and current Australian politics were rarely covered on British news: the same old tropes of long-ago convict settlements and long-held sporting rivalries were about as far as it went.

Now here it was playing out in front of me: prime minister Kevin  Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations; the street names and statues of pioneers; the Eureka Stockade memorial; the giant Ned Kelly sculpture in Glenrowan; the casual everyday racism; the abuse frequently hurled at indigenous football stars.

The story of the American West has been told a thousand times, but as I read about Australian history, and particularly the 19th-century frontier, what surprised me more than anything were not just the many parallels with the old ‘Wild West’ myth but the fact that the Australian version was so little known. The country has been through eras of epic exploration, gold rushes, uprisings  and violent conflict on a massive scale, whose stories are easily the equal of their more famous counterpart, and yet have remained –with a few exceptions – largely untold.

There is a much darker side to British-Australian history

And perhaps with good reason. For all the accounts of noble pioneers and the ill-fated heroism of men like Burke and Wills, there is a much darker side to British-Australian history, no better exemplified than by the Queensland Native Police: an official arm of colonial law enforcement that patrolled the19th-century frontier, operating on the borderlands of white settlement and ‘dispersing’ indigenous Australians however and whenever they saw fit.

Yet this wasn’t some militia: the Native Police, as with its counterparts in other British colonies, was established with the same veneer of propriety as any police force. Overseen by a commissioner, each patrol would comprise a white officer, designated by rank, and a small group of mounted Aboriginal troopers, often recruited from faraway lands. They were stationed at barracks, were well armed and well funded, and, in theory at least, subject to a precise list of operational rules.

But the realities of policing such a vast and isolated territory meant that theory and practice rarely aligned: rules were paid lip service; reports were vague and filled with euphemisms such as that infamous word ‘disperse’; blind eyes were frequently turned. The nature of the work attracted a certain kind of man; officers who, given free rein, indulged their darkest tendencies and had no interest in following rules. Such was his reputation, one newspaper reported that on merely hearing a particular officer’s name, Aboriginals would scatter petrified into the bush.

Objections to the force’s brutality were raised, but proving wrongdoing was often impossible after the event. There was rarely any evidence. Witnesses were scarce, and scared. Many white settlers supported and relied on the Native Police, and a cloak of silence fell over their work. There were official inquiries, and sometimes a case was proven, whereupon officers would be simply reassigned or dismissed.

And this despite some historians counting the Native Police as the biggest single killer of Aboriginal people in Queensland at that time.

Eventually all these elements – the history, the landscape, the legacy of British rule – would combine in my novel, Only Killers and Thieves, which tells the story of two young brothers, Tommy and Billy McBride, living on their family’s isolated smallholding on the very edge of the Queensland frontier. When their parents are murdered and their sister gravely wounded, the brothers are forced to turn to their neighbour, the wealthy ‘squatter’ John Sullivan, who in turn calls in a detachment of Native Police, led by the sinister Inspector Noone. Blaming the killings on the local Kurrong people, Sullivan and Noone lead the boys on a misguided quest for revenge, deep into the unchartered outback far beyond the settled frontier, each doing so for his own ends. The expedition will leave a stain on the colony and the country it later becomes, and force the two brothers to make choices that define the rest of their lives, devastating the relationship between them, and particularly young Tommy, forever.

1313_author_embed
Paul Howarth’s Only Killers and Thieves is out now (One/Pushkin Press, £16.99)

Image: Sergeant James Whiteford with troopers, Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland c1900, qhatlas

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw
Books

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age
Books

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel
Books

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel

From castle walls to Banksy: How graffiti has given us the writing on the wall throughout history
Graffiti

From castle walls to Banksy: How graffiti has given us the writing on the wall throughout history

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know