This is an extract from Killing for Country: A Family Story by David Marr, published by Black Inc Books.
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The King’s School was a stone barn with a Doric portico on an unhealthy stretch of the Parramatta River.
Its doors had closed once or twice. Scarlet fever one year carried off a dozen boys. The place survived by educating, safe in each other’s company, the sons of squatters. A little before Reg Uhr arrived in 1859 at the age of fourteen, a new headmaster came from England with plans to open a wider world to these colonial boys. The Reverend Frederick Armitage imagined King’s as a gateway to Oxford and Cambridge, to the East India Company and the learned professions. He was young and rich. He admired the German approach to schooling. “No people,” he said, “equalled the Germans in the solidity of their attainments.” He introduced mathematics. For a few extra guineas, boys could learn to draw and dance. But Armitage mistook his market. The school’s Tory clientele had narrow ambitions for their sons. Wool, trade and the law were the careers they had in mind. Numbers dwindled. Teachers drifted off. The three years Reg spent as a dayboy at Parramatta saw Armitage’s high hopes fade and die.
What survived was a new military ethos he brought to the place. Armitage was a keen member of the Parramatta Volunteer Rifles, one of hundreds of citizens’ military units formed throughout the Empire at this time. In Britain they saw themselves as the last line of defence against the French. In New Zealand they fought the Māori. Their mission in Australia was far from clear, but they drilled, bickered about uniforms and had a wonderful time preparing to serve the Empire. Armitage brought an army sergeant in to drill the senior boys. They marched to church. Reg was neither a scholar nor a sportsman. Unlike his cousin the younger Richard Jones – by this time an Anglican priest in Suffolk – he showed no interest in music or Greek. But the lanky Uhr boy was not unprepared for the future he found waiting when he returned to Maryborough at the age of seventeen at Christmas 1861.
As a businessman, Edmund Uhr did not lack courage. He thought on a big scale. He took risks. But nothing really worked. He was still trying to sell Woodlands and still trying to find a government post for himself. His oldest son, Ned, ran the sawmill at Woodlands. Reg pitched in but there was no prospect of a career for him at the boiling-down. In 1862, his father began lobbying to find Reg a place in the Native Police. The beau ideal of an officer was Frederick Walker at his best – good in the bush and good with the blacks. But most young officers found their way into the corps through connections to politicians and high colonial officials. These men were not always fit for purpose. Lady Bowen won a place for one of her relatives from Corfu though he knew neither the bush nor Aboriginal people and barely spoke English. Many officer recruits were sons or brothers of politicians. Others were new chums from Britain with letters of introduction. There was a Russian and a German who had each married local brides with clout. What the officer recruits most obviously had in common were uncertain futures and well-connected families. Patrick O’Sullivan, an Ipswich merchant, told the Legislative Assembly in 1861: “This corps was looked upon as a refuge for broken-down characters who, after having spent a fortune and ruined their prospects elsewhere, came here with a basketful of testimonials, made friends with somebody in power, and received an appointment in the native police. (Hear, hear, and laughter.)”
Jones and the Uhrs had always backed the Native Police. Vigilantes had their place, of course, but where possible the family preferred blacks to be killed professionally.
They did not quarrel with the methods of the force but Edmund believed the Native Police ought to be more professional, more efficient and even more aggressive. He wondered from time to time whether black troopers were right for the job. “I think a white force with trackers would have more stability, and be more beneficial in the end.” But only blacks were on offer and he had no doubt they were better than nothing. Edmund feared time would make the natives of Wide Bay and the Burnett even more dangerous. He was calling then for sound men to lead the force after the catastrophe of Hornet Bank. A couple of years later, he was offering his second son. Reg’s qualifications were slight but he had been to King’s; he could ride and handle a gun; and he knew the blacks who did odd jobs for offal at the boiling-down.
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This was gentlemen’s work. To be an officer of the Native Police on the frontier massacring blacks was one way of living up to the motto engraved on Edmund’s signet ring: For Christ and Country Danger is Sweet. The qualities Inspector George Murray looked for in officers were sobriety, energy, bush experience and “being a young Gentleman of good character”. There was even a notion that gentlemen were particularly suited to leading black troopers because gentlemen and blacks saw eye to eye. “I believe every blackfellow is one of Nature’s gentlemen, in manner and disposition,” the Maryborough magistrate Richard Sheridan told the 1861 inquiry. “He dislikes coarseness in every sense of the word.” All this talk of good breeding attracted its share of mockery. “Red Indian” wrote in the Maryborough Chronicle: “It is a farce endeavouring to throw credit over such a trade, that by a uniform and by bastard titles gentlemen can be found to carry on the trade of a butcher.”
Officers who showed zeal and discretion might expect to be rewarded after four or five years’ slaughter with another government post as a clerk of petty sessions or even a magistrate.
There was cunning in this. Over the years the bench in the bush would be stacked with men who knew firsthand the lawless ways of the Native Police. But such future employment depended on the shape an officer was in after years in the field. So many ended up drunks. Drink had been Frederick Walker’s downfall. Pitching camps well out of towns did little to limit drinking. “A Squatter” wrote to The Courier complaining of officers in the streets of Rockhampton too intoxicated to sit on a horse: “I have seen a drunken officer—a bloodthirsty ruffian upon the verge of delirium tremens . . . boast of the slaughters he had wreaked upon blacks.” Drinking followed killing. The Maryborough Chronicle noted “the demoralising influence which the trade of a butcher in human beings has upon the mind”. The 1861 inquiry into the force took a roll call of drunken officers: Powell was an efficient officer before he took to the bottle; Murray would be fired if he didn’t sober up; Irving and Fulford had been “known to be drunk at stations for days together”; Fulford died of drink.
For all the carnage it caused, the force was tiny – only about a hundred troopers at any one time led by ten to fourteen officers and half a dozen officer cadets. These posts were prized. Somehow, Edmund Uhr managed to get Robert Herbert’s ear and in September 1862 he wrote from Woodlands to remind the Colonial Secretary that he had “kindly promised me a cadetship for one of my sons . . . and I trust by return steamer I shall see him gazetted as the sooner he is in harness the better. His name is Reginald Charles Heber.” Someone scrawled on the letter: “Do you know anything about this?” Commandant Bligh recommended the appointment in December. Bligh was indebted to Uhr for his support after the killings in Maryborough. They were also, in a complicated way, related by marriage. In the first week of 1863, Herbert’s office wrote to the young man confirming his appointment. “I am to request that you will have the goodness to report yourself without delay at the Head Quarters of the Force.”
At the age of eighteen, without any training at all, Cadet Uhr was given temporary command of the Owanyilla camp, near Maryborough. A crisis was threatening the force: for the first time in its existence, an officer was facing the gallows. Local magistrates had charged the camp commander Second Lieutenant Donald Harris with having “murdered, by shooting, or causing to be shot, one Jemmy, an aboriginal”. Reg Uhr was not back in his hometown long, but time enough to watch a doomed attempt by civilised squatters with high political connections to call the Native Police to account.
Harris was a young, sporting gentleman who had been with the force for barely a year and only recently promoted to second lieutenant. One evening in April, he and three troopers cantered up to the homestead at Yenda. His men looked shabby and restive. Harris said they were out searching for deserters. Yenda was home to Gilbert Eliott, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who regarded the force “as a band of trained savages—whose officers travelled through the country with halters round their necks—whose occupation was so disreputable that no man with a particle of spirit could belong to such a corps”. His sons managed Yenda. When Eliott Jnr found Harris at his door that evening, he offered the usual hospitality of the road: dinner and a bed. The officer asked about the blacks round Yenda. “I replied that they were quiet and had given no trouble for a long time.” Were there any about? Eliott told him he would, next day, most likely overtake a man who had often worked for him at Yenda. “Jemmy was a very quiet blackfellow.” Next morning, Harris and his men shot Jemmy on the road. His body was dragged three or four hundred yards and dumped in the bed of a dry creek. Cries of grief and horror alerted Gilbert’s brother Henry, working at sheepyards nearby. Harris rode over and admitted one of his troopers had, while out of sight, shot the native. “Good God, do you allow your troopers to go forward and shoot any blackfellow they come across?” asked Eliott. Harris apologised.
A cursory inquest was held in nearby Gayndah. The police magistrate did little when ordered to investigate the case further. The Executive Council took no time to signal the end of the government’s interest in Jemmy’s death by resolving there was “no tangible evidence to warrant any further proceedings being taken in the matter”. But the Eliotts were determined to see Harris answer for killing one of their men. A gentleman on the bench in Gayndah was Berkeley Moreton, second son of the Earl of Ducie, educated at Rugby and Magdalen College, cousin of the Colonial Secretary, Robert Herbert, and joint proprietor with his brother Seymour of 73,000-acre Wetheron. Young Eliott persuaded Moreton to charge Harris with murder. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
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The squatters of the Burnett were fed up with the Native Police. They wanted them gone. Whatever problems persisted in Maryborough, the bush was quiet. Furthermore, they found deserters from the force, broken in by service, made good workers. Inspector Murray begged for clear authority to round these men up, but the government was in a bind. Power lay with the squatters, and the Colonial Secretary was willing to side with them. Where the squatters wanted fighters, he would supply them. When they wanted men to wash their sheep, he would supply them too. In the year of the Harris crisis, Herbert issued a directive to the Native Police not to recapture a deserter working for the Moretons:
I hereby order you and all your subordinates to desist from further attempts to apprehend the aboriginal deserter Hughey alias Joey, so Iong as he remains constant to the services of (my cousins) the hon Berkeley and Seymour Moreton, of Wetheron, near Gayndah.
R. G. W. Herbert.
Later, while defending these squatters, Herbert made the astonishing admission that the Native Police was an illegal force. “The native police officers had no legal right whatever to apprehend deserters. (Hear, hear.) The force had no power, no authority whatever, to do so . . . as they were a wholly irregular force, they had no legal sanction for their acts.” He promised laws to fix this. They never came.
Harris spent only a night in the cells. He was released on his own recognisance by the Police Magistrate. The two men played billiards together for a week, waiting for a hearing before three magistrates to decide whether Harris should stand trial. The Attorney-General, Ratcliffe Pring, did all he could to protect the officer. He plucked out of the air a ruling that the man’s correspondence with his superiors could not be admitted into evidence. That correspondence would have exposed Harris lying that he had a warrant to arrest Jemmy. And, of course, neither his troopers nor Jemmy’s family could tell the magistrates what they had seen that day. It would be another dozen years – the bloodiest in the colony’s history – before Queensland allowed blacks into the witness box. After half a day, with almost no evidence before them, the three Gayndah justices announced: “The bench do not require any defence, and the prisoner is discharged.” Harris was sacked. After this it was clear to Native Police officers that the worst they might suffer for the random killing of any black was dismissal. The Harris case renewed their licence to kill.
Herbert announced a reorganisation of the force. Largely to save money, he decided to have the Native Police and the regular police serve side by side under the Colony’s first Police Commissioner – his former aide-de-camp, the son of an Irish gentleman, David Seymour, who would hold the post almost to the turn of the century. Seymour outlasted ten premiers and sixteen governments. He would be their servant. He appointed Native Police officers at their direction. He fired them rarely for their crimes but often for embarrassing his political masters. Zeal and discretion were the Commissioner’s watchwords. He fiercely defended the force from those who sided with the Aboriginal people of Queensland. He was an able bureaucrat and over time built a large force both paramilitary and civilian. Sitting the two side by side seemed incongruous to Seymour’s critics. “The native police officers flog their men, shoot their deserters,” wrote The Courier. “Under these circumstances, how can this force be classed with the Constabulary?” That didn’t worry Seymour. Nor did the scandals of the next thirty years. Nothing so became the Commissioner as his way of turning a blind eye.
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